Isolation is changing the face of arts e-commerce

As traditional arts retail outlets are closed thanks to COVID-19, we take a look at the e-commerce landscape – from the spike in offerings, to how sustainable this pivot will be for the sector.

In Ireland, the Great Famine of the 1840s left a million dead. Clawing back their economy in the years that followed, philanthropists established schools to make lace for export in a relief scheme that grew into an art form, what we call today a creative industry.

While I can’t see our government rushing to support lace makers today, we are witnessing a similar entrepreneurial pivot in the wake of COVID-19 as many small arts businesses, artists, makers, designers, and craft organisations have escalated their online activities to support their livelihood.

It could be argued that advances in technology, paired with isolation restrictions, have forced a rethinking of arts e-commerce, one that Forbes business magazine says Australia has lagged in adopting for many years, with local e-commerce habits having been dominated by big companies such as eBay and Amazon.

But with sites like Etsy, which has been around since 2005, and was the first real wave of maker-managed e-commerce – and more recently the introduction of business accounts to Instagram – a ‘shopping list’ functionality was added in 2018. And as recently as April 2019, the option to ‘Checkout on Instagram’, where makers and merchants can sell directly through the Instagram app – more artists and creatives have been stepping up to manage their online business profile.

TikTok, which has skyrocketed during COVID-19, is even testing a ‘shop now’ button for influencer videos.

Accounting firm, KPMG is optimistic about the mushrooming trend. They write that even prior to the current coronavirus environment, Australia’s retailers were primed for e-commerce to grow rapidly in 2020, and that includes the culture sector.


ArtsHub caught up with art fin-tech company Art Money, which kicked off in 2015 with a model not too different to the old fashioned ‘lay-buy’ system, selling artworks online in partnership with galleries. It successfully bridges the traditional physical space of selling and the online marketplace.

With that partnership model comes a confidence, and so with the closure of gallery doors during COVID-19, it has been a natural progression to escalated sales online – in turn bolstering the income of artists isolated at home.

Paul Becker, Founder and CEO of Art Money told ArtsHub: ‘Online sales appear to be holding up exceptionally well in this environment … In April, Art Money sales (a hybrid of offline and online) actually increased compared to last year.’

He continued: ‘We are experiencing a surge in galleries joining Art Money – more than one per day – as they are realising the power of Art Money as a win/win sales tool, particularly in these times where collectors want to buy responsibly.’ 

Like Art Money, many Australian galleries and auction houses have been selling the work of artists online for decades and they have witnessed a decided shift recently. 

Sydney gallerist Michael Reid believes that galleries who do not adopt quickly to the online market will perish. ‘The need for e-commence and remote purchasing during a time of self-isolation will see the Art World drop its pretenses about online shopping,’ Reid said.

In his article for ArtsHub last month, Reid reported ‘My galleries began introducing e-commerce to our platforms in November last year. We have just shipped out our 100th artwork, discovered, purchased and paid for purely online. This will be the new normal.’

Read: COVID-19 is forcing trends that will change galleries forever

It is not dissimilar to what we are currently witnessing with art fairs globally pivoting to online platforms – the traditional trade show-styled events dependent on the international foot traffic of galleries and collectors.

The first to pivot online was arguably the Art Basel Hong Kong, which came in the wake of shutdowns in China; this week Auckland Art Fair (AAF) and Melbourne Art Fair both moved online.

Co-Directors of AAF, Stephanie Post and Hayley White, said in a statement: ‘All artworks can be purchased through an accompanying link within the fair. More than 30 galleries are taking part in the virtual experience.’ Adding, ‘We take no commission on sales, there is no fee to view the online Fair, and we have no sponsorship.  It is simply an initiative to support the artists who had made work for the Fair, and try to help keep the gallery doors open.’

Melbourne Art Fair has taken a slightly different approach. While the physical fair has been rescheduled from June to February 2021, Melbourne Art Foundation has partnered with to create digital Viewing Rooms, with the primary goal to show the new work online that was originally intended for the fair’s 2020 edition.

Arguably, it is a more interim approach that still points to the main selling-event that will celebrate contact with the art.

Among the key findings of Artsy’s Online Art Collector Report for 2019, ‘Nearly two-thirds of collectors (64%) reported that they had purchased art online in the past, a figure on par with broader estimates of the penetration of e-commerce among internet users. [And] 57% of the newest individuals to the art market report they intend to buy more art online in the future.’

