Galleries coping with COVID-19

Written by: Fiona Gruber
Along with the rest of the world, those in the art market aren’t going to forget 2020 in a hurry.
In July, the Australian and New Zealand Art Sales Digest reported that art auction sales were the slowest in 22 years with $25 million of sales, roughly half the gross sales reported twelve months earlier.
In commercial galleries around the country sales are also depressed and in the case of remote Indigenous art centres, the lack of tourism has been a major blow.
But there’s also plenty of evidence of market resilience, even buoyancy.
Melbourne’s galleries may have done it toughest, but even here, life, and sales, go on.
A look at websites and a phone around to half a dozen businesses elicits similar responses; all have beefed up their on-line content, with a variety of offerings; on-line sales, obviously; virtual tours in many cases and a greater engagement via newsletters and podcasts.
Stuart Purves says that on-line sales have been good, especially for smaller works, and fifty percent of clients are new.
He is director of one of Melbourne’s oldest art sellers, Australian Galleries, and describes the last few months as “like breathing through a snorkel”.
Purves and his team are in the lucky position of also having a gallery in Sydney’s Paddington. This can accommodate 42 visitors at a time, a number he describes as satisfactory, but the mother ship is in Collingwood and that is where he is based.
When given a choice, clients prefer to visit, as was demonstrated during Victoria’s brief window of reopening, in late May and June.
“When we could go back, the Internet dropped off but then jumped up again during the second lockdown,” he says; “people have more time to look at exhibitions on line. There’s a big interest in etchings and lithography, especially from new clients”.
It’s part of a hunger for consolation and beauty in a time of uncertainty, he adds. “People miss culture; they’ve probably been reading poetry too. The soul needs feeding.”
It’s a sentiment that Vivien Anderson agrees with. Her eponymous gallery in St Kilda specialises in contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art.
“I think people have got time to really consume rather than just take a quick glance,” she says. It’s given the gallery a chance to expand online stories and give even more information about the culture, lives and environments of its artists.
The gallery closed its doors in March and she says the combination of an understanding landlord and a lean business model have kept them going.
Their virtual tours allow visitors to see the work, she says, though subtleties are missed.
The exhibition “Gudultja – Maternal Oceans” features works by Marrakulu artist Dhambit from eastern Arnhem Land; the work is notable for its use of glittering black sand, a medium of great cultural significance to the artist but not one easily picked up on video.
It’s a beautiful show, says Anderson and because it went up in the middle of lockdown, it will stay up for longer than originally planned.
If the easing of restrictions follow the Victorian government timetable set in August, commercial galleries should be reopening in October. “At least we can give [the show] a closing, as it was robbed of an opening,” she comments.
While most gallerists have similar observations about running galleries during COVID 19, there aren’t any obvious sales trends.
‘I’ve sold works I’ve had on the books for years,” says Charles Nodrum, who established his Melbourne gallery in 1984. He credits better search engines and clients having more time to browse. Sales have been reasonable he says, including a couple of overseas purchasers of major works.
“If people are earning then they’re accumulating funds as they can’t spend money on travel,” he says, “so that money can be put into something else, like art.” But nothing beats the physical experience of looking at paintings, he adds, whether buying or selling.
“You have no assurance that people are seeing the same thing on different screens,” he points out, you’ve got to be able to move around a picture; distance and angle are very important”.
In less affected parts of the country, the story is more cheerful. Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley had a brief lockdown period but have been able to operate as normal for most of the past six months.
The gallery stock of 19th and 20th century artists includes the estates of several internationally renowned artists such as Margaret Olley, Fred Williams and Jeffrey Smart. Bacon says that his clients are acting on their impulses. “We’re selling good things very easily,” he says, but there has been a decrease in being offered works. The main change to his business model has been the suspension of opening drinks. People like to congregate, he says and the hardest part is that interstate artists can’t travel to see their works up on the walls and appreciated by real people in a physical setting. “It’s very sad as you’re talking two or three years work,” says Bacon. “The art world is a very social place.”