The Pandemic’s Silver Lining for Artists

I held back tears as I stood before the painting, a colorful garden woven with patterns. I had longed to stand in front of a stranger’s art for 15 months, and it felt like a relief to witness the artist’s intentions and strokes.

While it felt deceivingly familiar to be at a gallery opening in Los Angeles last month, I knew the art world had profoundly changed in the past year. Luckily, there lies a silver lining for artists. 

Rewind to 2019 and early 2020, the art world was a very different place. Pre-pandemic, art fairs were their own kind of virus, popping up everywhere, attracting swarms of people with the promise of a fun experience and ‘grammable snaps. They benefited only the super wealthy who preferred to buy art while on destination vacations. Small and mid-sized galleries struggled to participate, flying their staff and collections around the world, spending thousands to keep up with the insane pace set by art fair timelines, while the upper one percent of dealers and galleries prospered from serving this elite.

The fair itself was the content, consumed by the masses. The payment of artists for their work? Well, that wasn’t as important as booth rentals and ticket sales. 

Even more impossible math came from calculating the ratio of galleries to artists. The supply of artists far outweighed the ability of galleries to serve them, with galleries maxed out, refusing submission requests, and leaving an enormous number of artists unrepresented. Pre-pandemic, for the majority of artists and galleries, the model was already broken. 

Galleries were often painted as the enemy in this equation, with their inability to properly serve the artist population and their high commission rates of 50 percent, an industry standard. Even with the hefty commission, most galleries weren’t even breaking even due to high overhead costs and expectations to attend about four art fairs a year. 

I saw this trend clearly in 2018 and 2019 while researching for my Master of Business Administration degree with a focus on disruptive business models in the art market. There was a major gap when it came to supporting artists. If the art world relies on artwork, why was it not structured in a way to support artists? I moved to Los Angeles with this question on my mind. 

Fast forward to March 2020. Art fairs? Cancelled. Galleries? Closed. The unfair, dysfunctional system was put in a well-deserved timeout. 

In the void from then until now, magic happened. The wealthy poured money into tech, innovating solutions for artists, content creators, and online business owners, making it easier to run art businesses online. People got busy making their homes more comfortable, which included purchasing art. People picked up their dusty paint brushes, turning to art as their passion project to keep their hands occupied while their social calendars remained empty. Busy artists had more time to create. 

A population that had been wary of purchasing online decided to click buy. If Christie’s can host an online auction, why not purchase a piece from the painter you’ve been following for years? Online art sales doubled, and so did the number of patrons on Patreon

Image of Loish’s Patreon page (2021) (courtesy the artist)

With art fairs grounded and galleries temporarily or permanently closed, more and more sales happened directly from artist to buyer. Goodbye 50 percent gallery commission check. Hello meaningful, personal connections. Purchasing directly is way less pretentious, and more desirable for the buyer, a theme that arose during my business school research and in what I’m seeing with my current artist clients. These online, direct-to-customer sales are easier to facilitate now as the online tools — Instagram, TikTok, Shopify, and Canva, to name a few — have evolved to enable artists and creative entrepreneurs to succeed. 

I want all of us to have the experience of being brought to tears by seeing art in person again. But, if you’re an artist, I challenge you to leverage these new dynamics and not rely on galleries as a necessity to sell your work. Connect directly with your audience instead. They are waiting for you so they can add meaningful art to their homes and lives. 

The parallel evolution of buyers having more confidence to purchase art online and artists being able to manage their own business is the opening in the art market that we have needed. The innovation birthed from the disruption to the art world as we knew it is a silver lining we need to make room for, especially if we truly want to support artists. 

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