Will Art speak Techish?

COVID leading the digital transformation of the art market?

At the beginning of the pandemic, a meme was largely circulated on social media in startup circles, asking who led the digital transformation in companies: CEO, CDO or COVID? Since then, we learned a lot. COVID did not make the digital transformation, just showed us how much is needed. In many industries, efforts toward digitalisation were made for years, these efforts being embraced more or less by corporate cultures. We can take any industry, this sudden, all-go-digital did not go smoothly. But, how about those industries that had a difficult relation with tech and digitalisation, that were now literally forced to go online? 

Art industry. Galleries. Collectors. Museums. Artists. Technology – that is Not-so-artistic. But, now, COVID forced everybody to go more and more online. Let’s review how that went! 

Museum sector is highly affected, after a boom in the last years, when according to UNESCO, the number of museums has grown 60% since 2012. Now, The European Museum Network has found that Europe’s biggest cultural Stedelijk and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam are losing 2.5 million euros a month. And in the US, American museums have already lost 4.5 billion dollars by early April. 

Museums were not very much preoccupied with the digital transformation process, and very few had a digital department. Maybe one reason behind it was that with a lot of cultural industries going online – such as movies for ex- people might want some offline experiences as well? But, as COVID started, they went online. The experience was not considered very successful. No data are how many digital visitor museums had, but definitely, solutions found were not extremely successful. Some museums used their own platforms others, Google Arts And Culture. 

Now, with the reopening, all museums say that they had to cut off from personal – so contractual workers were the first to go. And 13% out of 1600 international museums, surveyed by  the International Council of Museums, will stay close. forever. 

Galleries and collectors. Compared to other forms of art, visual artists, at least, could stay at home and create, and hope for the best, meaning to get sold. If not now, then later. But Gallery business was all, till now, about face-to-face sales; digital technology was not really used. The must-be-there Art Fairs were the ones that were driving sales. But now, with events cancelled what remains to be done? Instagram is still here, the favourite medium for promo. Bigger galleries tried it online, and realised it was not all that bad. 

  1. Online Viewing Rooms – for exhibitions. This was started by galleries in US, but also Asia, and the First edition of online Art Basel Hong Kong. Was it working? Well, yes and no. Some galleries even introduced a real person guide that explained the works and offered a more natural experience. On the plus side, it was realised that well, people from around the globe can access your expo. On the minus side, it was realised that after a while, it becomes…not so engaging. 

Art Basel Hong Kong was the boldest and did its huge fair for the first time online. And it went well – except for 25 min when the servers were down. Visitors? 250.000, compared with 88.000 previous years! (we will talk about engagement). Sales? Business-as-usual, at least for big galleries. Works of Luc Tuymans, George Baselitz or Lician Freud were all sold above 1 million euro. 

  1. Studio visits. Or bring in the human aspect! Artists isolated could still go online, and we can finally have a look at how artists work. I mean by “we”, we understand primarily collectors. Not really sure about the pipeline of collectors.  
  2. Zoom conferences were the first to kick-off, with series and interviews with artists, curators, theoreticians about this crisis, previous crisis, their work, their health, and hobbies. But, as in many other fields, Zoom-fan realized, that zoom-talking is not like real talking (well, in general, Zoom realized as well that is not so market-proof)
  3. Even some collectors felt the need to go online and present their collections personally. Collectors need to boost sales as well 🙂 Selling and buying a business can be exhausting. 

We can maybe say that this period was the most voyeuristic look into the art industry. But, what went wrong? Well…nothing. And yet everything. But let’s take a closer look. 

Digitalisation is a process of iterations after iterations in order to find the right solutions – it’s naive thinking to imagine that getting an IT company to find us a solution will just solve our digitalisation problem. Normally, companies launch different digital solutions after months of brainstorming, testing, and optimizing it for the users. These iterations, trials and failures are ongoing, so that the digital solution proposed is a real experience and even in companies where all these research were made, sometimes not everything goes smoothly. Can we really expect an institution to offer a solution overnight? No. The current situation says a lot about the indifference towards a digital-first-generation. But, between the art market player, we simply had only the baby-steps related to CX, Customer journey map, digital strategy, etc- not mentioning that many small galeries function out of “passion”, and less because of a good go-to-market strategy, be it online or offline. 

Offline cannot be translated to online. In the startup world, we know that offline cannot be literally translated to online. Different environment, different context. Facebook was not successful because it moved our offline friendships online. It brought to us an entirely new online world of friends. And the art industry is just discovering this magic, but somehow maybe is still lacking solutions. Offline will always remain offline. 

Customer engagement strategies. In a digital first world with a tech savvy generation, you cannot maintain only the offline model to promote art and artists. You need an online presence, that is more than a website, facebook and instagram.  And you need to engage your customers and construct the pipeline of customers. The naive view that you put your art online, and expect customers to just come will not happen. Maybe the biggest lesson is that just having the online will not solve your problem- you digital marketing strategies. Which might be problematic as a lot of small galeries not even offline, had a strategy.

Price transparency

And when it comes to customer engagement, a big shift that happened was related to price transparency. Art collectors and experts for years are pushing the industry toward price transparency. You read that correctly. Art market functined for years without visible pricing, this leading to ugly gamblimg possibilities on and with the market – which on the long term consequences is the erosion and lack of trust in the sales chain. Now, both artists and galleries made the price public. Small Galleries, big galleries, and all Art Basel Hong Kong functioned with price tags disclosed, which is a really huge step forward. And not only Art Basel. Many artists on their personal IG pages have prices, many galleries and online exhibitions with flash sales are with visible prices. And obviously, art markets that launched before covid or during covid are all with visible price tags. 

What will come next? With the covid19 crisis, art industry players realised certain aspects of benefits for technology, and most probably will carry on. Such as, the clear advantages on price transparency and its potential to drive sales, a real possibility of tapping digitally into other markets and engaging with collectors and donors far away from your location that also can boost sales, I guess were convincing enough. Optimising online viewing rooms will be probably the number one priority. And also rethinking of how galleries are functioning in general will probably lead the discussions.

How much, digital innovation will be a core element in the art industry? Hard to say something for an industry recognized for being conservative, innovation-resistant and tech-non-savvy in a tech-savvy world. My personal guess is that the art industry is open to innovate only if it is forced by external events. Considering the laissez-faire attitude of the last 10 year, when all other industries were heavily making efforts toward innovating and self-disrupting their industries, and art did almost nothing, the probability is that it will remain tech-blind. But here lies also an opportunity to literally tap into a new market, as new players might come in and disrupt a poorly managed niche market. A tendency that already started with the marketplaces launched already ‘pre-covid era’. 

Coming from the tech-startup-world (with a background in business strategy and product), I participated in several hackathons dedicated to the culture, art, and creative industries, with some interesting experiences that revealed the really shockingly huge gap between industries. (An experience analyzed in a related article here). How these huge gaps will be filled, it remains an open question. But it will be soon answered by the disruption that the art market has to face or by the investments or lack of investments in digital and innovation departments of the bigger galleries and museums. But, as in other industries, the big winners will be those big players that will invest internally in their own innovation and will try to disrupt themselves.