Has the Pandemic Given a New Lease of Life to the Art Gallery Business?

Will the art market go back to its pre-pandemic workflow, or is the change irrevocable? This is the question many art entities find themselves pondering. Doron Fagelson is here to provide some clarity with his latest article.
8 min read
08/16/21
All articles
By Doron Fagelson
Vice President, Media & Entertainment
Has the Pandemic Given a New Lease of Life to the Art Gallery Business?

A year of global shutdowns and pandemic-driven programming across the arts have created a poignant moment for the art gallery business. The pandemic has altered the habits of many and brought virtual life to the fore, encompassing our working arrangements, how we shop for goods and services, how we spend our leisure time, how we discover and experience art.

Has the art world's shift to virtual experiences and online commerce during the pandemic irrevocably changed the ways collectors interact with and trade art? To what extent will art collectors return to physical art galleries in a post-pandemic world? These are pressing questions for dealers and gallery owners today. In a quest to find possible answers to these questions, this article considers some of the ways in which art galleries might retool their business models to meet the challenges of a post-pandemic and very different art world. By offering a combination of digital and physical experiences, galleries can leverage certain innate advantages, appeal to a wider base of collectors, and better position themselves for success in a post-pandemic world.

The Advantages & Opportunities of the Hybrid Gallery Business Model

1. Creating Great Media Content

Galleries specialize in promoting the work of the artists they represent. One of the most powerful ways to effectively promote such work is to provide remarkable experiences to collectors through superb media content that brings the back stories of artists and their works to life and communicating those stories to collectors via different media channels. Such efforts have already been tried and tested quite successfully during the pandemic. Global lockdowns commencing in March of 2020 forced some galleries to experiment as media channels striving to project content out to collectors. Ramp Gallery based in London, England, for example, produced as much content online as possible during the initial pandemic lockdowns, taking care to not only record every show produced but to actively present the show and the artists and works therein, "direct to camera" as owner Ochuko Ojiri put it during an ArtTactic interview. In a post-pandemic world, galleries can offer such experiences as either private in-person events for a limited number of guests, as live-streamed performances broadcast online to larger audiences directly from their physical spaces, or as pre-recorded shows made available for on-demand online viewing.

One of the lessons learned from the days of pandemic-induced lockdowns is that galleries can utilize their physical spaces to be highly effective story tellers of art, in ways that transcend the limitations of online platforms who lack a physical presence. The skill of articulating compelling back stories about an artist or their respective works to entice buyers, through carefully curated exhibitions and promotions, or by providing critical background context to a buyer, is a longstanding hallmark of successful dealers and galleries. According to Philip Hook, author of the book Rogues' Gallery, "Art dealers are purveyors of fantasy. Not in the sense of untruth, but that stimulates soarings of the imagination, elevations of the spirit, glimpses of remunerative investment." Don Thomson has spoken similarly of art dealers as very often the creators of these back stories in his book The Supermodel and the Brillo Box. As such, dealers and gallerists are well equipped to explore new ways of telling these stories from the very heart of their gallery spaces, and by exploring alternative digital formats.

2. Reviving Local Interest

The post-pandemic era may create the conditions to mitigate a perceived structural weakness in the mainstream gallery model: promotional efforts focused locally while the art market continues to globalize. The persistence of travel restrictions and remote work could lead more people to focus their time, attention and discretionary spending on their local neighborhoods and raise the level of support for local galleries and their promotional efforts. The potential returns to galleries from these efforts in a post-pandemic climate should not be discounted. The many months of widespread museum and gallery closures during the pandemic has undoubtedly boosted demand among collectors to return to galleries to reconnect to the power of physical art, and to experience being in the presence and grandeur of art once more.

3. Leveraging Digital Tools and Experiences

Galleries should explore ways to complement in-person experiences built around their physical spaces with digital tools and experiences that enhance their value proposition as both digital media channels and as prime destinations to discover, discuss and trade art with leading experts in the field.

