It was on the cards, but boy did that bubble burst!

Another event postponed

©La Bienalle di Venezia

The global Coronavirus pandemic continues to plague the world socially and economically. There is no foreseeable end in sight to how social engagement will again return to the normal we knew until the end of 2019. Art world happenings are by their very nature, sociable events, crowds milling seeing and being seen, fashions flamboyant to downright outrageous. Auction events are an opportunity for collectors to flaunt their wealth and social standing. Take this away, and the experience is somewhat deflated.

The proliferation of commercial art galleries and project spaces, artists’ studios open to the public for direct sales, more artists graduating year on year had almost lead to market saturation. Finding buyers has been one of the biggest challenges for galleries to maintain or increase sales. In search of extending the marketplace, galleries turned to global selling, art fairs being the primary platform to facilitate the exposure of gallery artists to more collectors, curators and museums. As the fair model proved to be more and more successful, so began the proliferation of fairs globally. In 2000 there were approximately 50 art fairs, by 2019 this number had mushroomed to over 300. Galleries were pressured to exhibit at more art fairs to increase (or at least maintain) their exposure to the market, in recent years many attending 4 to 8 shows per year. The costs of participation had become increasingly expensive, placing financial strain on smaller galleries: booth rental, travel, staff, shipping of artworks and more. Collectors had to traverse the globe to keep up with the fairs in search of the next “big” thing, the next important acquisition. Add to that the various openings, exhibitions, auctions and biennales to attend and the artworld was starting to experience what has become referred to as “art fatigue”. Too much too often – and then there’s the issue of the carbon footprint relating to the flights involved.

So art fairs and galleries were already starting to feel the pinch, there were casualties amongst all. The writing was on the wall – the model was unsustainable. The hint of another world recession had governments and corporates reducing or withdrawing financial support and sponsorship of certain art events. The art world had already begun to feel the financial strain.

But wow, who could ever have predicted that 2020 would overnight see the art world be pushed into crisis! The imposing of absolute lockdown for citizens of many countries, of social distancing and the prohibition of large gatherings, has lead to dire consequences. The consequences range from the closing of the most prestigious galleries and businesses to the smallest ones on the block. The most affected due to this pandemic is the artists themselves. Not being able to sell art means that many have lost their only source of income.

In the past two months, we’ve had news of the cancellation of so many art exhibitions, art fairs and biennales. Art fairs like Frieze, the Armoury Show, Paris Photo NY, 1-54 have moved online. We wait to see if this will be a successful alternative for the exhibitors. The Paris Biennale (an art fair) has been postponed until 2021, and Art Basel is also likely to be delayed – as are most fairs scheduled for the rest of the year. The Venice Biennale has been moved to 2022, Casablanca Biennale to next year, the French government’s Africa Seasons 2020 will not take place as scheduled. We wait to hear about many of the other events that we were so looking forward to attending.

The advent of this is that everyone has turned to the internet to maintain contact with their respective audiences. We are now inundated with emails – invitations to online talks, artist walkabouts, virtual exhibitions, online sales and auctions. We’re again beginning to experience “art fatigue”.

But, they say that necessity is the mother of invention and the art world is undoubtedly nothing but innovative. Hopefully, soon we’ll be able to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again.”

We stand in solidarity with all, stay safe, maintain social distance and be strong.

Suzette Bell-Roberts is co-founder of ART AFRICA magazine.