HANG UPS: ART’S SHIFTING ECOSYSTEM
After months padlocked with gritted teeth, galleries and museums have reopened. I raise my tin cup of whisky and drink a toast. While some dealerships have sadly closed – a second solemn toast to SMITH, a dealership I adore – most, large and small, have found the wherewithal to reboot. As Brett Bellairs of 131 A Gallery reminds us, ‘there is still room for the tangible once this dreadful pandemic decides to recede to the bat cave from whence it came. There is no substitute for the “real thing”. Imagine trying to view an Anton Karstel impasto on a screen … probably 80% of our collectors who have purchased online have still wanted to come into the gallery to view the work or exhibition in its entirety before they “push the button”’. That said, virtual reality has had a knock-on effect, ‘people now tend to browse online and arrive at the gallery more informed and with more purpose than before’, says Charl Bezuidenhout of Worldart. ‘This means a more sophisticated and practical online presence’.
In an interview with Malibongwe Tyilo the director of the Stevenson Gallery, Joost Bosland, notes that digital platforms have ‘opened up a new way of working … Now we have curators and collectors from around the world attending these virtual gallery events. I think we all feel a bit silly that we didn’t think of doing stuff like this more often before’. On the 26th of March, a day prior to lockdown, Stevenson hosted its first totally online show of works by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, the die was cast, the digital interface from a business perspective here to stay. However, while buoyed by the success of online sales, rebates provided to brick and mortar dealerships, monies saved by the shutdown of global art fairs, Bosland remains well-aware that a virtual art economy has profound limits. ‘When you’re reading a book online, you lose a lot less by transitioning to digital. But when it comes to art you lose more. Art is about scale, it’s about surface, it’s about texture. One loses that encounter online’, which is why, for Bosland, a digital platform, while financially viable and in the foreseeable future inevitable, is ‘just a temporary placeholder; a band aid’.
Like Bellairs and Bezuidenhout, Bosland is convinced that galleries won’t disappear, physical presence and tangibility is vital. True, but one cannot discount the fact that social media has irrevocably shifted the terms of engagement. Through their office in Cologne, Linda Pyke and Frank Schonau of THK Gallery have operated internationally while in lockdown. They will be participating in Paris Photo later this here. However, like everyone else, they are well aware that art fairs will not possess their familiar frisson, those ‘one-on-one … meaningful art discussions’. Distance can cripple. Though, as Marc Stanes points out, Ebony Curated sold ‘at least 70% of their booth’ at 1:54’s New York online show. As for their three premises, they remain open by appointment, and, reassuringly, they have managed to hold onto all their staff. ‘Online sales have been very good, and we have noticed a considerable upswing in inquiries as each month goes by – from both local and international buyers. Physical gallery visits ‘will be very slow until the end of the year when hopefully borders reopen’. February 2020, for Stanes, is the magical date when the potential for normalcy returns. That said, Stanes reassuringly adds that ‘if the past five months has taught us anything it’s to be nimble and to expect the unexpected!’
For Lucy MacGarry, director of Latitudes, the Johannesburg based art fair initiated in 2019, online conversation and exchange is not as vicarious or limiting. ‘Over the past few months, we have certainly become more accustomed to looking at work online, and I now believe that the experience can be just as powerful as on the wall of a gallery or museum. Online viewing allows for greater dialogue, which in turn has the power to change perceptions around a seemingly inaccessible industry. Perceptions around access need to be dismantled in order to encourage new and emerging collectors. For artists, online platforms can offer increased opportunities for exposure’. Banking, as we all do, on a full recovery of the market, MacGarry nevertheless remains convinced that ‘online buying behaviour – from affordable to blue-chip – will have been positively impacted’.
MacGarry holds fast to the democratic and inclusive power of digitisation. So does Layla Leiman with whom she spoke. Leiman quotes Daudi Karungi, director of the Afriart Gallery in Kampala: ‘The pandemic has brought about some kind of democratisation in the art world. For once the only place to see art is online; and everyone has access. There has truly been a shift and we might be seeing new gatekeepers in the art world’. Karungi’s view, seen from a relatively isolated and marginal perspective – notwithstanding the increasing interest worldwide in contemporary art from Africa – makes sense. How else can artists reach a wider audience other than through a virtual realm? Then again, what of digital fatigue? Are online platforms truly productive? Economic indicators suggest the affirmative. The Latitudes Online website, launched in August, has a ‘good-news story’ to tell. Cinthia Binene Sifa, who marketed her work solely on the site, sold out. However, to what extent is it the platform which played its part, to what extent the work by a black African woman, the holy grail of contemporary taste?