For example, while browsing through an art gallery, a customer could use their mobile device to pull up contextual information about an artwork or an artist featured in the gallery by scanning an associated ID or QR code, or to peruse other art works by the same artist or by similar artists that are not featured in the gallery.

Mobile applications can be designed to facilitate personal interactions between collectors and dealers at a gallery space. For instance, a collector might use a gallery’s mobile app to “like” or favorite certain works or artists, creating a de-facto personalized wish list and giving dealers more insight into the kinds of artists or art movements that appeal to them. A gallery owner might in turn contact them to recommend other works from the gallery inventory they may wish to see in person or offer to meet with them to discuss a particular work or share their expertise on a certain artist or art genre. Push notifications from an app can also assist collectors with discovery; they can be an effective method of informing collectors of upcoming gallery shows or art fairs of interest, or of new works recently acquired by a gallery.

The pandemic has brought into sharp relief the power of social media channels for artists and art galleries. Ochuko Ojiri of Ramp Gallery has spoken glowingly of Instagram as an "absolute game-changer," a "phenomenal resource for collectors, artists and galleries" and as a "window to the world." Gaining exposure through digital media channels like Instagram not only helps to put galleries and their artists on the map. It has the added benefit of making a gallery more accessible, especially to a younger, tech-savvy generation of collectors more habituated to discovering art through the Internet than in the starker, more austere confines of a high-end art gallery.

The acceleration in technology investment wrought by the pandemic has both heightened consumer interest in digital experiences and resulted in a widening array of platforms and services that specialize in them. For art galleries, there are some interesting and exciting options in this space to consider.

One option is for galleries to partner with technology companies developing more engaging and entertaining online consumer experiences. Obsess is an experiential e-commerce platform that allows brands to create 3D virtual stores on their websites. The format is highly immersive and makes for a vastly different browsing experience than the flat, linear, grid format common to many of the online art fairs and online viewing rooms launched amid the pandemic. One of their higher profile projects was a virtual rendering of the Apollo Theater in Harlem. These kinds of technologies offer galleries creative avenues to build 3D virtual replicas of their physical spaces and more engaging, discovery-driven online experiences for collectors.

Similarly, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art partnered with Verizon to launch The Met Unframed in January of this year as an immersive virtual art and gaming experience. Accessible from a smart phone, it allows users to inspect virtual paintings up close, visit virtual galleries using an interactive, tap-to-move interface, and complete games to unlock their favorite pieces for display in their own homes through AR technology. Seeing iconic artworks on the diminutive screen of a smartphone certainly has limitations, even through the lens of an immersive, 360-degree environment, and works enhanced with 5G-powered animations may strike some as kitschy. But as a striking use of technology to provide an immersive and engaging digital experience for art, it points to the possibilities for commercial art galleries.


A promising new horizon for art galleries is the growing popularity of virtual worlds like Decentraland and Second Life where users can create avatars and buy digital lots to build virtual houses or galleries and stage concerts and art shows. These worlds constitute online communities, and their power lies in their utility as virtual spaces for community members to socialize, play and interact. When Sotheby’s recently launched a virtual gallery on the Decentraland platform based on their New Bond Street London headquarters, their head of sales, Michael Bouhanna, touted the social networking merits of the platform, “We see spaces like Decentraland as the next frontier for digital art where artists, collectors and viewers alike can engage with one another from anywhere in the world and showcase art that is fundamentally scarce and unique, but accessible to anyone for viewing.”

Conclusion

Despite the reality that private art galleries are, firstly and primarily, commercial enterprises, they have traditionally also performed an indirect service to society by bringing art into more people's consciousness, not unlike the role of public art galleries and museums. From a social and cultural perspective, therefore, the health of the art gallery business matters to a great many people, not merely the active collector. The post-pandemic period may just be an ideal time for galleries to both expand their reach with collectors and capitalize on that social mission, by reimagining and reinventing their physical spaces as digital media channels, and integrating digital experiences that bring art to local and global audiences alike in engaging and creative ways.

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