The spread of COVID-19, in this troubled beginning of 2020, forced the whole world to a sudden slowdown. Entire countries closed their borders, airlines canceled flights, governments issued decrees to close non-essential services and the population was forced into isolation: all necessary measures in an attempt to flatten the contagion curve of the new virus and prevent the generalized collapse of health systems.
Social detachment, albeit being a powerful measure in the fight against the New Coronavirus, will have profoundly negative impacts on the world economy. Anger Gurría, secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, a.k.a. club for rich countries), recently said in an interview with the BBC that the current economic impact is already greater than the financial crisis of 2008. According to him, a global economic growth of 1.5% this year already seems to be an optimistic scenario. For Brazil, the situation is no different: according to a study by the Getúlio Vargas Foundation, Brazilian GDP may decline by 4.4% in 2020.
With economic expectations plummeting around the world and an estimated cost of more than $2 trillion dollars to global economy, the pandemic has scared all sectors of the market, that are quickly looking for creative ways to keep their businesses active and minimally healthy during this crisis.
The art market, historically based on personal and face-to-face relationships, deals with great challenges: canceled international art fairs, postponed exhibitions and a retraction of collectors’ activities are some of the difficulties faced by galleries.
To all business strands – and among all alternatives being tested to circumvent the current crisis – one strategy seems to be the common denominator: the digitization of processes. Academies have released educational material in digital format for their students, retail businesses have further encouraged online shopping through promotions and exemption from delivery fees, and language schools now offer their classes via the internet.
The pandemic has scared all sectors of the market, that are quickly looking for creative ways to keep their businesses active.
In a world of social detachment, in which everyone is physically separated and united only by the internet connection in their homes, starting to invest in this area seems to be the most obvious solution for companies that had not surrendered to the universe of digitalization yet.
According to the report by the Brazilian Electronic Commerce Association (ABComm), in partnership with the Movimento Compre & Confie [Buy & Trust Movement], from February 24 to March 18 there was an increase of 111% in online purchases in the health category, an 83% increase in perfume and beauty, and an 80% increase in supermarket purchases, compared to a similar period in 2019 – from February 25 to March 20.
The fact is that the art market has always operated in an autonomous and unique way in relation to the digitization process. Even though we have witnessed the growth of the efforts taken by art galleries and auction houses in the digitalization – especially when it comes to emerging artists who appeal to a younger audience – many established art agents still show resistance to embarking completely online.
Even with some resistance, the last barrier between the art market and its digitalization will have to be overthrown for its survival.
The new dynamic imposed by COVID-19 may be about to change this continuous scenario of resistance: according to preliminary data from Art Basel Hong Kong online viewing room – the virtual alternative taken by the fair after the event was canceled – large galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner and Gagosian reported robust sales at high prices. In addition, smaller galleries were able to use the space as an opportunity to explore the concept of an online viewing room and connect with potential new buyers. Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel, attested that “although nothing can really replace the experience of a physical art fair, collectors around the world were still very excited to find all of the over 2,000 exceptional artworks in one digital space”.
This seems to demonstrate that, even with some resistance, the last barrier between the art market and its digitalization will have to be overthrown for its own survival: with established collectors and potential buyers prevented from traveling, all in quarantine, there seems to be no way out other than investing in the negotiation of artworks on the internet. And there is no problem with that: including virtual procedures in the art business does not mean exterminating interpersonal contact or the need for lasting relationships, which have always been the hallmark of the sector. It just means expanding the possibilities of negotiation, providing new alternatives for collecting and entering an organic process that the whole world is going through today.