Another year, another summer of uncertainty. Can a physical edition of Art Basel really happen in September? What about Frieze in London the next month? How best to balance on and offline? Should we swap our frequent-flyer cards for cryptocurrency wallets?
The art market unknowns hinge on some of the bigger questions facing everyone: can the Covid-19 vaccine rollout beat the pandemic? And if so, when? We can’t answer these so, at least for those of us not trying to plan an art fair, we might as well take a break. I for one believe the art world deserves a #hotgirlsummer—a popular hashtag to describe a carefree time enjoyed, at a guess, by attractive young ladies in the sunshine.
We can don our bikinis or Speedos in the knowledge that the art market is in a better place than this time last year. In July 2020, the important spring season was all but lost and it was difficult for anyone to take their foot off the pedal as things tentatively opened up. In 2021 so far, despite various lockdowns and restrictions, we’ve managed to have something approximating the usual calendar—and even come off Zoom a few times to see each other In Real Life.
Lots of lessons have been learnt in the intervening time. We know that the market can keep functioning, even at the highest levels, with activity seriously curtailed. We know, too, that people still crave seeing art and each other in the flesh—never a given—and that digital delivery is also here to stay. It might be early days in what still looks like a long haul, but more galleries seem to be opening than closing just now, including many that have doubled down in their own cities, generating some local momentum. The increasing number of collaborative events, on and offline, are helping to keep the grassroots projects ticking over, too.
There are still concerns. The alignment of art with cryptocurrencies is troubling—though this has posed some important questions about our more old-fashioned structures and at least introduced the market to more potential buyers. Other niggles, not least the shrinking of London’s status as a market centre, are more about an international rebalance to meet the rise of business in Asia than the pandemic. Again, the overall trajectory still points towards growth, which must be to the envy of many other industries just now. And the UK’s art market journalists are not complaining about “evening” auctions at 2pm rather than 7pm.
The healthier 2021 environment is to the credit of the galleries, auction houses and art fair organisers who have kept on their toes throughout. Sure, not every innovation is a game changer, and certain measures (hologram art dealers?) are likely short-lived. But some of the pressure is off. We now know that pop-up galleries, live-streamed auctions, Zoom studio tours and even remote fair stands can pay off. Above all, we have learnt to live with uncertainty. So, #hotgirl or otherwise, let’s save the questions until after the summer.