As Lindsey Raymond of WHATIFTHEWORLD informs me, the physicality of being at an actual opening still matters greatly. ‘We’re thrilled to be re-opening’, she says, and was ‘pleasantly surprised by the amount of people coming to see Athi-Patra Ruga’s exhibition, Interior/Exterior, at WHATIFTHEWORLD. We have even extended its run until the 9th of September. Visitors who have re-engaged with art, at least physically, seem to be even more in awe and excitable being in Ruga’s immersive installations. This was exactly what the show was intended for – to give joy, particularly to Ruga’s community. His works are created with a tactile and spatial experience in mind, so a digital interface just maybe isn’t enough. Recently, however, a visitor took a loved one on a walkabout through the gallery via video chat, sharing their thoughts on every work. It was heart-warming to see, and we’re excited for the future of art engagement’. Raymond succinctly expresses the inextricability of the physical and virtual. We now live between these worlds, cannot live at the expense of one or the other. The title of Ruga’s show, Interior/Exterior, encapsulates the rub. Doubtless, those who attended Ruga’s show were ‘excitable’, who wouldn’t be after months locked away? But it is not only the exquisitely mortal pleasure of hanging out, being amongst others, that Raymond reminds us, but the exquisite pleasure experienced when in the midst of a creative world. Her excitement is shared by all. But the question remains, are the pleasures art galleries afford the same as ever? Is something crucially changing? Because what Raymond reminds us of is not the economic viability of dealerships, but their vital role in generating culture, altering vision and value, re-making the worlds in which we live.
For his September show at Deepest Darkest, Deon Redman chose to affirm tactility as his governing theme. Titled ‘Close’, his showing of works by the graphite artist, Talut Kareem-Black, the sculptor, Rossouw van der Walt, and photographer, Johannes Wewetzer, focuses not on the ‘solace, isolation, introspection’ which a lockdown compelled, but a more probing examination of the ‘physical and psychological disconnect’ we are all experiencing, and the need, because of a psychic disconnect, to re-examine the importance of closeness, proximity – immediacy. Redman’s curatorial decision suggests that galleries are not only adjusting their business models but rethinking content – what art means, how it works, and why. Given a global revisionism, the need to speak on behalf of silenced groups, integrate black and woman artists into the fold, has meant that established alliances and tastes have had to change. South Africa does not wholly suffer from this exclusionary culture – comparative to the West that is – however, it too has been profoundly shaped by Western – read white male – canonical values. South African galleries are by no means exempt. Much remains to be reconceived, not only to accommodate a profound shift in reception but perception. Optics matter, all the more so now. That said, supposing inclusivity as the defining new MO is also limiting. Statement art is treacherous at best. While art increasingly absorbs cultural difference and inequality – racial, cultural, sexual – it nevertheless requires that one maintain a ‘double consciousness’, a recognition of misogyny, racism, classism, but also a capacity to express formally and aesthetically lived conditions which are irreducible to these very real but overdetermined categories. Redman’s show, ‘Close’, both incorporates and ventures beyond this limit.
SMAC’s Cape Town and Stellenbosch dealerships have been welcoming visitors by appointment since June, associate director Shona van der Merwe informs me. In response to art fair cancellations, SMAC has created ‘Artists Rooms’ which provide a platform to show work without ‘the pressure of a big solo exhibition’. These change every four weeks. ‘It means a lot of extra logistics and engagement’, but then ‘the SMAC team has never shied away from a challenge’. Clearly, normality hasn’t returned, and neither has a new-normal taken its place. Uncertainty is rife, some galleries in Cape Town remain shuttered. And as Jonathan Garnham, the director of blank projects remarked when probed, ‘I’m too depressed to think’. He is by no means alone in this regard. The lockdown has taken its toll not only economically but psychologically. We are all suffering from varying degrees of anxiety. While Bellairs would like to send COVID back to the ‘bat cave’ from whence it came, nothing of the sort is likely in the foreseeable future. Garnham’s depression is commonplace, and thoroughly understandable. Redman sums up our woeful state as one caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’. ‘We’ve thrown the rock – populating our social media platforms more densely … moving into other online platforms…. While there are eager reports of a robust market thriving despite the pandemic, I’m not sure how much of this extended beyond savvy buyers…. I don’t believe virtual realms to be nearly as effective. Sure, there are increasingly clever ways to employ evolving virtual avenues, but by their very nature, they do have certain limitations’ which, we can all agree, ‘do not adequately transcend the physical, lacking texture, presence’.
As for the ‘hard place – navigating the need for physical engagement with the work while prioritising safety’? It’s a bummer. ‘We’ve always enjoyed lively, well attended openings at Deepest Darkest’, says Redman. ‘It’s key to the inclusionary culture we cultivate here – the gallery not as incubator, but rather a space encouraging casual yet active engagement’. I can vouch for its inclusive convivial energy, its progressive culture and ability to straddle the austerity of the white cube and the greater world. ‘We’re re-focusing on a combination of collectors’ previews, and extended hours for openings to limit the amount of masked and sanitised visitors to the space … a more focused one-on-one with the artist and curator. We’re definitely encouraged by the challenge of recreating the experience of an opening’, with the added bonus of ‘separating those there for the free prosecco from those invested in the experience of the work’.
Caught between incubator and living organism – the former tending to dominate in the art world – the challenge is one which Deepest Darkest will assume with aplomb. However, all dealerships will have to redefine what they are and do. While dedicated collectors – the monied – have barely skipped a beat, banking on artists who have retained their currency, others who have leapt to the forefront in answer to an urgent global readjustment in taste and value, what has radically changed is the zeitgeist and culture upon which art has relied, its openness, worldliness, edginess. Sobriety now reigns, and along with it the creepy sanctimony, inherited from the Church. As Sarah Thornton, author of Seven days in the art world, remarked, art is a ‘religion for atheists’, dealerships metropolitan chapels. We visit to find succour, reassurance, adventure, innovation, delight, shock, surprise.
