Quarantine art market
Work by artist Fernanda Gomes presented at Galeria Luisa Strina's viewing room at Art Basel. Photo: Disclosure

Pay high prices to have a booth; pay for the transportation and insurance of the artwork; and pay a good amount on plane tickets, accommodation and meals for the team. All this with the risk of not making sales and going home in the red – not to mention the physical and psychological stress involved. “The total cost of attending an art fair is crazy. And it's always very tiring”, says Luisa Strina, one of the most experienced gallery owners in the Brazilian market. The opinion is shared by five other gallery owners heard by the arte!brasileiros, who see an exhaustion in the model in which galleries spend a good part of their resources and time incessantly participating in fairs around the world. “It is very costly in terms of money, but also in physical and psychological terms. Last year I left Brazil on average twice a month. It doesn't have to be that way”, says Alexandre Gabriel, from Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel. For Karla Osório, “there was even exhaustion, but unfortunately it was seen as a necessity, a market rule”.

And the wheel, which could not stop, suddenly stopped. With the Covid-19 pandemic and the need for social isolation, fairs were cancelled, travel was made impossible and, like the most varied sectors of the economy, the art market found itself retracted and without easy answers on how to proceed. Unlike other fields, however, precisely because they were living a model that was already showing signs of exhaustion, many art gallery owners quickly realized that certain practices can – and should – change, even when the pandemic passes. The search for a “new normal”, a term that in four months of the pandemic already sounds repetitive and sometimes just rhetorical, is perhaps in fact a reality in the arts marketing circuit, as it demonstrates that other ways of working can be more practical and profitable. . “I think this stop is also a moment of reflection. We were on autopilot, doing ten fairs a year. You get into a rut and don't even realize it anymore. So I do think that people will have to review some things”, says Alexandre Roesler, from Galeria Nara Roesler.

The main change for the galleries so far, in addition to the intensification of digital performance, the realization of lives, virtual exhibitions and the creation of some collaborative initiatives with artists – certainly the most fragile characters in the current situation -, was precisely the participation in virtual fairs. The displacement is no longer to another city or country and is now to the nearest computer screen or cell phone. The first to announce the cancellation of the in-person event and the realization of the online version was Art Basel Hong Kong, in March, which had 231 galleries in its viewing rooms (virtual visitation rooms), including four Brazilians. In April it was Frieze New York's turn, with 200 houses, eight of which are Brazilian; and in June Art Basel brought together 282 galleries, including five national ones. It was also in June, in the wake of a controversy involving the cancellation of SP-Arte, that the unprecedented Not Canceled Brazil was held, with the participation of 57 galleries, all Brazilian, and the duration was extended to one month.

Paradoxically, with all the ills caused by the pandemic and a consequent retraction in the art market, the new format of the fairs made it clear to gallery owners that certain changes are here to stay, and that if in-person fairs are not fully replaceable by virtual ones, hybrid models must become more frequent. More than that, with an expansion of the virtual performance, much more economical, it will be possible to better select the events in which it is considered really important to be present. “Maybe doing in person between two or three good international fairs a year is enough. You greatly reduce the costs of an operation that is always very risky. Feira is Russian roulette”, says gallery owner Jaqueline Martins. “And online, the risk is lower, because if you sell less, the frustration is much lower. You worked less, you didn't spend. Your financial condition and your time are better protected.”

Until now, the fairs held virtually have not charged the value of the stand (in this case, the viewing rooms). Whether this will continue or if it was just an emergency measure due to the crisis remains to be seen. “It will probably have some cost in the future, but it doesn't compare to a normal fair”, says Strina. In this way, even though the number of sales was lower than usual - which is confirmed by the gallery owners -, the amount of transactions necessary to not leave the event in the red is infinitely smaller, since the costs boil down to the preparation of photos, videos or publicity campaigns. “With much less sales, I would say that on the final balance we had better results at Frieze and Basel this year than last year. Because when the expense is zero, you sell a work and you are already in profit”, emphasizes Gabriel.

Other practices, new behaviors

The results achieved by the galleries are varied. Some went blank at one event, but sold well at another. Gallerists also realize that the rapid evolution of platforms made available by fairs has helped to increase interactions. For Eliana Finkelstein, from galeria Vermelho, the number of visits to the viewing rooms and the contacts with possible new clients from different countries positively surprised the gallery, which until now has participated in Frieze and Not Cancelled. She also highlights the need to understand the new ways of working in the digital universe. “I think there are works that are very well suited to the virtual environment, such as a photograph. Others are more difficult.” Alexandre Roesler goes in the same direction: “Perhaps a painting or a photo is easier to visualize than a sculpture, or a small piece of lace, for example”.

In this sense, the gallery owner also envisions other creative paths. “It is possible to design different digital experiences. See what game programmers are able to do, for example, with virtual reality.” For the next fairs, therefore – including SP-Arte, which should soon announce its online version -, new possibilities are coming into the sights of gallery owners. Finkelstein emphasizes that there are no longer any limits of weight or space to present a work; Strina considers that a virtual fair will work better with more cheerful and colorful works; Gabriel highlights the advantage of being able to present works that are physically in different parts of the world, without having to transport them; Jaqueline, in turn, recalls that the London gallery Rodeo presented viewing room in Basel only sound works. “When would they have the courage to make such a physical investment in a very expensive fair like Basel? It would be unthinkable to take that risk in person. So I think this detachment that online gives us is also wonderful, and we have to explore that.”

