The arts industry was dealt a heavy blow with the worldwide onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Known for their resilience, artists and art practitioners did not procrastinate over the ‘new norm’ turning the regular white cube into a virtual square box. The challenge, however, is how to make an impact in what has become an overnight migration to the online space.
Talking to some of South Africa’s leading women in the visual arts world it is evident that they have embraced the challenges and are confident that the current environment offers many opportunities.
Owner and Director of Goodman Gallery, Liza Essers, described the adjustment over the past four months as a steep learning curve: “I’m proud to say that the Goodman wasted no time in developing and building an online exhibition platform, however, I am still in the process of familiarising myself with the analytics of a website. It also needed to be redeveloped from an information space to a buyer’s website as it is crucial to ensure a user-friendly navigable space for clients. And, of course, I have had to do my best to be a good ‘teacher’ in keeping a staff of 50 motivated and encouraged while we have all been working from home combined with the home schooling of my young son”.
The Goodman Gallery, Cape Town has closed its doors but a new small project space will open in its place in the near future and Goodman London is now operating under the same restrictions as Johannesburg with openings limited to a maximum of 50 people and gallery visits by appointment only. The Gerhard Marx exhibition, ‘Near Distant’ is on show in Johannesburg up until 8 September 2020.
Co-Director of Latitudes Online, Lucy MacGarry describes their recently launched platform as “a new virtual marketplace created to provide an ever-expanding, curated selection of artworks for collectors with an interest in African art. The overwhelmingly positive response we received to our physical fair that launched in September last year confirmed an appetite for a new zone of exchange; one which is inclusive, innovative and more diverse. It has been a crucial part of our vision since the start. However, the rapid unfolding of Covid-19 certainly motivated us to go public sooner than we had planned. With the digital space becoming increasingly competitive, we are glad to have made a head start in terms of design and development.”
There seems to be general consensus that online platforms offer increased opportunities for exposure, selling and connecting with curators, galleries and collectors. “Once the market fully recovers from the financial impact of the pandemic, our view is that online buying behaviour – from affordable to blue-chip – will have been positively impacted”, said Lucy.
Director of the RMB Turbine Art Fair, Glynis Hyslop never had any doubts that TAF would go ahead as a virtual edition in spite of the initial challenges. “Artists whose livelihoods are at stake need a platform for exposure and an online fair has the advantage of offering galleries and artists’ access to a much broader and more diverse audience, while appealing to both existing and new collectors.” The focus will be on the creativity of emerging talent in Africa.
A highlight of RMB TAF annually, is the extensive and interactive talks and walkabout programme and 2020 will be no different with the added benefit of an online offering which opens up a whole new world of potential participants. Art experts, art lovers, artists, curators, and collectors make up the extensive list of speakers and participants, including photojournalist Greg Marinovich to talented South African artists such as Mary Sibande.
FNB Art Joburg on the contrary has had to contend with two consecutive challenges.
Fair Manager, Nicole Siegenthaler said, “Given that we re-launched the 2019 fair just three months before it took place, we were really looking forward to a full year to properly plan the 2020 edition.” That, of course, was not to be as the lockdown was imposed end March.
“The 2019 re-launch helped Mandla Sibeko (FNB Art Joburg’s Founding Director) and I to pivot this year to the online platform. Last year, we had a very short window to make a lot of decisions: business, content and otherwise. It was an extreme exercise in identifying our priorities and strategies. Now we’ve had to shift our business model from events-based to 100% digital — and I find we are better equipped to have the tough conversations as well as let go of elements that simply don’t work. Pandemic or not, regular self re-evaluation is an essential practice for every business. I am looking forward to using technology to share the great talent we have on the continent with an even wider audience from around the world.”
FNB Art Joburg takes place from 6 – 18 November 2020.
From art fairs and galleries to auction houses, all art institutions have had to adjust to the ‘new norm’.
Susie Goodman, an executive director at Strauss & Co said: “In the past few months, time-honoured routines have been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic, but it’s been a fabulous opportunity for Strauss&Co to take so many of our tried a tested practices and usual auction processes and think completely out of the box!”
Strauss & Co decided to pivot to a hybrid model of live online selling and conducted the May and July virtual auctions seamlessly while moving between sessions in Johannesburg and Cape Town instead of being limited to only one location. “We fast tracked the development of our in house auctioneering platform which allowed us to expand into the multi-location live virtual auction format that we launched in the middle of lockdown. This model has significantly grown our client base, both nationally and internationally.”
“In our last auction we had over a thousand people online for one of the sessions! The other endorsement we have had is the higher number of new buyers who have registered on our auctions since March this year – we connected with new bidders coming from America, Europe, Asia and New Zealand. The changes we are making have had so many benefits to Strauss & Co and our clients, and all the economic data produced in the last few weeks indicates that online retail is only going to keep on growing!”
The next Strauss & Co virtual auction, North/South will be held from 8-12 November 2020.
Emma Bedford, Senior Art Specialist and Director at Aspire Art Auctions, said “We have found that a business can run remotely with the various technological platforms that are readily and cost-effectively available. While the art world thrives on interaction and nothing can compete with viewing the actual works nor with meeting the artists, there are now so many effective ways for this to happen remotely. Good websites with strong presentations of artworks, high quality images, accuracy in cataloguing and documenting of artworks enables anyone, anywhere to view works of art and get a very good impression of them. Interested parties can watch our YouTube presentations, engage in Zoom discussions and attend webinars to gather more information on art and artists.”
“At Aspire Art we have developed many exciting new business strategies to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. While South Africa was still in a protracted lockdown, we conducted a collaborative auction with Piasa in France, where we were able to promote art from this continent to broader, international audiences. As part of our effort to assist other companies, charities and the broader South African community, we have also conducted several fundraiser auctions during lockdown.”
Aspire Art Auctions next live auction will be broadcast from Johannesburg on 3 September 2020.
COVID-19 has brought significant changes to the art industry worldwide forcing it to embrace technology, develop new partnerships and consider different financial models. Nothing will replace the experience and excitement of joining large gatherings of art enthusiasts at art fairs, biennales and galleries but for the foreseeable future and beyond, the digital experience will have to be recreated as impactful as possible to attract viewers and buyers. Judging by the commitment and enthusiasm of the impressive women who are at the helm of many of our country’s art institutions, South Africa’s art industry is in good hands.