Art market

Livestreamed or IRL, gallery weekends or satellite spaces—the art market faces a paradox of choice

Thanks to the pandemic, we have many alternative ways to buy, sell and enjoy art, and now this genie is out of the bottle, we don’t want to put it back

Over the pandemic the art market has grown accustomed to endless choice

“Waiter, I’ll begin with a house salad, but I don’t want the regular dressing. I’ll have the balsamic vinegar and oil, but on the side. And then the salmon with the mustard sauce, but I want the mustard sauce on the side.” This line, from the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, was Harry’s demonstration of Sally’s high-maintenance personality.

Over the years since, we’ve all become high maintenance. Whether it is the specific way we like our coffee—I’m a relatively straightforward grande skinny latte, by the way—or what, how and when we watch television—Call My Agent!, on my own please—we have become accustomed to having plenty of individual choice.

So it is in the art market. As restrictions ease, you can see galleries for real at an art fair or in their bricks-and-mortar spaces, see the art but speak to the gallerists over Zoom, browse an online-only event, or see work that would have shown at an art fair over a televised day of activity. You can sit in an auction room, you can watch a livestreamed sale at home, you can watch a recording of a livestreamed sale on YouTube, with entertaining comments—on the side—and pay for it all in cryptocurrencies. Whatever you want.

Technology has eased those options and has been an industry lifesaver for that very reason. At the moment, though, it all feels a bit confusing. Art fairs have become gallery hubs, gallery hubs host art fairs, auction houses host galleries, galleries run magazines. They probably all have a podcast.

It is another pandemic-accelerated phenomenon. We have found alternative ways to buy, sell and generally enjoy art, and now that this latest genie is out of the bottle, we don’t want to put it back. In the same way as we don’t want our favourite restaurants to stop offering home delivery, we like having the choice.

Last month saw the first London Gallery Weekend (LGW), an impressive, peer-led collaboration of more than 130 galleries all rolling out the red carpet together. Organisers say that this year’s event–supplemented with a website of wares and QR codes to help navigate London–is a mini version of what LGW could become. There is talk of non-profit projects, panel conversations and other commercial collaborations. But I for one hope that its Covid-induced mission to show off London’s range of independent gallerists remains at the core.

Needs must just now and most initiatives should be applauded. But as those of us in the media world have learned, just because there are new ways to deliver and build on our product, it doesn’t mean we should divert too much from what that product is. And with a slimmed-down staff at most major galleries, auction houses and art fair groups, trying to be everything to everyone, all the time, could be a stretch too far. Choice is mostly a good thing and certainly isn’t going away fast, but while it is great to have options on the side, let’s not lose track of what’s in the middle.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper, 335 June 2021