ARTS MARKET REPORT: Digital Sales Drive Fine Art Digits

February 16, 2017  |  Aidah Fontenot

Historically, the upper class established “legitimacy” within the arts. The proper way to showcase fine art was in isolation, within a formal setting, and before limited audiences. In order to preserve this elitist ideal, they market would sustain outside of the popular economic marketplace and focus on the aesthetic desires of wealthy sponsors. The same is still mostly true for today’s fine arts market, which remains confined and controlled by a small percentage of the upper class.

Glenn O’Brien is an arts journalist, former member of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and panelist on the Vice News report Why Artists Don’t Make Money. O’Brien describes the arts market as an unregulated and inscrutable industry controlled by auction houses and independent financiers in which multi-million dollar deals are based on the value of art, a market which is only determined by taste. O'Brien further argues that art has become the most decadent form of conspicuous consumption in which objects have become “Veblen” goods that operate within a closed market, and in the reverse of supply and demand.

Award-winning artist Ryder Ripps argues that the music industry needs to evolve and realize that it is “selling something that is ephemeral and metaphysical. The thing they are selling is the experience of listening to music. It doesn't matter what medium it's on. The medium in which people can access it the easiest is the most relevant."

While the traditional arts market is incredibly difficult to break into, the introduction of digital sales has broadened the visual arts market similarly to digital music, allowing visual art to become part of popular culture, as a commoditized product that is broadly accessible. According to the The European Fine Art Foundation 2016 Global Art Market Report, online art sales increased by 39% since 2014 and now represent 7% of global art sales. New collectors and art buyers are entering the market through a less intimidating method, and are accessing their experience much faster.

The marketplace shows that people love the immediate gratification of digital download, however this is fueled by love of the ritualistic, and elite experience that owning art provides. According to the Deloitte/ArtTactic Art & Finance Report, 77% of art collectors and 69% of art professionals believe that the online art auction market will become one of the winning business models. This means that as arts managers must stay abreast of what happens in the economic marketplace, and how culture changes from generation to generation. This also means there is a growing demand for professionals within arts marketing and digital sales.

The emergence of online art sales open a doorway that did not exist before, and can alleviate much of the financial struggles of living as an artist.  Anyone can sell artwork online, so artists need to focus on marketing, and think about the psychology of why people are buying. But, does this mean that the arts market of the future will become muddled down and used as a source of income for any person without particular artistic merit? For the sake of the contemporary and future arts movements, I hope that online platforms can utilize some sort of selection process. But then, we would fall back into the same system of a few tastemakers, who determine what is "good" art and control the market.

EXHIBITION REVIEW: Mind the Hand, Curators Spotlight at Arlington Arts Center

In the words of author John Dewey, art is an experience. In order to fully appreciate and absorb an exhibition, it is important to value the complete journey. One does not magically appear - poof! - standing in front of an artwork. The series of experiences - the initial intrigue through marketing, the venue, the environment - lead up to the moment you view the art, and influences your perspective and takeaway experience. Exhibitions that lend themselves to repeat visits, recognize this fluidity and writer who explore them take this into consideration.

The Curators Spotlight features separate, themed exhibits compiled by four curators. The focus on curation above the artist is an unusual concept that is initially interested. From the exhibit catalog, I see that exhibit themes are not based on aesthetics, rather, it is completely conceptual and vague, there is little indication of what to expect visually. I am immediately given the impression that the artwork there is meant to tell a story, and provide the viewer with a window into the process of the artist. It is intriguing. This review focuses on one of the exhibits part of the Curators Spotlight, entitled Mind the Hand, curated by Betsy Johnson. 

The Arlington Arts Center is a multi-use functional space in which artists both work and exhibit. In most institutions, work spaces are hidden behind discreet doors, maintaining a polished facade. The AAC seems to embrace the intersection between the process and the resulting work as part of the experience. 

The building enlarge is quant and charming and does not feel historical like a museum, commoditized like a gallery, nor grungy like an art studio. A stone building, with white walls and grey wood panel floors, the space is bright, but not the sharp, modern brightness popular in contemporary galleries. There was no stateliness, nor feeling of formality, as commonly felt in a gallery.

Mind the Hand feels like walking into a scene already in motion, where the pieces live, and I was entering their world. All the artworks in this exhibit seem to be quietly alive and imperfect, I felt I had walked into a scene in motion. The very definition of installation art is that it is created within the space in which it is exhibited. It is attached to the physical space, the walls, the floors, and the space becomes the canvas. In this room, Johnson created a scene that felt one with the gallery space, it does feel contrived, and it does not even feel curated. It feels organic, and fluid, in which the individual artworks speak to each other. 

The theme of Mind the Hand is a completely conceptual in which the artists intentionally dove into labor-intensive practice in response to fast-paced life. The wall text notes that while the artists were “varied in materials, processes, and end results, they are unified in their belief in the transformative power of making…” I feel that the artists took this concept one step further and were unified even in their use of materials. 

The room is lightly divided into two spaces by a partial wall. The hum and beat of “new age” sounding music in deep and melodic tones is apparent in the room. It is coming from a large multimedia installation on the opposite wall and sets the mood for the experience.

Two thirds of the right side of the room is bright and covered with windows, which draws you in the direction of an installation of a dozen thin circles suspended from the ceiling, just below eye level, so they appear to float in the center of the room. Each circle is translucent beige, about the size of a dinner plate, with textured stripes. They remind me of dreamcatchers, or the tightly drawn tops of tribal drums, as they gently sway, twirl and dance upon the air circulating in the room. This dance is intentional. The physical suspension, and translucency would mean that, depending upon the daylight and motion in the room, the work would yield a different visual experience. 

Behind the floating circles, is a complex beehive made of clear tape in the window. In one corner is a fabric rectangle the size of telephone booth, and in the other a puddle of fabric, slightly pulled up towards the ceiling and weighted with a metal water bucket. Both are of shimmery, heavy black fabric resembling vinyl. If there was more depth to the “labor-intensive” practice, it was not apparent in these two pieces. They felt a little expected in a contemporary art installation, but did visually anchor the corners of the room.

Adjacent to the circles is a wall installation of silk cocoons attached to the wall as dots in the pattern of the fibonacci sequence spiral. The careful attention this piece must have taken to compose is apparent. Along the same wall, but on the other side of the room, another particular piece that stands out in which hundreds of rustic, shimmering cicada wings were carefully pinned to an approximate four foot square wall space, save a three foot circular opening. This piece caught my attention initially because it it utilizes the basic element of design in shape, a circle within a square is immediately focusing to the viewer, it says “look right here!,” as by visual association with a target, street sign, check box, etc. But take a closer look and you begin to appreciate and experience the process the artist spent in the space, pinning each wing. 

Each piece in Mind the Hand deserves thoughtful examination. First appreciate the aesthetic value, and with more time the intentioned theme of labor and craft associated with teach work is impressive. The detailed pieces in this collection changed my perspective about installation art, and how is planned ahead. This collection feels like the pieces were inspired by the space itself, and even by each other.