What Role Can Art Collectors Play In An Art World Adversely Impacted By COVID-19?

This article was originally published on CoBo Social on 5 June 2020. 

As the art world grapples with the socio-economic impact of global pandemic COVID-19 and preventive measures to deal with the virus, it is not surprising that the practice of art collecting has been affected.

According to Doug Woodham, Managing Partner of New York-based Art Fiduciary Advisors, “Right now, most collectors have more urgent matters to worry about than buying art. They’ve pressed the pause button and will likely re-engage with the art market only when there is less uncertainty about the depth of the economic downturn and the path to recovery. This is especially true for collectors who own businesses, are senior executives at companies facing financial distress, or whose family members have been stricken with the virus.”

Woodham pointed out that this response is not influenced in the least by “the valiant efforts of galleries and auction houses to digitally engage with their clients. For most collectors, seeing something in person—be it at an art fair, a gallery, or an auction preview—is an important and fun part of the buying experience. Without it, they are quite comfortable deferring what is an expensive and discretionary purchase.”

While this cautionary attitude may be shared by most art collectors today, a few are attempting to engage with the art world differently, whether by exploring their moral and ethical obligations, or by looking at the vulnerable art world participants prone to falling through the cracks in our art eco-system, laid bare by the global pandemic.

Speaking with CoBo Social, Benedicta Badia Nordenstahl, art collector and a member of the Guggenheim Museum’s Latin Circle Acquisitions Committee, said, “This has been too strong of a shake up to dismiss. It’s a wake-up call. The key example was the very awkward moment we faced when Art Basel Hong Kong had not yet announced its cancellation, and collectors had to decide whether they were going to the art fair or not.

“On one hand, we had to support the art world; but on the other, could we really be toasting amidst glitter and champagne while across the bridge massive numbers of people were dying? These are the questions about the ethics of our practice that will start coming up. Facing a world in economic meltdown, we will have to make decisions that we consider morally sound.”

For the characteristically outspoken and renowned Belgian art collector Alain Servais, his concern is that “after this pandemic, we will lose essential stakeholders of this art eco-system, whether artists, galleries, for-profit or non-profit institutions, collectors or critics and media. It is a fragile balance whose dysfunction could erase important parts of today’s creativity.”

Servais believes that, “collectors must actively play their role in the ecosystem: by acquiring art, if possible; by supporting the most fragile participants [in the art world]; but also by supporting institutions, and/or sharing their business knowledge and networks to help galleries and institutions adapt their practices to the new environment.”

Amongst these art collectors, there seems to be increased recognition of the emotional component of their practice and how it can better serve artists and the art world beyond buying and donating art, or financial funding and sponsorship.

Guggenheim Trustee and Hong Kong-based art collector Cindy Chua-Tay is convinced that it is imperative that art collectors be patrons on all levels: “It is about taking on an intimate, long term, and often tireless engagement. It is about nurturing artists, developing an institution from the beginning, then stewarding it on an ongoing basis and during crises such as this.”

“To be a patron, we have to be less self-serving, and focus more on the art itself. I fear many of us have a long way to go. But what better time than now to relook at this?” she added.

Nordenstahl shared that many galleries have expressed concerns to her about artists diminishing their production in the long run, and that this emphasised the emotional need for supporting art. “Why would they keep on producing if there is no demand? So there is an emotional component in the collector’s role: to let the artists know they have a purpose, that they are still needed, that they are relevant and significant. I think showing an interest in their works, [as well as] conversations, assurance, and validation, will be key to maintaining the creative flame,” she said.

It would definitely be worth seeing these nuanced and empathetic perspectives manifest in real and impactful ways during the pandemic and beyond. However, we cannot ignore the reality of an art world mired in self-serving oblivion and a penchant for the status quo, even among art collectors with the best of intentions.

During a recent live Zoom panel discussion titled “Collecting Art in Challenging Times,” held as part of Taipei Dangdai’s online programming and involving the aforementioned art collectors, the recognition of the adverse near- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on the art world did not seem to go beyond a certain depth. At least two art collectors talked about looking forward to gallery visits and travelling to see art again in the not-so-distant future, while only one consistently reiterated that the next two years would be difficult.

Woodham seemed to concur with the latter assessment in his analysis: “Even when the art world ‘reopens,’ many collectors are likely to remain cautious about re-engaging with the physical art world until COVID-19 testing and therapeutics are available. Those who are especially risk-averse may even delay going to an art fair, Broadway show, or restaurant until a vaccine is available, which may not be for another 18 months.”

The art world is clearly in for a long and difficult ride. It is not enough to wait for it to be over. It is not enough to question our best and worst practices. It is definitely not enough for patrons, who possess power and privilege, to worry about maintaining an acceptable equilibrium for old and recurring issues, or how they are perceived by other cultural stakeholders. Unprecedented times always call for unprecedented responses and actions. There quite possibly needs to be a fundamental reworking of the art world’s patronage practices, including collecting.

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