The art market has gone through 10 years’ worth of innovation and evolution in the past 10 months. In many ways, the events of 2020—from the pandemic to global protest movements against systemic racism—added urgency to changes that were already happening at a glacial pace. As the rest of the world changed, so too did the art market, from auction houses, fairs, and galleries ramping up their online offerings, to collectors getting a lot more comfortable buying works based on high-resolution photos and videos. While some of these changes are temporary—be-masked auction house specialists stationed between plexiglass barriers will not be the norm forever—most are here to stay.
We asked three art-world figures to address how their businesses—an auction house, a gallery, and an art fair—have adjusted this year and how they expect to keep adapting in 2021. Edward Dolman, the CEO of Phillips, helped transition the auction house toward a digital-first strategy with great success; on December 7th, Phillips had its biggest sale ever in New York, bringing in a total of $134.5 million and selling the fourth-most expensive auction lot of 2020, a landscape painting by David Hockney. Jenkins Johnson Gallery founder and principal Karen Jenkins-Johnson has seen her space maintain its status as a bicoastal powerhouse for presenting new and historic works by artists of color while consistently putting together standout presentations at fairs, both in person and virtually, throughout the year. And in his capacity as Art Dubai’s artistic director, Pablo del Val has been instrumental in guiding the fair from the abrupt cancellation of its 2020 edition to unveiling a sleek virtual exhibition platform and planning the first major in-person art fair slated to take place in the new year.
Karen Jenkins-Johnson, Founder and Principal, Jenkins Johnson Gallery
How has the pandemic permanently changed the way you conduct your business?
Like everyone else, Jenkins Johnson has had to increase our use of online communication tools. We have increased our collaboration with other galleries and special projects with art fairs and museums. And we have built awareness about current art-world topics with artists, collectors, and curators with our online forum “Conversations on Culture.”
Of the many solutions adopted by people in the art market in response to the exceptional challenges of 2020, which one do you think will have the longest-lasting impact?
I believe the longest-lasting impact will be from the use of online communication tools including social media, allowing for virtual exhibitions, studio visits, and connecting people globally. I believe it will have a positive lasting impact because it lowers the barriers to participation for gallerists, collectors, artists, curators, and writers. It levels the playing field for those who do not have the capital or equity to pursue a brick-and-mortar space, or the time and financial resources to travel.
What art market practices from before the pandemic do you think will never return?
I would “never say never.” That said, in my opinion the pandemic has accelerated the decline of some art market practices including smaller gallery exhibition spaces and traditional print media.
What ongoing challenges for the art market did the events of 2020 expose, and how do you think they will be addressed in the coming year?
An ongoing challenge for the art market that the events of 2020 exposed is the lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry. People of color are underrepresented in museums, institutions, and galleries. Organizations need to increase the number of Black, Latinx, and other minority individuals at all levels. Museums’ organizational culture and lack of diversity has led to resignations and mistakes. Black trustees are joining together to make art museums more diverse.