Art market disruptors gather pace

Posted 24 March 2020 11:58 AM

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By Louise Martin-Chew - freelance visual arts writer based in Brisbane

Covid19’s devastating impact on the cultural sector is in progress and may dwarf already intense pressures. In December 2019 the Australian government announced that the arts would no longer have a department with a significant focus on its interests. NAVA director Esther Anatolitis described the move as “a massive backward step culturally for Australia”. It may be read as another federal government rebuff to an industry suffering since 2011, when changes were made to superannuation. These continue to impact the market, with the current rules responsible, according to researcher Dr David Challis, for art sales in 2019 falling some 39 per cent below the peak in 2007.[i]

Yet other notable market disruptors are overseeing a shape shift within the sector. Activity at the grass roots level is strong, with annual increases in art prize entries across the continent, the value of online sales platforms growing every year, and anecdotal evidence suggesting that artists are using the myriad of new technologies to effectively market and sell their work. Under current circumstances, cultural interactions online may prove a lifeline for artists.

Self-representation is an increasingly viable option. Tools to this end include artists’ websites, online sales platforms like Australia’s Art Lovers and Bluethumb, and exposure offered by prizes to promote artwork. Artists’ expectations are already in tune with the online trend: 26 per cent of respondents anticipate that, by 2023, their key sales platforms may be their website and/or social media. Thirteen per cent of artists nominate online art sales platforms as key.

         Art Lovers founder Nancy Donaldson reports a steady increase in online sales since the site was established in 2016, with the average price for artworks also increasing each year. She said, “People are becoming more and more experienced online. They buy houses and cars online, sight unseen.”

While international online platform Artsy works actively with established art galleries all over the world to facilitate art sales (with a seven-figure sale reported recently), in Australia, sites such as Art Lovers and Bluethumb host work by artists who are otherwise self-represented and often at a lower price point. Donaldson does not believe that her online platform diminishes the market share of established commercial galleries. In her view, “It is a different market to that of commercial galleries. Art Lovers clients support emerging artists. We reach people online and making a purchase is easy, particularly if you know exactly what you are looking for. With over 15,000 curated artworks by 500 artists, you can use the power of the search to narrow down what you are looking for in a way that is impossible to do by physically visiting galleries.”

         Artist Tania Blanchard used design store Kira and Kira, social media and later, Art Lovers, to achieve art sales. Her first foray into making a living from her work was straight out of art school some twenty years ago, well before the advent of social media. She tried again, using Instagram and online a few years ago and hasn’t looked back. Currently busy with commissions, she hasn’t had time to enter an art prize. Nor has she considered a representative gallery. “I don’t need one, and there are additional costs”, she said – although she doesn’t rule it out in her future.

         Fiona Francois sells her artwork through her own outlet in Tasmania’s Deloraine, also showing original work and reproductive prints with smaller galleries, at her local café, and other retail outlets. “Artists tend to think that the best model to gain recognition is in representation by a gallery and winning prizes. That hasn’t worked for me,” she said.  

         Given the pace of change, the disruption in the art market, and the cultural lockdown given Australia’s current health emergency, interested players should be nimble and ready to act. As global art star CJ Hendry has proven, there is scope for artists to prosper outside the art world establishment. And in troubled times art, more than ever, offers an avenue to the cerebral and emotional connections so integral to humanity.