Above: Albert Oehlen, Untitled, 1988, oil on canvas. © Albert Oehlen. Photo by Rob McKeever, courtesy Gagosian.

Given the death tolls and economic costs of Covid-19, it feels crass to ponder the so-called ‘perks’ of a pandemic. And yet, every terrible and devastating event has a silver lining. It’s possible to both mourn the effects of coronavirus, and to celebrate some of its perks. One of the things that we strongly feel has changed for the better, is the renewed vigour with which artists and art institutions are going digital.

There’s little denying that COVID-19 and lockdown have forced artists of different streams to explore digital avenues to reach out to art lovers. And, frankly, this move is long overdue. Statistics suggest that over 51% of smartphone users have discovered a new service or product while searching on their smartphone alone. Online art sales value continued to grow in 2018, totaling a whopping $4.64 billion in aggregate (according to the latest annual Online Art Trade Report).

With household players like the Gagosian launching its temporary, high-end salesroom and Sotheby’s hosting online-only auctions, it’s clear that the possibilities of the online are unparalleled for the art world. And yet, some artists remain skeptical of the digital world. Here’s why they’re wrong.

George Condo’s “Antipodal Reunion” became the most expensive painting ever to sell at an online auction at Sotheby’s. Credit: George Condo/Sotheby’s

Why is being only offline no longer enough?

Certain artists and the art market may relish tradition, but solely relying on traditional brick-and-mortar galleries is simply no longer working for many artists. Art galleries have undoubtedly been affected by online shopping and the changing habits of their customers. To top it all off, overheads in prime city locations can truly get crazy. Plus, an increasing amount of art buyer clientele are more willing to buy artwork without seeing it in the flesh.

On top of it all, artists can create a website in under 2 hours, with a virtual gallery that has the potential to reach collectors around the world.

The brick-and-mortar space is a very specific model. And there’s also the art fairs – yet another space where people can view art. It’s not to say that offline spaces are completely obsolete. We have to try to understand and appreciate all of these different ways that people are experiencing, engaging with, and buying art. The question is, in the long-run, which avenue will be the cheapest to run, most profitable and successful for artists?

While the gallery provides a platform for a physical interaction between the buyer and the seller – which is undeniably valuable – it all eventually comes down to simple economics. If rents continue to soar, and walk-ins are diminished, we might see If it comes to the point where my rent is so high that I don’t care how many walk-ins I get, it doesn’t pay, then I’ll change.

What about online galleries and marketplaces?

Marketing your art online via various galleries and marketplaces has its fair share of pros and cons. The biggest cons are the commissions and quality of representation. For example, if you sell through Saatchi Art, only 65% of the sale price goes to the artist. Online marketplaces with lower commissions tend to represent less-than-great art, to put it kindly. Sometimes, artists opt to be represented by the higher-commission galleries while they figure out the ins and outs of marketing themselves online. This is a good option if you want to keep the cash-flow alive and well, while you find the most cost-effective way to sell your art online. Of course, everything depends on where you’re at in your career – galleries can sometimes be the most reliable way for emerging artists to gain broad exposure and sales, while for established artists, it’s often easier (and more cost-effective!) to sell directly to collectors online.

So what’s the best way forward?

Generally speaking, if you want maximum exposure, it’s best to cast your net wide. Here are some ideas of what you should be focusing on if you do decide to take the digital plunge:

  • Set yourself up on social media, especially Instagram: Be mindful of copyright, though, as Instagram sets its terms in the T’s&C’s that artists often miss! Besides that, there are a plethora of thriving art communities on Instagram that you should be participating in. Don’t forget to tag your work, too – hashtags are a great way to get wide exposure for free. Social media should complement, not replace, your own portfolio website, however. In an ideal world, Instagram should be used as a marketing tool to drive traffic to your website.
  • Launch a website with an online gallery: The beauty of having a website is that you get to set the rules on your IP / copyright rules. Plus, you aren’t constrained to little squares: your work won’t be viewed only in a grid between someone’s outfit of the day and a photo of their dog. On a website, your art gets the full attention that it deserves.
  • Research the best ways to market yourself online: Once you’ve set up a website, you might be disappointed to find that the traffic you’re seeing is, well, disappointing. Simply having your website exist in an online vacuum is not enough – you need to make sure you’re doing your research in terms of Google AdWords, SEO, and social media community management (that will help drive traffic to your website). If the technical bits are too much for you to figure out, you can always outsource.
  • Pay attention to offline networking: Just because you’re online doesn’t mean that the offline world is now obsolete. Networking, meeting new people, and talking about your art will always remain crucial cornerstones to your career. Just make sure you always have a business card on hand with your website and social media details so you can market yourself in real life.
  • Collaborate and be proactive: Whether it’s a charity auction for a worthy cause, a one-off giveaway with a bigger brand, or an online flash sale, you need to make sure that you’re always on top of your marketing game. With endless free online resources on the topic, you will undoubtedly be able to quickly master the art of being ‘in’.

Suspended animation: Francis Bacon’s “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus” was shown at Sotheby’s in London in March and estimated to sell for upwards of $60 million in the May Contemporary Art auction in New York. Sotheby’s has not said if the sale will be canceled or postponed.Credit…The Estate of Francis Bacon/DACS, London/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Why now?

According to McKinsey & Company,  consumers are shifting to online and digital solutions as well as reduced-contact channels to get goods and services. The report says that intent to shop more online across categories is positive in several countries. Across all countries measured, consumers are adopting and intensifying digital and reduced-contact ways of accessing products and services. As we look more granularly in the US, this digital trend is magnified for Gen Z and millennials and for higher-income consumers.

So, if you’re on the lookout to remain relevant – and profitable! – in this post-Covid world, taking your art business online is not only a no-brainer, but it is also simply a must.