One of the surprises following last year’s global lockdown was how well the art market seemed to function in a state of semi-suspended animation. There’s a variety of explanations for the industry’s unexpected ability to survive. There are macroeconomic factors involving stimulus packages and governments further easing already lax monetary policies. There are also technological ones based upon the existence of platforms for displaying art. (Many of these platforms already existed, but few of them were used frequently.) There are even psycho-social factors involving the need for cultural and intellectual engagement that requires minimal interpersonal contact.
Whatever the reason, as the art market emerges from isolation this summer, there appear to be a number of new forces at work. Auctions appear to have made a permanent transition to the hybrid format, with a live auctioneer taking bids from house personnel on telephones and the internet, while, on occasion, bidders are present in the salesroom.
An obvious question for those in the primary market looms: Is there a hybrid version of the artist’s opening or group show? LiveArt, the private dealing platform, is experimenting with that today with the opening of “When Two or More are Gathered,” a show of 13 contemporary artists curated by artist Amani Lewis. The show is being presented digitally on the website LiveArt.market and physically at Sperone Westwater gallery in New York.
“Some of us are partners in life and love, some of us are close or best friends, and some of us may know a few or everyone in this exhibition, but we all have a profound respect and love for each other’s work,” Lewis said of the artists included in the show. They are Stephen Arboite, Adrian Armstrong, Destiny Belgrave, Mark Fleuridor, Jozie Furchgott Sourdiffe , Shaunté Gates, Ashanté Kindle, Murjoni Merriweather, Ambrose Murray, Jo Nanajian, Khari Turner, and Will Watson.
This being 2021, the hybrid nature of the exhibition also includes NFTs the artists have made to be sold along with the physical art. But the real potential advance here isn’t having art shown at physical gallery and sold on a website. It’s the idea that entrepreneurially minded artists can harness the power of a platform to their own ends.
For a number of years now, the gallery system has been quietly changing. The idea that a gallery cares for and supports its artists is still often true. But equally true is the fact that many artists are now running studios that employ a number of people, effectively making them small businesses, with all the usual headaches around accounting, health insurance, and logistics.
This cottage industry interfaces with the gallery system in a different way. A successful mid-career artist will often have more than one gallery they sell work through. These galleries have their own networks of clients, spaces, and cross-selling strategies. When they need work from an artist, it sometimes turns into a competition between the galleries. The net effect is to make the artists’ studios more independent and entrepreneurial, loosening the bonds between an artist and and their gallery.
For artists whose careers are just beginning, the situation has become even more fluid. Given the growth of Instagram as a platform for independent artists and the changes in the gallery system, there’s a real chance for something to give. This is why LiveArt’s “When Two or More are Gathered” might offer a glimpse of something different.
Relying on Instagram is fine if you’re a social media savant. But being a good artist and being good at Instagram are not exactly the same thing. The value a gallery gives young artists beyond the benediction is access to a built-in audience. That’s part of what LiveArt is trying to provide here. It’s a gallery as a service model not unlike the Software as a service (SaaS)—platforms seen in other aspects of business life. Instead of being your accounting system or newsletter platform, LiveArt is trying to be the gallery that scales with your sales.
LiveArt’s new primary market platform is meant to build a ramp for the artists who are not yet represented by a gallery. Eventually, it may bolster LiveArt’s secondary-market platform, populated by works from trending artists whose work is difficult to acquire on the primary market. LiveArt’s peer-to-peer sales platform wants to address those liquidity problems by initiating a shift among sellers and buyers from auction to a peer-to-peer marketplace.
The goal, LiveArt’s executive vice president George O’Dell said, is to allow collectors to capitalize on demand for primary market artists, and ultimately, to “widen the pie of opportunity for re-sale on the secondary market.”
This level of the market in which seller supply is abundant, claims O’Dell, is where the most demand for a more efficient trading solution exists. “There are these bulging collections, especially in this middle market that people do want to actively trade from.”
LiveArt is a long way from that future. But, given the conditions in the current art market, though, it is well worth paying attention to this experiment. It may be the next hybrid move in the art market.