What Could the Art Market Look like in 2021?

Mar 26, 2021

2020, it bears repeating, was a difficult year. The art market did not escape this difficulty. In fact, it was already poised for bad news at the end of 2019, but no one could have expected how bad it turned out.

But 2021 is a new year. And as we look out at the landscape, we might find some hopeful signs that we will be returning to galleries. We might see the return of art fairs and other arts and culture events that once were the highlights of our calendars.

While many of the changes to the art market in 2020 were temporary measures meant to weather the unique circumstances, it appears that many of these changes are not going away.

It should also be noted that not all of the changes in 2020 can be attributed to a single cause. 2019 saw a 5% drop in sales compared to 2018, double that for China — the third largest art and antiquities market.

Experts had low expectations for 2020, long before they ever heard of the novel coronavirus. Those expectations proved too buoyant, but in some ways, the extreme difficulty of the last year might have been the catalyst needed to change the art market in a positive direction.

As we browse through some of the possibilities for the art market in 2021, keep in mind that the future is not written in stone and that artists, art lovers, collectors, and gallerists will make the new art market together.

Look For More Virtual Auctions

Virtual auctions were not invented in 2020, but the radical increase in them over the year has had an effect that is here to stay.

Auction houses — especially the big names like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips — had a horrendous first half of 2020. Overall, their sales plummeted 49% in the first half of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

That is almost an entire half of their business gone. That’s with virtual auction sales increasing by 497%.

So what did they do? They pivoted.

The second half of the year was not so dire, almost entirely due to virtual auctions. When all was said and done, 2020 was a bad year for auction houses, but not as bad as it could have been.

As with many sectors of our life, virtual engagement helped alleviate the worst of things. But there are a few things about virtual art auctions that make them likely to stay around long after the pandemic.

The major benefit is access. Virtual art auctions allow people to attend events around the world, a major benefit as art auctions expand in new markets. 2020 also saw the art market continue to expand in Asian cities like Hong Kong. Virtual auctions allow these art collectors to join auctions in Europe and the Americas, and vice versa.

Also, the big auction houses showed that virtual auctions can be impressive events in their own right. In the summer, Sotheby’s hired a production company to create a stunning presentation. For their efforts, their summer virtual auction raked in $363 million — far surpassing expectations. That included a $84.6 million dollar winning bid for a Francis Bacon triptych, thanks to a bidding war between a bidder online and one on the phone. That’s the future.

More Collectibles and Hybrid Forms

Chalk it up to the Beanie Baby craze that ran through the childhoods of countless Millennials, but as a new generation of art collectors begins to buy, the prevalence of art that merges luxury goods and collectible formats will continue to explode.

Major names like KAWS and Murakami have shown that working with luxury fashion brands and other non-traditional art partnerships can be incredibly lucrative. Collaborations between hypebeast fashion brands have found a lot of success as of late, with younger artists having fewer perceived divisions between the so called “high” and “low” forms of fine art and streetwear, respectively.

That trend will continue and likely grow through 2021.

One way to tell is the uptake of the hypebeast form in traditional areas of the art market — a sign that this is not a passing fad but something many experts trust to have legs.

Expanding Online Art Experiences

We are seeing a convergence of widely available, powerful internet infrastructure with a group of artists ready to take advantage. Netart first found almost euphoric pronouncements of eminence in the 90’s, but those prophecies never quite came true.

But with the ongoing increase in internet speeds, virtual reality devices, 5G networks, and a new generation of netartists building reputations, all signs point to Go for netart.

Case in point, the term NFT (nonfungible tokens) become an overnight sensation! The digital art market is on fire and investors look to cash in! Shares in digital art market businesses have sky-rocketed and NFTs are bringing in the big bucks. Grimes sold her NFTs in a February auction for $5.8 million and Beeple’s digital artwork sold for a record $69 million at Christies.

But even traditional art is going more online. Many galleries and museums have experimented with augmented reality to enhance the experience of their collections, and 2020 saw many museums making virtual tours available — keeping a public hungry for experience sated on great art.

Environmental Themes

We will not go into the dire predictions for the environment over the next several decades. Needless to say, it’s a central concern for everybody. That includes artists and the art market in general.

While artists have already been working in environmental themes more and more over the 2010’s, it is now becoming a constant presence in the work of artists from every part of the globe.

That eco-focused streak is not stopping at the edge of the canvas, though. The art market itself is greening, based on buyer demands. Companies like ROKBOX are looking to address the enormous amount of waste in the art shipping process. And veganism is now en vogue at New York art openings.

Inclusivity Past, Present, and Future

As calls for increased inclusivity and more diverse artists continue, the art market is responding. 2021 will see the increased understanding of the role of oppressed identities in the history of art, leading to greater appreciation on the auction block and at the gallery.

But that’s the past. Expect greater prominence of diverse voices going forward, too. This long-needed recognition will have an even more pronounced effect in the long-term art market, as more children today see the art world as a place that might accept their perspective and reward their talents.

This is a transformation occurring in all parts of society, at different speeds and in different ways. When you see a trend across the board, with deep roots, you can expect it will continue and grow in 2021 and long after. And that is a hopeful note to end on.

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