COVID-19 is forcing trends that will change galleries forever

Gallerist Michael Reid takes a look at art world trends and habit-breaking during times of crisis, and how they will change the art market forever.

During a time of crisis, change in social and business practice occurs in two distinct yet interrelated ways, with these twin transformations occurring separately, and in lockstep.

The first great change is that a deep crisis accelerates trends that are already taking place. The second significant alteration being that a crisis can be habit breaking.

So what’s trend acceleration?

Once upon a time we posted letters. First we wrote a letter, sometimes in real ink that stained your fingers. Then the letter was folded up into a packet called an envelope. You then paid for and placed a sticker on the envelope called a stamp, and then you physically took the letter to the Post Office.

Posting letters took time and cost real paid-up-front cash. Back in the day, when undertaking a mail out for an art gallery opening, the Australia Post bill cost thousands of dollars a time.

Then along came the Global Financial Crisis and art galleries swiftly cut the cost of post from their business lives. Art dealers migrated on mass to hit the send button, on email. What seemed an impersonal trickle of an art trend pre-crisis, became broadly practiced business-as-usual, post-crash.

I witnessed this rapid change first hand. As the former Art Market Analyst for The Australian newspaper, I received no less then 80 posted art gallery notices a week for well over a decade and then by 2011 I received possibly five art exhibition flyers a week. Trend accelerated.

With the world shuddering to near stumble under COVID -19, I see several Art World trends (not all new but definitely reimagined in our times) that will move from what has been an indication of change, to the new normal.

Trends shaping the new normal

Working from home, or more correctly, working from wherever you just happen to be has been a professional possibility for many years. The BlackBerry (1999) enabled executives for the first time to send emails and read documents whilst on the phone and walking through airports. In the early years of the new millennia, the first BlackBerry meant I could leave my desk, and I was no longer tethered to a physical spot.

Now in the age of physical distancing, what was once a slightly jokey “in your pajamas” home-office has instantly become the new working everyday-life for many. There will not be a mass return of staff to the workplace at the end of this year.

What counts now is what you do, not where you do it from.

A year ago, Buy Now e-commerce was reserved for the likes of Amazon and low-level retail. Drop that value judgment right now. For many years now clients have received information via email and physically attended the gallery less and less. More art information has been conveyed over the airwaves and deals then closed on the phone.

Now in today’s stay-away world, the final click here to buy step to has reached a sales tipping point. If the client understands what they are looking at, and have brand confidence in a trusted source, they will buy and pay online.

Galleries who do not adopt quickly will perish. 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.

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.

With society desperately needing to recreate the reality of “together”, and our collective desire for experiences undiminished, the immersive world of Virtual Reality (VR) as an art practice is set to move mainstream.

The virtual space circumvents the tyranny of social distance. The demand will initially come from art museums and then major collectors, wanting a new reality that caters for the individual away from the crowd, whilst providing a connected experience in an increasingly disconnected world.

In the last week, two major art museums from North America contacted my little old Sydney gallery enquiring as to Dr. Christian Thompson AO and Joan Ross’s Virtual Reality artworks. Quick as a flash, the major museums are wanting to engage with their audience online. They are looking to the immersive experience of VR to inform and grow their house-bound audience. The mainstreaming of VR will be massively accelerated by this crisis.

As trickling trends become the new normal, so too within society does a deep crisis break the habits of a lifetime.

Gone are the days where collectors toured three to five art galleries on a Saturday afternoon. Let me tell you, the days of general wandering are well and truly over. With the public being told not to attend, the physical art viewing habit of generations has come to pass. I would image that when all is back on track after this Ragin’ Contag’n coronavirus, galleries that have shifted to Monday to Friday throughout the crisis, will not re-open on Saturdays. Saturdays will be by appointment only.

Art auction houses are, with some breakneck speed, opening up to live online bidding and many more telephones. The emotional frenzy of a large competitive crowd feeding off itself at an auction is done.

The mass of middle aged to younger tech savvy, time poor and habit changed collectors will in future ask for artwork Condition Reports, obtain extra photographs of artworks they are interested in and then bid with ease from a distance. The physical auction room will not survive this crisis and will emerge in predominantly online form.

The word du jour is delivery. Whether you acquire online or undertake a shopping trawl down Orchid Road in Singapore, the chances are that you will carry nothing home.

Physically collecting artworks from galleries will also end. So, for art dealers such as myself, in a time of decreasing physical contact, dealing art it is now as much about the delivery of artworks as it is about their presentation.

My gallery has a dedicated art van, and I would suggest galleries should acquire their own art shipping van or take shares in an art transport company. E-commerce has transformed consumer expectations about delivery and this crisis will force the art-world to fall in step with broader retail.

And finally, in our new world order, to in any way frustrate collectors is to fail. The too-cool-for-school galleries that choose to not list prices on their websites to enshrine a false sense of exclusivity, purposely place a buying impediment in front of their potential clients. Buying and delivery needs to be polished and seamless. Adding an additional layer to purchasing takes away from the shift.

Michael Reid
About the Author
Michael Reid OAM is the owner of Michael Reid Galleries in Berlin, Sydney and Murrurundi.