How Millennials Are Changing the Art World

Aug 25, 2020

Millennials are doing things their own way. Their passage into adulthood has seen sweeping changes to the way business is done in so many fields, and art is no different.

This group is young, the oldest are only now pushing 40. Millennials are people born somewhere between 1980 and 1997 — give or take a few years, definitions vary. This is the first generation considered digital natives, meaning they grew up knowing about and using computers. Their childhood saw the rise of the internet, cellphones, and everything that came along with those innovations.

Understanding how millennials are changing the art world is crucial as the generation matures and becomes the main art buying segment, which could happen within the next decade.

What’s more, these changes are likely to last. Gen Z, who are born after the year 2000, are digital natives as well, and they will likely continue in the shoes of their millennial older siblings — with their own quirks, no doubt.

Small Budgets Make Big Changes

The first item on this list affects all the others. Millennials tend to have much smaller budgets for collecting, and there are many factors contributing to this. The most obvious cause of smaller budgets is age. Younger people tend to earn less, being at the beginning of their careers.

But as a generation, millennials also face much more dire economic opportunities than previous generations. Young people today came of age in a financial crisis and emerged from college with high debt burdens and poor job prospects. Of course, millennials might catch up with older generations in the future, but that is yet to be seen.

In the meantime, millennials are dealing with smaller budgets for buying art. Many collections are being started with pieces on the less expensive side — think $5,000 or less. As millennials gradually make up a larger share of total art purchases, this could create a great opportunity for artists working in that price range.

The Tastes of a Generation

Millennials tend toward buying newer pieces, and they’re much more adventurous. Traditional wisdom has always leaned toward collectors staying in a realm of expertise, cultivating a collection with an ever growing understanding of the style and medium they buy in.

Young collectors are not so cautious. They are more likely to switch up what they are buying, as long as it’s new. While lower budgets could explain some of the preference for contemporary art, tastes are also a factor.

Learning through Social Media

Like all things millennial, social media platforms are a major way young art buyers are learning about what they like, what others like, and what’s available in the first place. Social media allows art collectors to have direct contact with artists and fellow enthusiasts, filling their feed with new work all the time.

That changes the way millennials are feeling out the art market. Gone are the days of major institutions dictating trends. Similarly, social media is de-emphasizing the canon in favor of newer work.

Buying Art Online

As a generation, millennials are buying much more of their art online, as opposed to traditional channels like galleries and live auctions. These online purchases include direct purchases from artists themselves.

The downside of this trend is the hit to galleries. Gallery owners are no doubt saddened by this, but art communities are hurt as well — galleries often serve as cultural centers. But dealers are adapting with online art stores and sophisticated target marketing.

Direct online sales can benefit artists just starting out, if they are able to entice young collectors through online engagement. Their lower price tag often matches the millennial art buyer’s budget, and as newer artists are typically millennials themselves, they have an easier time servicing the tastes of their cohort.

Flipping Art for Quick Returns

Art serves many purposes. And a higher percentage of young collectors see art as an investment opportunity than older generations. When the Hiscox Art Report pollsters asked millennials what motivated them to buy art, return on investment was second only to emotional benefit.

This perspective changes the kinds of pieces and artists that millennial collectors are looking for, but it also means that they are much more likely to sell pieces in the near term. That quick turnover in a collection requires a lot of activity and reinvestment in art.

Identity Over Big Name Value

A major trend across the culture in the past decade has been a focus on identity, this is especially true for art. Millennials are seeking out specific voices — discovering talent with backgrounds that have tended to be dismissed by institutions in the past.

Artists of color and women artists are seeing increased success and a market more open to their contributions, largely thanks to millennial collectors. In fact, millennial collectors are more likely to be women and people of color themselves.

This trend has also seen an increased appreciation for work about the artist’s identity. Pieces that stimulate these kinds of discussions are much more likely to get the attention of a millennial collector.

The Takeaway

It is clear that millennials are changing art collecting, a change that will make its presence felt more with every passing year. Sure, some of these trends might reverse course. For instance, millennials might begin favoring more classic fare, if they start earning more and changing taste with age. Then again, maybe not.

What isn’t going to change is the importance of digital platforms for communicating with and selling to collectors.

Every generation has their own unique experiences and drives, their own economic reality. Millennials are no different in this regard. And as a group, they are driving the art world to new frontiers, whether artists and dealers are prepared or not.

Millennial Collectors: Understanding the New Generation of Auction Buyers

Courtney Christensen, Christopher Barnekow, Kathleen Guzman, Alasdair Nichol

Emerging Artists: A Popular Entry-Level Market for Buyers

Jacqueline Towers-Perkins, Annelien Bruins, Stephanie Manasseh

Demystifying Art Collecting

David Angelo, Devan Patel, Stephen Smart