In line with these figures, Becker believes that the Australian art sector has become more relaxed – and more active – buying art online. He says that, ‘Information transparency increases the likelihood of online purchases. Price, condition, provenance, context. For example Artsy data shows a work listed with a price is 2-6 times more likely to sell.’

These lessons are not lost on a broader visual arts sector currently pivoting under COVID-19.

While Art Fairs, galleries and auction houses feel a bit of a no-brainer when it comes to a conversation around arts the online pivot and e-commerce, rather, we are interested in how artists and makers, and small to medium organisations have turned to a virtual presence to stimulate revenue streams during closures.



When Etsy CEO, American Chad Dickerson visited Australia in 2012, he reported that, ‘From a buyer perspective, Australia is number four out of 150 countries, just behind the US, the UK and Canada. That equates to almost three percent of Etsy sales globally.’

Dickerson added that although Australia is number four from a seller perspective, a whopping 70 percent of those sales are exports. Etsy doesn’t rely on central warehouse distribution. It basically is a bridge for makers and buyers to connect, and exchange.

And exchange they do! As of December 2018, Etsy’s online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods [category] connected 2.1 million sellers with 39.4 million buyers, and had total sales of US$3.93 billion on the platform. No figures have been reported to date, accounting for the spike in sales due to coronavirus.

Read: Etsy or regretsy?

ArtsHub spoke with Sarah Ponthieu, PR and Communications Specialist for Etsy (Australia) back in 2016, who explained that Etsy aimed to enable artists. ‘What we have done at Etsy is break down the barriers to starting business online – it is a low risk, easy way to start.’

Both Etsy and Instagram Business allow connections that a stand-alone website can’t, and this connection has greater capacity to escalate within a shorter period. It is all about keywords and hashtags, and that happenstance global community that can be delivered right to your home studio.

A good example of makers using Instagram during the COVID-19 pandemic is the CLAY FOR CLAY COMMUNITY (#clayforclaycommunity) initiative. Exclusive to Instagram, it enables potters and ceramic artists to have a platform to keep sales happening. Here’s how:

1. Post images of the ceramic work you wish to sell on your Instagram account.

2. Up to five ceramic works for sale can be posted at any one time.

3. Give details of the work – size, materials and price. Be sure to note that postage is extra.

4. Include #clayforclaycommunity as one of your hashtags.

5. Add ‘this work is part of @clayforclaycommunity’ in your post.

6. Ask for anyone interested to direct message (DM) you.

7. Keep an eye on your comments so as to give prompt attention to the possible sale.

8. Negotiate the additional fee for postage depending on their location.

9. Make a sale and keep the payment.

10. When you have sold five works, pay it forward by spending 20% of your sales on another artist’s work who is also using #clayforclaycommunity.

11. Be sure to follow #clayforclaycommunity and @clayforclaycommunity

While it may not be the turnover Etsy reports annually, this is real impact, for a real community, now.

Many of the craft and design organisations have similarly ramped up their digital presence to connect maker-profiles and virtual studio visits with their online shops and e-commerce facilities to hook onto the isolation crafting moment and the boom in isolation-fuelled online shopping.

Speaking with Claire Sourgnes, CEO of Artisan in Brisbane earlier this year, she made the point that in the past 18-months the gallery’s their workshops were 73%, and shop sales up 40%.

‘Craft and Design has one foot in visual arts and one foot in commerce. All those micro-economies have a really important economic impact,’ Sourgnes told ArtsHub. 

Rachael Coghlan, CEO and Artistic Director CRAFT ACT added: ‘Our new online shop has broken online sales records and helped to largely maintain our retail revenue for artists. Previously we would generate only occasional online purchases, now they are coming through daily. This is admittedly from a low base, but it brings hope and optimism to all of us about opportunities to sustain contemporary craft practice into the future.’

She continued: ‘With our physical shop closed, we are finding that fewer people are buying but when they do, they are tending to spend more. One of Craft ACT’s goals is to help artists to generate income from their practice.’

Whether a design organisation, an art fair, auction house, gallery or individual artist / maker, the message is pretty damn clear. People are buying online – and it is escalating. It is not a myth; money can be made.

The growing art e-commerce activity in Australia has also proven that this no longer just the domain of arts businesses, but that artists and makers themselves have used the catalyst of income loss to pivot online. Six months, twelve months down the track, it will be interesting to see how their efforts have paid off.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina