Peggy Guggenheim at Palazzo Venier dei Leoni with Alexander Calder Arc of Petals
The pandemic has acted as a catalyst for the art world. Distribution systems have gone digital while appropriate attention is being paid to the historical as well as contemporary contributions of women. In search of an interface offering opportunities.
© Image Roloff Beny; Courtesy National Archives of Canada
History teaches us that it was first and foremost major crises that changed the world, its societies, and its art—from the Black Death, which created the intellectual space to shape the Renaissance, to the Second World War, which wiped out large parts of European cultural life, and shifted the center of gravity for art’s creation, reception, and markets to the US.
The Covid crisis is the first truly global, society-wide catalyst experienced in the known course of humanity.
The arts were affected doubly: traditionally slow to adapt to digital approaches, above all in the areas of reception and distribution, it is focused on doing everything it does on the basis of immediate and personal experience, whether as a performative experience or in dealing with the highly lauded aura of the original.
Creative artists who could no longer perform without an audience were the most severely affected. But it also affected visual artists even if they worked secluded in their studios. Assuming that the reception of their art is part of their creative work, impeding or even preventing access is an existential intervention. Institutional as well as commercial art mediators began to shift their work into digital spaces. And while viewing museums’ collections on the screen may still seem nearly adequate, the classic art trade inevitably came to a halt in an era of general lockdowns.
At least it was possible to watch as the Corona crisis accelerated the digitization of the commercial art world daily at all levels of the market. Today, there are online viewing rooms for galleries and trade fairs, virtual tours of museum collections or auction previews, and more in-depth information about the works on display—from video interviews with the artists to augmented reality functions to make the work visible, at least digitally, in one’s own space.
This increased visibility helps commercial outreach in particular. More than a third of new clients now enter the art markets digitally, and around half of all industry auctions are online only. The lack of alternatives to buying art digitally during the various lockdowns has had an effect: in 2020, an estimated 12.4 billion USD were made in digital-only sales, representing 25 percent of total sales—this meant more sales were made online than gallery-only sales.
However, more than previous crises, the pandemic has also brought to light fundamental structural problems in both the institutional and the commercial art worlds. In terms of content, there is increased critical scrutiny of canonization processes, and selection criteria of exhibition operations and commercial offering platforms. Structural accusations were leveled—especially with regard to equality, discrimination, and racism—that institutions and companies did not pay enough attention to the situation and its improvement.
While the contributions of female artists and curators have subsequently been increasingly the focus of observation and reporting, so far this reorientation has failed to materialize on the demand side. Here, it is supposedly “only” about consumer decisions that appear and are regarded as largely voluntary.
For centuries, collecting was seen as a typically masculine activity. According to Honoré de Balzac, it separated the boys from the men and both from the women. It is not for nothing that scholarly collection since the Renaissance has had an aspect of mastering, classifying, and exhibiting artefacts as a representative display of the owner’s skills and intellect. Today, the gender balance is nearly even, with 46 percent women collectors to 52 percent men collectors.
Although a gendered notion of collecting behavior is debatable, it can be noted that the race for the trophy works of contemporary societies arguably demonstrates more of a masculine attitude of an expression of ‘value’. However, a closer look at distribution platforms may be worthwhile for market systems. Given the current digitization of markets, their traditional orientation of the entire production, presentation, and marketing structure to male needs and modes of operation may hold a historic opportunity to make sales structures more customer-friendly, independent from the frequently-invoked ‘psychology of collecting’.
A large proportion of future transactions will at least be prepared, if not carried out, entirely digitally. Today’s art platforms were largely developed under the pressure of rapid digitization. As a result, the functionalities were not only subject to time and financial constraints, but were also initially overshadowed by design issues: they were primarily oriented towards existing models. This was long considered sufficient. As a result, art markets have been an exception in a commercial landscape that, since the height of the Industrial Revolution, has based the design of designated spaces exclusively on aspects of consumerism.
The arrival of the digital revolution to the art markets is quite comparable to the impact of the Industrial Revolution on individual markets, especially when examining the sites of transaction. In the last third of the 19th century, middle class women in the Western world traversed boundaries between the private and public spheres in order to acquire mass-produced goods in the latter for the former (and to make use of accompanying services as part of this acquisition process). The design of the commercial environment as an idealized private sphere, a ‘home away from home,’ proved to be an effective means of putting this new clientele in the mood for purchasing. In this increasingly immersive environment, the consumer could feel protected and relaxed while shopping, and henceforth the overwhelming majority of public spaces were designed like private spaces of this very societal class, from department stores to fashion salons to train compartments. This development demonstrates a consistent orientation of the strategy towards potential female consumers. One central difference to earlier attempts in the distance business, which, comparable to today’s influencer culture, preferred to work with taste models accessible through consumerism.
FLORAL WALLPAPER 2.0
This view reflects current consumer trends, mainly set and communicated by women and reinforced by the crisis: the rediscovery of home and nature, connected across sectors in the escapist ‘cottagecore.’ This trend is illustrated by the increased demand for ‘flower chintz’ and rising prices for cottages in the Cotswolds. However, the execution not only takes place there, but also on the floor of the prefabricated concrete building, whose Bauhaus-inspired design was intended to enable a rational-contemporary lifestyle for a democratically liberated society—only now with floral wallpaper again?
That the following of this trend reaches beyond women of Generation Z, and is widely followed and implemented by non-binary people and members of the LGBTQ+ community, is a clear signal of contemporary adaptation. The derivation of the suffix-core from the hard-core trends of the 1970s shows that it is not only about how to spent the time on one’s hands in a Covid setting. And while ‘cottagecore’ may be a tool for the queer community to conquer a world of traditional lifestyle and aesthetics that was not open to its members for centuries, the role of women in the construction of the trend is more complex. Sociologist Rebecca Stice, an Irish influencer, notes that the image of women conveyed here foregrounds but is not restricted to traditional values.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many women in vintage communities have to outright say vintage fashion, not vintage values.” In this way, female consumers override the connotation of floral patterns and use them as symbols of their own sovereignty: demand that is independent both financially and in terms of content.
The strategic focus on female customers between 1880 and 1930 seems astonishingly modern in light of the post-pandemic world. Who is the target in the digital space? The female collector! Although women make up just over half of the world’s population and just under 40 percent of the work force, they are responsible for around three quarters of all commercial transactions—even up to 85 percent in economically particularly strong regions. This is the result of the powerful combination of their own financial assets, influencing community decisions, and exercising community decisions left to them. Surprisingly, women also appear to either have more money in art markets, or use it more fearlessly: 34 percent of all active women collectors spent more than 1 million USD in 2018 and 2019, compared to 25 percent of collectors; in 2020, the median art market transaction by women collectors increased by 13 percent, whereas that of collectors remained unchanged.
Shifting larger areas of purchasing into the digital space can, if not create, then redefine and make a distribution channel for the art visible in which women can operate. It can make them undisturbed and independent from dominant, masculine, ‘white cube’ behavior, but not competition. Digital behavior, which is typically characterized by cross-referenced and linked strolling that is rarely planned and can only be partially so, seems to be more in line with female consumer behavior anyway, since men are less likely to show a tendency to ‘look around’ without any real desire to purchase anything.
CONTEMPORARY PURCHASE ENTICEMENT
What is needed is a designed digital environment that takes the presentation of art out of the museum context and transfers it into actual (or desired) private spheres.
THE SUPPOSED DISCREPANCY
Between the individuality of the consumer and the stereotyping of the immersion on the screen should not be a major problem, just as it isn’t when buying the products recommended by influencers. After all, lifestyles are about idealized versions of one’s own life. At the same time, in the digital space it must also be taken into account that the private sphere has played a central role in processes of identity formation since the 20th century and has thus also become a way of perceiving social mobility. Consequently, it is not only a matter of individuality in the area of conflict between the consumerism, lifestyle and branding of the provider (aka the commercial art mediator). The level of privacy itself moves between the poles of discretion and security on the one hand, and the gain of prestige and representation on the other—in this, it is quite comparable with other social media platforms. There as well, it can be observed that after individualistic beginnings the desire for self-realisation has developed rapidly after individualistic beginnings in the direction of a collective representation of the era. This helps providers to design such a supposedly private space, the cornerstones of which are likely to be fed with information from the company’s customer relationship management (CRM) program. Perhaps a corresponding design of digital marketplaces today can contribute to the emotional triumph over their mediocrity? Floral wallpaper has served its time as a medium. Too dominant a design, however, which is certainly welcome from the point of view of corporate branding, is easily at odds with the ‘sophistication’ of the clientele. Aston Martin yachts, Bulgari hotels, and Porsche apartment buildings come to mind. Perhaps this opens up a wider scope of design for artists, true to the concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk, which does not want to differentiate between surface and content?
ATTEMPTING AN OUTLOOK
For the future of commercial art distribution, this development could mean that consumption and reception will be re-divided between the virtual space and one’s own home—reception of the original only after delivery, as is the case with Amazon. The boundary between private and public has been softened anyway through the Zoom and WebEx conference culture that emerged during the crisis. The private environment visible in media coverage is immediately publicly scrutinized and evaluated (Room Rater, @ratemyskyperoom). The home is considered a source of identity and is cultured for an audience (both actual and digital), including curation of the book wall or private art collection. In terms of form, there is no longer a distinction between teatime visits and social media feeds, as even mediatized privacy is staged as if it were not public, but still purely private. Lockdown experiences seem to have cemented this. The London art dealer Offer Waterman makes a comparison with the 18th century: “We live in Marie Antoinette times. The wealthy want to spend their money, but collectors will be more low-key. They will adorn their own homes.”
Incidentally, James Christie, a contemporary of this French queen, ‘inventor of the art auction’ and founder of the first art auction house in 1766 owed his success also to the fact that he created an egalitarian platform accessible to everyone for viewing works of art, at a time when public museums had not yet assumed this function. Here, women could participate in public life even without being accompanied by their husbands: The beginning of an auspicious story.