Live events, digital shadows: How Covid has forever changed art sales

Art fairs are becoming increasingly hybrid events and auctions are becoming the main sites for the sale of works

12 September 2021 – 00:00BY MARY CORRIGALL
Cinthia Sifa Mulanga's 'Ponder', 2021. The artist's work would normally be sold at an art fair but is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.

Cinthia Sifa Mulanga’s ‘Ponder’, 2021. The artist’s work would normally be sold at an art fair but is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.
Image: Supplied

Just as no one could have predicted that ABBA would do a new tour using digitised avatars of themselves, few would have believed that viewing and acquiring art would be something you’d do in front of your computer screen.

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 has upturned the nature of live events, and not just temporarily. In fact, the future of art looks set to be a hybrid, digital-live, one. It’s likely that live events will, from now on, have a digital shadow or twin, just as art itself is now haunted by its digital nemesis in the form of the NFT, or non-fungible token.

This has come starkly into focus as live events have started up again, facilitated by the vaccine rollout.

Joburg’s first hybrid art fair will take place at the end of the month. Organisers are keen to go live after staging online events which were unsuccessful if the sales were anything to go by.

VIRTUAL VISITORS

Visitor numbers to Turbine Art Fair’s (TAF) online version last year were double (21,000) that of their 2019 live event, which attracted about 10,000, according to its founder and director Glynis Hyslop.

Despite the fact that sales were uneven with some galleries not selling well, the organisers remain keen to not only keep the digital aspect to the fair, but to ramp it up – via a partnership with the global online art selling platform, Artsy.

Their real-life event will be a compact one at the Illovo venue where it’s been held before but visitors will move through a one-way corridor to control numbers and keep safe distances.

FNB’s Art Joburg, which used to be a highlight of the September art calendar, will manifest as a hybrid animal with an online platform launched with small live events, according to Nicole Siegenthaler, the fair manager.

Some galleries made no sales during their online fair last year, but on the upside, they had a record number of international visitors.

Ultimately, this is what the digital event offers: visitors from elsewhere.

Investec Cape Town Art Fair didn’t stage a live fair this past February, largely because the collectors that keep sales turning mostly come from Europe.

This Italian-owned fair has, however, finally come to embrace the idea of becoming a hybrid entity – they’ll stage an online event this month (from September 15 to 19).

In February 2022 they’ll stage a live fair at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, but it will have a digital twin powered by the Art Shell app, according to Sophie Lelonde, head of VIPs and partnerships at ICTAF.

Phumulani Ntuli's 'Stolen Songs', 2019. Ntuli's work is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.

Phumulani Ntuli’s ‘Stolen Songs’, 2019. Ntuli’s work is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.
Image: Supplied

Online art fairs haven’t ever compensated for live events. While in 2019, art fair sales may have accounted for 43% of all sales made by art dealers, by 2020 this was reduced to 13% of their income, according to the UBS Global Art Report 2021. However, a pairing of events, online and live shows look set to become the preferred model.

That’s if art fairs can regain some of the ground they’ve lost. Interestingly, online auctions seemed to have not only attracted the numbers but the sales too.

STRAIGHT TO AUCTION

Online auctions have became the new art fairs. There’s been a marked shift in the number of new art works coming straight from the artist’s studio or from the gallery that have been finding their way onto auctions.

Initially, this began with all the charitable auctions, organised to raise funds in the early days of Covid-19 but in the African art market they quickly shifted into a new culture with many new, young or emerging artists selling works at auction rather than at an art fair.

Take the latest African contemporary auction being conducted by Artnet (a US-based art portal) in partnership with the local art platform Latitudes. The Joburg-based platform, which once operated as a fair, has co-curated the “MEET” section of the auction, which is intended to introduce new artists. All the hot names with sell-out shows are represented in the sale, from Shakil Solanki, Cinthia Mulanga, Sthenjwa Luthuli to Phumulani Ntuli.

Galleries should use auctions as another way to leverage the exposure of an artist

Roberta Coci, co-founder of Latitudes

“Auctions have the timed element quality, the need to buy now, which drives spikes in art buying. All the traditional rules about auctions being part of the secondary market have been thrown out the window. Galleries should use auctions as another way to leverage the exposure of an artist,” says Roberta Coci, co-founder of Latitudes.

RMB’s Talent Unlocked programme, which rewards and grooms unknown artists, manifested in a physical exhibition of the winners’ works at the Everard Read CIRCA gallery but they were also offered on auction by Strauss & Co. Nevertheless, this auction house claims that outside of special projects such as the RMB one and charity events they don’t consign “new” art.

Not all gallerists are ready to make the leap from art fairs to selling directly on auctions.

“It would be great if auction houses positioned themselves as art fairs. Somehow it feels dishonest consigning art works to auctions – it feels like back room dealing,” says Ashleigh McLean, director of Whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town.

Shakil Solank's ‘Saap — You’re also a monster. But so am I, which is why I can’t turn away from you', 2020. Solanki's work is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.

Shakil Solank’s ‘Saap — You’re also a monster. But so am I, which is why I can’t turn away from you’, 2020. Solanki’s work is now on offer at an auction by Artnet that is curated by Latitudes.
Image: Supplied

Marelize van Zyl, senior art specialist at Aspire Art Auctions, is of the opinion that the primary market (first sales by galleries) and the secondary (the resale auction market) can really support each other.

“Some gallerists saw auctions as another channel to sell and support artists. We are a little sceptical if we are offered a 2021 art work.”

In the auction world, the most successful sales – with the highest turnover – are, interestingly, the hybrid ones. That is, auctions that take place in real life and are streamed online.

NFTS ON STERIODS

While gallerists, art fairs, auction houses and art buyers might still be adapting to this new hybrid art future, the world of NFTs – which are purely digital art works, or assets as they are called, is promising a purely online art making, buying and selling environment.

But, as the digital acceleration of the art market saw a boom in the sale and prominence of NFTs, there’s been an interest by curators to include NFT works in real life exhibitions. Or to bring the NFTs into the real world, leading to a reverse kind of hybridity.

Virtual Niche: Have You Ever Seen Memes in the Mirror?, which was staged at UCCA Lab in Beijing, was dubbed “the world’s first and largest physical crypto art exhibition”. Smaller shows keep popping up in the US and curators are steadily incorporating NFT works in physical shows, according to Art America.

In the world of NFTs the line or supposed moral ambiguity between the primary and secondary art market is completely blurred. The marketplaces – such as Super Rare, Nifty Gate or OpenSea – where NFTs are sold and on display are like auctions on steroids, where some high-in-demand works are sometimes sold twice or three times in a day.

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