The Art of Change

We speak to London art dealer Joe Balfour about a strange, encouraging and typically innovative year in art.

Joe Balfour is a London art dealer and Sales Director at the Marlborough Gallery. The gallery operates a programme of exhibitions of work by contemporary artists, as well as dealing in secondary market masterpieces from private viewing rooms in the heart of Mayfair.

2020 was a year like no other. For an art market accustomed to constant international travel and events, we have seen abrupt change. Art fairs have been cancelled and museums and galleries closed. In response, the already audible clamour to move online became a chorus, with an abundance of Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) and other more adventurous developments, such as Virtual Reality walk-throughs of exhibitions. This digital revolution wasn’t new to the art world, but its impact on how we work, communicate and engage has certainly accelerated, with online sales as a portion of total revenue going from 9% to 25%. For a market worth an estimated $50 billion in 2020 (down on previous years but still showing impressive resilience) this is not an insignificant amount. It’s also interesting to see that confidence in spending more money online has increased, with the biggest growth vs 2019 being in artworks valued at over $10m.

On the ground, with the cycle of lockdowns and working remotely, it has been challenging for the gallery to plan exhibitions and arrange viewings. However, there has still been a great appetite for acquiring art. Perhaps, people having more time at home has played its part? For some, it is about finding new artworks to live with. For seasoned collectors, it might be having the time to identify and look for the ‘missing parts’ of collections, while we are also seeing those seeking what can be very attractive investment opportunities, in an otherwise uncertain financial climate.

Whilst we have missed the personal contact, we have found new ways to connect with video calls and virtual walkthroughs playing an important part.

Looking ahead

I am, understandably, often asked how I see the market in 2021 and beyond. Foremost, I think there’s going to be a newfound appetite and appreciation for seeing artworks and exhibitions in real life. The digital platforms are here to stay, but I don’t think they will ever be a complete replacement for the real thing. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is not to take anything for granted. Collecting art can be one of the most rewarding processes for discovery and investment and genuinely offers buyers a chance to make their mark on the world. I cannot think of a better excuse to travel the world and discover wonderful paintings, sculpture, and more, making our lives richer, sometimes in wonderfully surprising ways. The art world has been busy behind the scenes during the pandemic and you can expect a flurry of activity through exhibitions and art fairs. I can only suggest we all get out there and enjoy what’s on offer wherever and whenever we can. I’m sure I can speak for the rest of the art world when I say, we’ll be very pleased to see you.

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