There has been no shortage of gloom for London’s commercial art galleries of late: closed for months by Covid-19, deprived of the international art fairs where they do a significant portion of their business and still facing the uncertainty of Brexit. UK galleries expect a 79 per cent drop in revenue this year, according to an Art Newspaper survey from April.
But now that the London art trade is beginning to peek out of its cave, albeit with many galleries opening by appointment only, it is considering what the future may look like and how it can adapt to a new normal.
What we’re likely to see is not so much a radical break, despite Covid-19, as the acceleration of trends the city’s art market has been experiencing for several years.
The most natural change in an era when human interaction is suspect is for galleries to bolster their digital presence; big players like Thaddaeus Ropac are reinforcing their investment in state-of-the-art technology to enable virtual visits — for example, a walk-through of the Daniel Richter show in its Salzburg gallery.
Using augmented and virtual reality, a company such as Vortic can give a viewer a 3D tour of a gallery show or let them see what an artwork — even a sculpture — looks like in their home. On Vortic, a Grayson Perry pot, for example, can be rotated and turned up and down — just as a collector might do when holding it.
For the digital strategist Süreyya Wille, tip-top image quality is essential: “Collectors want to see a really good scan of the piece. This is even more important to them than visiting the gallery virtually.”
She was already working with White Cube before the crisis and says that, since Covid-19 struck, other clients have been looking to move all their programming online for this year.
Some galleries have been changing their footprint, abandoning expensive street-level locations for an upper floor. Even before Covid-19, footfall at art galleries was plummeting, mainly because art fairs offered a one-stop shop, the opportunity to see many dealers in a single visit.
According to Emily Walsh of the Fine Art Society, which gave up its grand New Bond Street building in 2018 for three storeys on less expensive Carnaby Street, “There was a two-year gap after we left, which gave us time to reflect on our model — we didn’t want a full-on shop. We wanted something smaller and more sustainable.”
While landlords may have become a bit more understanding of late — the Fine Art Society had five months rent-free — it seems unlikely that many galleries will return to the old model. In Mayfair, notably, they are in competition with the fashion industry, which, though also hit, has deeper pockets and needs the plate-glass window presence.
Shared buildings are another way to go. These are different from a single building housing multiple galleries — such as the Pedder in Hong Kong — offering instead exhibition rooms for temporary hire, along with offices and other facilities.
New York gallery Lehmann Maupin is opening next month in Cromwell Place, a new exhibition and working space in South Kensington (disclosure: I am chair of the membership committee, which vets applicants). Rachel Lehmann says the gallery wanted a London presence and “a more intimate space for our artists, where we can hold talks, performances”.
These plans are particularly fitting for the post-coronavirus era: “We think that now that people can’t travel, there will be much more emphasis on local communities, far from the craziness of the ever-expanding market we knew before,” she says.
A shift to a smaller centre may be another solution. Last year, Carl Freedman Gallery moved to Margate, a couple of hours’ drive from London, along with its associated business, Counter Editions, which sells prints of works by the gallery’s artists and others. Director Robert Diament says the prints business had a Covid-19 dividend during lockdown, “as people wanted editions to use as backdrops to their Zoom meetings”.
“I’ve definitely noticed an increase in people looking to move out of London,” Diament says. “I recently toured three visitors looking to relocate here, including a London gallery director. I think Covid has encouraged people to re-evaluate what they really want from life.”
Another art dealer tells me: “I think there will be companies going under, particularly the smaller galleries.”
But despite such doom-mongering, some dealers are still backing London, albeit with less largesse than before. In Soho, Niru Ratnam planned to open in a space in April this year. “Then Covid intervened, but we decided to go ahead and opened in July,” he says.
“We have a very lean model, and with no fairs, no expensive parties, so our costs are low. We are going back to the old model of talking to people and artists.”
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