‘The art ecosystem is complex’, Kirsty Cockerill notes in an essay penned for Maverick Life. ‘The ecosystem, from a market perspective, when looked at superficially, can appear like a Ponzi scheme. It is, however, one of the most sophisticated thermostats a democratic society has at its disposal … Both the makers and the buyer have to be sustained, fulfilled, and facilitated to keep the ecosystem going for society as a whole to enjoy the benefits’. What concerns her most is the livelihood of minor and mid-career artists who require the support of galleries. SMAC’s ‘Artists Rooms’ provides an answer. We, particularly those who sustain art’s ecosystem, need the human encounter. After Redman, we need to be ‘close’. Which is why the delight and thrill Raymond expresses on seeing the popularity of Ruga’s opening is important. ‘At this juncture, galleries have been forced to make pragmatic decisions around which artworks translate better on-screen and who is already an established market darling’, Cockerill resumes. ‘Enticing online buying audiences and soothing their confidence is a short-term necessity. Not, however, a sustainable solution, even in the midterm, as it comes with a debilitating toll on the visual arts sector ecosystem, and its future sustainability … The critically engaged feedback from viewers, critics, curators, and peers allows the artist the opportunity to master their storytelling … Seeing individual works on a screen gives you a badly translated paragraph. A tweet as opposed to a book. A brand as opposed to a tool for inquiry’.
While I share Cockerill’s belief in authenticity, her recognition that ‘artworks lose their resonance when seen on screen – they become flat, literally’, and while I agree that a screen encounter lacks an absorptive and immersive power, ‘so safe it is dangerous’, one cannot discount its market dominance. Joost Bosland was right when he noted that the art world was slow on the digital uptake. Besides, how many of us truly have the privilege of seeing great art in the flesh? Exclusionary and divisive from the start, sequestered within its white walled citadels, art, alas, was never truly inclusive. Right now, we are confronted by many reckonings, the obvious being survival and sustainability. Cockerill makes a very real point: ‘Collectors do age and die and a younger generation of buyers have to be prepped to take on the mantle’. That generation is the inheritor of digitisation, for them an online realm is familiar terrain.
In sum, after Redman, we find ourselves caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’. While the outcome of a COVID fallout is unclear, what is I think indisputable is the fact that art will have to straddle worlds real and imagined, actual and virtual. That democracy, tragically, is under threat worldwide, means that the closeness and connection we need is also in profound danger. And yet, despite the compromises with which we are all afflicted, despite the ‘solace, isolation, introspection’ which we are forced to endure, I think that the dread and hope we feel will allow for new, more generatively enabling possibilities. We are already living within this possibility, as Raymond and Redman will agree.
The case of auction houses, key engine rooms of the art ecosystem, is intriguing. The extent to which they too rely on face to face human encounter not commonly considered, given the prevailing stereotype of the auction room as a silent theatre of hand gestures and secretive financial transactions. However, as Bina Genovese of Strauss & Co reminds us, auction houses are ‘dynamic and animated’. ‘In the heat of level 5 lockdown, Strauss & Co adopted a hybrid model … streamed live, with auctioneers “passing the gavel” from empty physical salesrooms in Cape Town and Johannesburg bringing the auction room into the sitting room with bidders all over the world, at times over 1000’. For Genovese, this merger of the digital and actual is here to stay. The digital interface is ‘a refinement rather than a reimaging of traditional live sales’. However, as an auctioneer, Genovese misses ‘the unique atmosphere of a live auction room, the excitement, the theatre, the energy, the gasps, the claps … It’s quite a shift from an animated saleroom to stare at a screen for hours on end watching bids pop up, no eye contact, no face to face human engagement … Behind that black screen are people, passionate and committed collectors after an artwork that they desire and will bid for, often at all costs’. Nothing can deny the thrill of the chase experienced by buyers, or, as a friend recounted, the search for new works to auction, long lost to memory, discovered in some unlikely and remote attic. Rereading A.S. Byatt’s novel, Possession, during lockdown, compellingly reminded me of the pleasurable intrigue the art world irresistibly affords, its chilling covetousness, but also its grace and nobility.
Art is a romance, with all the arcs and dips, agony and ecstasy, the word implies. It’s a love affair, and not only a changing business model. While Genovese justly enjoys the auction houses’ theatre of gasps and claps, I must confess that I have always enjoyed the silence and solitude an art gallery affords. For someone who lives on the smell of an oil rag, it has never been about collecting art. Will people like myself become less and less relevant? I don’t think so. Given that too little art ends up in the public domain – our national museums don’t have the money – its always a pleasure to be able to track a gift in person. Now that our galleries are reopening, this pleasure, which feels positively Neolithic, is returning too. Along with the artworks – those too long mothballed, those inspired by a seismic global shift in taste and value – it’s time to hang out, while hanging in there.