Calgary art collector Brian Mendieta just bought a new sculpture, a mannequin covered in eggshells – and he can’t wait to see it.
Mendieta bought the work by contemporary British Columbia artist Junichiro Iwase at an online auction, viewing photographs and video but not the actual thing. A budding collector, he used to buy art in galleries when he travelled. Since the pandemic, he has moved online and is buying more than ever.
“[With COVID] you don’t really get much option,” he said. “You do your research online instead of in-person … Everyone has a big monitor: [So] you have the art in your house. You aren’t just in a gallery making a snap decision.”
Younger collectors are happily buying in online auctions without any face-to-face contact with the art. But as Art Toronto, the biggest in-person event on the Canadian art calendar, goes virtual this month, the question is whether that enthusiasm can be translated from auctions to galleries – that primary market where dealers hand-sell new work by living artists. In normal years, the Art Toronto fair fills the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Centre with dozens of booths and thousands of visitors. This year, it is offering an online platform of participating galleries (many of which are physically open by appointment) as well as virtual exhibitions, studio visits and panel discussions. Can a largely digital experience generate any of the same buzz or the same business?
“The fair platform is very much a marketplace for a virtual acquisition experience,” said Art Toronto director Mia Nielsen. “You visit a fair and buy from dealers; this works the same way. It’s not an e-commerce system. People see work, connect with the gallery and buy it from the gallery.”
Nielsen reports that the art market is doing well these days, partly because of the lockdowns: “People are spending more time at home, not travelling, not going out to dinner. If you want to make your space feel fresh, get the refreshment you might from a holiday, you can buy art.”
Long before the pandemic put a damper on auction previews and sales rooms, e-commerce was well established in the secondary market, where auctioneers resell historical and contemporary art.
“Virtually all of our business is digital now, and the tools are far more sophisticated,” said David Heffel of Heffel Fine Art Auction House, pointing to high-resolution photography, virtual tours and, for pricier items, condition reports prepared by independent conservators. The auction house still organizes preview shows around the country and holds physical sales (although only 20 people could be present at the last one.) But Heffel notes that even a traditional auction is already functioning remotely, with telephone bidders outnumbering those waving paddles.
Indeed, that market is so virtual that First Arts, a new Canadian auction house dedicated to Inuit and First Nations art, found it could successfully build a fledgling business in the middle of a pandemic.
“The online revolution has been happening for a long time, and COVID came along and gave everyone a push,” said Nadine Di Monte at First Arts, which held its first sale in May, 2019. She estimates that those older buyers lost because they can’t attend a physical sale have been replaced with younger ones buying online. Gallerists draw the same demographic line, saying those over 40 may do research online but want to visit, chat and see before they buy. Those under 40 will acquire art that they have only seen through reproductions.
“I think it’s inevitable, for a generation that has grown up streaming music or getting a cab with the touch of a finger, that they expect the same experience from galleries and auction houses,” said James Pashutinski, a 27-year-old management consultant who collects Inuit prints.
Like Mendieta, Pashutinski found COVID-19 pushed his buying online.
“I bought my first piece in person. It was a pleasant experience [but] driving around galleries felt intimidating. I had the impostor syndrome; I didn’t know what questions to ask.”
As the lockdown dragged on, he found online was easier: “If anything it has increased accessibility and brought down the intimidation factor.” He is now looking forward to the virtual version of Art Toronto, an event he has only attended once before in person.
Some buyers may feel intimidated walking into galleries; others relish the experience. Either way, the personal element is the chief reason that online buying is much less prevalent in the primary market.
“The international art world is on high speed, going online, doing social media, but that said, you can’t beat the real thing,” said Toronto art dealer Nicholas Metivier. “One good thing is that clients have more time, they want to spend time with the art. Meaningful encounters are going on.”
Metivier’s gallery has stopped mailing out glossy invitations to shows and is doing more social media, but it rarely sells to a buyer who hasn’t seen the work personally. The only examples he recalls are buyers acquiring more work from leading figures whose art they already collect.
Like most commercial galleries, Metivier does not offer an e-commerce platform. Clients buy directly, in person or by phone. One exception is the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, which launched the FFOTO e-commerce site in 2015 to sell new and historical photography. Bulger says three quarters of its sales are to people under 40, clients who simply click and buy.
Still, he is skeptical that the online experience can replace the real thing, pointing out that when you view a photograph on your computer, it is backlit, whereas one hanging on a wall has light reflected off it. Perhaps because he is already well versed in e-commerce, he is also frustrated by the notion of a digital art fair.
“When I saw Art Toronto was pivoting online, I wasn’t that enthusiastic,” he said. That’s why his contribution for 2020 is a pop-up booth at his location with four other Canadian galleries participating – a kind of mini fair.
“Our clients are saying: ‘I’m tired of it. I am tired of looked at jpegs online,’” said Yves Trépanier, the Calgary art dealer who Bulger invited to participate.
In Calgary, Trépanier has crated works by the American artist Alicia Henry and shipped them to Toronto for Bulger to hang in his gallery. Visitors can make an appointment or take a chance and drop by. If there’s a green sign on the door, you’re clear to enter and see some real art.
Art Toronto runs Oct. 28 to Nov. 8 at arttoronto.ca and at various galleries across Canada.