Karla Osório, responsible for holding the Brazilian edition of Not Cancelled – a fair originally created by the Austrian agency Treat and which has already had versions in other countries – says she also perceives a new profile of the buying public, of a lower age group. “All the new customers I have now during the pandemic period, around 20 people, are at most 45 years old.” According to an article recently published by The New York Times, a kind of generation gap would be occurring in the art market during the pandemic, considering that younger collectors are more willing to buy virtually and older ones (generally with greater purchasing power) are more reticent. This fact would also lead to a choice, on the part of many gallery owners, to exhibit “cheaper” works at fairs, more likely to be sold to millennials – a generation born in the 1980s and 1990s. “Up to a certain price limit, you can work well virtually”, says Finkelstein. “At Not Cancelled we only take works of up to 16 thousand reais.”

Almeida and Dale
“Quebra”, by Renata Lucas, presented by Galeria Luisa Strina at Art Basel. Photo: Disclosure

The finding that experienced collectors are more reticent to buy virtually, however, is not shared by all gallery owners interviewed. According to them, the practice of selling works by exchanging images – basically by Whatsapp – was already current long before the pandemic. “I would say that 50% of the sales from my gallery, and I can say that from many others as well, already happened online, with this exchange of photos”, highlights Jaqueline. “Of course, this is rarer with new clients, but for a regular client, who already trusts you and knows the artist, this is common. So I also think that the market retreat was not only due to this fact of online sales, but because we entered a health, economic and political chaos.” Alexandre Roesler says the same: “We have been selling works by Whatsapp for several years. It is rare these days for the collector to go to the gallery”. For him, this is even related to the boom in the number of fairs in recent decades – events in which the buyer can see hundreds of galleries in one place.

Economic crisis    

The market retreat highlighted by Jaqueline was also mentioned by all the other gallery owners, especially with regard to the first month of social isolation. All also note a gradual resumption of business in the following months. In this sense, recent data show a picture that sounds surprising in the political and economic context experienced by the country. A survey carried out in April by the The art newspaper with 236 galleries around the world showed that 34% of them imagine that they will not survive the crisis generated by the pandemic. The data also show that galleries, on average, calculated a 72% drop in their annual revenues in 2020. A similar survey carried out in May in Brazil – by Tamara Brandt Perlman, from Parte Arte e Cultura – revealed a much less dramatic picture. for the 47 national houses interviewed. With an expected revenue reduction of around 30%, only 4% of galleries thought they would not survive the crisis, with 23% of homes predicting growth for the year.

General view of Cities in Dust, at Carpintaria
General view of Cities in Dust, at Carpintaria (Fortes D'Aloia & Gabriel), an exhibition that had to be closed and was presented online

According to the survey, it is the smaller galleries with fewer years of activity that show less financial strength, if the crisis takes a while to pass. In this sense, Karla Osório highlights that online fairs have an important democratization character, by placing all galleries on the same level and with the same presentation space. She does not imagine, however, that Not Cancelled Brazil, held as a matter of urgency, will become part of the fair calendar, as traditional events such as SP-Arte and ArtRio will take place again. “But they will also have to rethink their modus operandi, because this moment has shown that it is possible, with very little expense, to have a strong digital presence,” she says.

Hybrid models, in which face-to-face and virtual complement each other, seem to be the most likely path, according to respondents. “The online format is here to stay, but I don't think it came to replace it”, says Gabriel. “There will probably be a reduction in the number of fairs, but the large ones, which have greater economic strength, will certainly continue with physical events, even with parallel digital activities”. Alexandre Roesler agrees: “I think it's possible that they continue to take place as a complement to the fairs, even to expand the reach of the public. But the experience of being in person at a fair is very different. It's not just the fact of seeing the work live. It's because you meet and meet people again, keep in touch with a network of collectors, meet some artists live. Then there's the party, and sometimes you go to other cities in the country... I mean, it's an experience that goes far beyond seeing the works live.”

Not Canceled Brazil
Works by Pedro França and Victor Gerhard (centre) presented by Galeria Jaqueline Martins at the Not Cancelled Brazil fair

Finally, Gabriel highlights another relevant aspect of digital events: “Online is very transparent. You know the price before you ask, you know what is sold or not, that is, there is something more direct, more straight”. But perhaps this digital objectivity is precisely what will never be able to fully satisfy the art market. “Once, discussing this burnout with the director of a fair, he told me that fairs will never end because people love social events. And it's true”, concludes Jaqueline. “And I don't mean in a vulgar sense, but it's a place where you'll meet people, communicate, make contacts. And it's hard to imagine another opportunity to, in two or three days, mingle with so many people from such different places and cultures.” But yes, concludes Luisa Strina, “the virtual fair is here to stay, and people need to get used to it” ✱

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