The Pace of Buying Fine Art Has All but Come to a Halt in Recent Months—Here's Why That Could Be a Good Thing

KARSTEN MORAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES

For years now, buying art has meant joining one endless globe-trotting party. Now the breakneck pace has come to a halt—and that might not be a bad thing.

On March 4, a slightly on-edge art world gathered in New York City for the annual Armory Show. It was a somewhat subdued affair, with fewer parties than usual, and lots of jocular elbow-bumping in lieu of handshakes. It was the last event of its type, it turned out. In the weeks that followed the Armory, some visitors to the fair got sick. It is possible that the gathering was one of the events that helped spread the pandemic in the city. Not long afterward, New York went into lockdown.

The art industry—a social and peripatetic business, with fairs, auctions, and biennials happening in succession continuously all over the world, to the extent that many who make their living in it stay on the road for much of the year—slowed to a standstill. And six months into the pandemic, the art world, like so much of the rest of the world, has become smaller, more risk-averse, and definitely more digital. It hasn’t been easy. Galleries have closed, and museums have laid off staff. But the art world is adapting, and not all of the changes will be a bad thing: A slowed-down, more local, and less flashy version of it could be a healthier one, less brazen and more thoughtful, with more room to be creative.

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Still, the pandemic was a shock to the entire system at first. “Basically the market evaporated 85 percent overnight,” says Kenny Schachter, the dealer, writer, and provocateur, who started traveling again as soon as restrictions were lifted. “There’s not going to be a V-shaped recovery anytime soon. There’s no going back.”

By now, some galleries have reopened, but with lots of new rules limiting crowds, and with the threat of reclosing hanging over them. There was, early on, a sense that some of the more over-the-top aspects of the art business could use some toning down, that literally following the endless global art-and-auction circuit wasn’t necessary. Auction houses like Sotheby’s went fully virtual and found success with events that looked like high-end game shows.


From left: Marcel Dzama’s Pink Moon (2020); and Franz West’s Pleonasme (1999). From left: © Marcel Dzama, Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner; © Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Courtesy the artist, Victoria Miro, and David Zwirner

Most art fairs and expositions have been canceled, some likely permanently, and many small and emerging galleries have foundered. The culture sector has been especially hard hit in art capitals like New York. In late July, high-profile Manhattan dealer Gavin Brown, who has represented artists such as Peter Doig, Alex Katz, and Rirkrit Tiravanija, shut down and joined forces with Barbara Gladstone’s gallery, realizing that in a post-COVID-19 art world, he might not be big enough to succeed alone. Well-capitalized, international blue-chip galleries, meanwhile, have largely been able to weather the storm, in part by allowing appointment-only viewing, and by meeting clients where they are. New York galleries like Pace, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, dealer Max Levai of Marlborough, and Skarstedt Gallery—as well as Sotheby’s—have set up branches in the Hamptons, where many of the city’s collectors fled to shelter in place.

As Zwirner told me from his retreat in Montauk, the pandemic accelerated changes already underway at the gallery. Instead of the online exhibitions’ being sideshows to the big in-person galleries— featuring, say, lower-cost works on paper or lesser-known artists—they have become the main events.

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This year Zwirner has experimented with a number of strategies to keep collectors and other art lovers engaged. One involved online visits to artists in their studios, showing new or in-progress work of the sort the gallery might bring to an art fair: “We did Lisa Yuskavage and Raymond Pettibon and soon will do Jeff Koons,” he says. It’s open to anyone, an admirable bit of transparency in an art world not known for that. And during the early weeks of lockdown, in a heartening show of solidarity, Zwirner loaned out his mega-gallery’s mega-website to smaller dealers like James Fuentes, Essex Street, and 47 Canal, introducing its well-heeled clientele to up-and-coming artists.

The biggest difficulty for Zwirner has been moving works on the secondary market, where galleries often make their real money. This part of the sales process is now invitation-only, with access to private online viewing rooms given only to clients.

Many of the prime collectors are older and have historically been less comfortable viewing and buying art online than their younger counterparts. But they are adapting quickly. “My collectors like to travel and go to fairs and biennials,” notes Glenn Scott Wright, director and partner of Victoria Miro galleries in London and Venice. Today, “they are just not traveling,” says Wright. “A lot of people are like, ‘We have never bought from digital images, but we are not going to gallery openings anytime in the future, so we have to do this if we want to buy.’ ”

The emphasis on online sales has had a democratizing effect: Prices are more transparent, and more of the inventory is on view. It has led to a change in the type of work that tends to sell, though. “The stuff from zero to $50,000 is doing well; people can get their dopamine fix,” says Schachter. “But the mid-market will get squashed,” he says. “Anything not cheap and great or expensive and great won’t sell.”

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Throughout the pandemic and the corresponding economic downturn, the art world’s most vulnerable participants have been artists themselves. But the news isn’t all grim. Jesse James Thompson, an MFA candidate at NYU, had his thesis show postponed until December, which has meant putting off meeting with potential dealers. Yet the delay allowed him to focus on selling works on paper over his Instagram account. “People are home all the time now and wanting to buy something for their apartment,” he theorizes. Friends of his are responding to current events, like the Black Lives Matter protests, with work that appeals to younger collectors.

Mid-pandemic, Thompson was forced to move: He got a deal on two rooms in Bushwick, a once-scruffy Brooklyn neighborhood that has seen rents on the rise the past few years, threatening to price artists out. But with some people leaving the city, at least for now, it’s conceivable that the city will become more affordable to young creatives again.

Indeed, there are indications that the pandemic will alter the very cultural fabric of cities around the world. Art has become a major driver of global tourism, from the Tate Modern in London and the Guggenheim Bilbao to the upcoming M+, which was supposed to turn Hong Kong from a shopping and finance city into a serious cultural destination. Plans for major new institutions are now up in the air, but while tourism is suppressed, cultural capitals can be more easily enjoyed by their actual residents for a while.


From left: Salman Toor’s Four Friends (2019), part of a postponed show at New York’s Whitney Museum; Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s American Zip (2019). From left: Courtesy Archiv Franz West, Estate Franz West, and David Zwirner; Collection of Christie Zhou; image courtesy the artist

Recently, French officials started a “Paris is yours” ad campaign to encourage Parisians to visit museums and other landmarks usually too thronged with foreigners. “International institutions will have to rethink who their target audience is, focusing on a more local or localized public,” says Cecilia Alemani, the chief curator of the art exhibitions along Manhattan’s High Line park. She’s also the artistic director of the 59th Venice Art Biennale, which has brought art from around the world together for 125 years and had to be put off from next summer until 2022. In its place, from August 29 until December 8, Venice will host an interdisciplinary show called the Disquieted Muses. With so many travel bans in effect, it’s certain to attract a more European crowd than usual.

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It remains to be seen how permanent these changes will be. Certainly the institutions that have found unexpected success online will invest more heavily in their digital programs. But there will inevitably be some kind of reversion to the mean. Most people are betting that art will become an in-person activity again, if not for the social aspects, then simply for the fact that an artwork needs to be seen in person to be appreciated.

Salman Toor, a young painter who was about to open his first museum show at the Whitney in New York when the lock-down went into effect, considers himself fortunate. “Luckily for me the show that was delayed was already sold,” he tells me. “So it wasn’t like the people who might buy this can’t see this.” And he refuses to sell work online that hasn’t been publicly exhibited: “The paintings have a surface quality you need to see.”