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Art Market

Galleries Made More Connections with New and Young Collectors in 2020

At this time last year, gallerists were gearing up for a busy spring season with the usual string of major fairs in Los Angeles, Maastricht, New York, Hong Kong, Basel, and beyond. That familiar, globe-spanning circuit was financially and physically taxing, but for many dealers it was also essential for keeping their businesses afloat, supplementing sales made at their brick-and-mortar locations and online. Then COVID-19 hit, every fair was canceled or became virtual, and most galleries closed their doors for weeks, months, or in some cases permanently. According to the findings of a new Artsy report, many galleries have survived since the onset of the pandemic by relying on digital sales and outreach, connecting with new collectors while maintaining contact with existing clients, downsizing, and, in some cases, shuttering their physical spaces to go online only.
The “Artsy Gallery Insights: 2021” report compiles the experiences of more than 1,750 workers at galleries in 97 countries during this unprecedented year in the art market and the world. It shows which gradual trends picked up speed, and which art industry orthodoxies were upended.

Switching sales strategies

Predictably, online outreach was crucial for making sales in 2020, as digital storefronts replaced physical ones. Walk-ins to brick-and-mortar spaces and fair participation had been the second- and third-biggest contributors to sales for galleries, respectively, in 2019; last year, they were fourth and sixth. Galleries cited their own websites as the second-most important channels for making sales in 2020, followed by social media. Amid those shifts brought on by the pandemic, the most important sales channel remained consistent from 2019 to 2020: direct outreach to existing clients, which accounted for 28% of galleries’ total sales for the year.
Third-party online marketplaces like Artsy held steady from 2019 as the fifth-most important channel for sales in 2020, though the percentage of respondents who said they used an online marketplace dropped from 86% in 2019 to 75% last year. This may reflect a significantly larger survey pool (up from 1,008 respondents in 2019), but also the reality of many galleries launching their own bespoke online sales platforms amid the pandemic shutdown. More than one-third (34%) reported participating in an online viewing room, 31% took part in a virtual exhibition, and 30% hosted a virtual walkthrough or artist talk.
In addition to digital engagement, another key factor in galleries making sales in 2020 was price availability. Among galleries that reported not making a single sale in 2020, 65% said they never displayed prices for artworks. Many galleries did prioritize visible pricing in 2020, and the number of artworks with prices available overall ticked up year over year, from 63% to 69%. This may be partly due to the fact that many fairs strongly encouraged galleries participating in their online editions to publicly post prices or price ranges.

Shifting marketing priorities

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The mass cancellation of in-person art fairs last year resulted in a significant drop in galleries’ fair-related expenses and overall spending on outreach, though they were still dealers’ costliest marketing endeavors. Galleries reported a 10% drop in their overall marketing budgets, and a 31% drop in fair marketing budgets compared to 2019. Meanwhile, many galleries ramped up their digital marketing efforts: budgets for email marketing nearly doubled, surging 95%; galleries’ spending on marketing their activities on online marketplaces like Artsy increased by almost half (49%); and galleries’ budgets for promoting their own websites increased by almost one-third (32%).

Dealers and collectors connect online

The digital-forward marketing tactics galleries took in 2020 produced some significant results; foremost among them was increasing their reach to new collectors. Almost three-quarters of respondents (73%) said that at least half the collectors they interacted with online were new to their businesses. These trends echo the findings of art economist Clare McAndrew, whose report “The Art Market 2020” (published by UBS and Art Basel last March) found that dealers who sold works online in 2019 had made 57% of those sales to collectors they’d never worked with before.
Meanwhile, the number of young buyers doubled over the past year according to Artsy’s report: While only 2% of galleries reported that the average age of their buyers was between 18 and 34 in both previous editions of the report, in 2020 that figure jumped to 4%. That trend was paralleled by a drop in the number of galleries reporting that their average buyer’s age was over 55—that cohort went from 26% of galleries responding in 2019 to 22% in 2020. These numbers suggest that as the online art market grows, the number of young collectors—who are generally more comfortable transacting online—will continue to increase.

Gallery sector casualties

Despite gains in the number of new and younger collectors buying from galleries, 2020 was a difficult year for dealers. The share of galleries operating online only, with no brick-and-mortar location, increased from 15% of respondents in 2018 and 2019 to 35% in 2020. And 8% of galleries reported that they’d permanently closed. Regionally, permanent closures were most prevalent in Latin America, with 11% of respondents in the region reporting they’d shuttered permanently. Galleries in Latin America also reported the longest temporary closures due to COVID-19, averaging 26.7 weeks, or just over half the year.
Galleries that didn’t close completely still had to make very difficult decisions about budget allocation and staffing, and many opted to downsize. Consequently, mid-size galleries (defined for the purposes of the report as having two to four employees) went from accounting for 62% of survey respondents in 2019 to 44% in 2020. Meanwhile, the number of galleries with only one employee almost doubled year over year, from 22% of galleries in 2019 to 42% last year. The share of galleries with seven or more employees held relatively steady, shifting from 15% in 2019 to 14% in 2020.
The challenges of the past year didn’t only disproportionately affect smaller galleries, they also had an outsized impact on galleries with at least one owner or director who identified as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC). In all, 11% of BIPOC-owned or -directed galleries closed permanently last year, a closure rate significantly higher than the industry average of 8%, and a sad testament to the persistent forces of structural racism in the art market and society at large.
Benjamin Sutton is Artsy’s Lead Editor, Art Market and News.