Both of South Africa’s art capitals used to have an art season. February would herald the first frenzy of the year with the Investec Cape Town Art Fair (ICTAF) propelling a bevy of museum shows, a gallery week, and some bountiful auctions. Then everyone would presumably keep themselves amused until September, when the attention would shift to Joburg’s art scene. FNB Art Joburg — formerly the Joburg Art Fair — was the lynchpin of this art season, although in 2019 Latitudes, the new kid on the block, and Underline, a rough-around-the-edges fair for curators, diversified the art offerings at this time of year.
After all, Joburg needed to up its game as Cape Town’s February season was looking a bit meatier, with museums and art foundations and planes full of Italian collectors — flown in by Italian fair organiser Fiera Milano — giving it a truly international vibe. However, Covid-19 and the resultant social distancing has put our art seasons in a holding pattern. Art dealing, browsing, curating, and even conversations have all gravitated online, causing a digital acceleration of the art world that some say was overdue. Has everyone had the technological capability to make the transition, and how has this digitised turn impacted where, how, and what art we buy? Who has been left behind, and what will the art world look like when physical events resume?
At first, online art fairs appeared to present an immediate solution to the Covid-19 conundrum, despite the fact that art fairs’ popularity was thought to be linked to people looking for an escape from screens and enjoying the chance to view objects that could only be appreciated in person. More than a year later, online fatigue has set in. And since the vaccinated can attend events, some art fairs are going live again or adding small live events.
Fiera Milano, the producer of ICTAF, was initially adamant that it would not give in to the online art-fair trend, which Art Joburg, the Turbine Art Fair, and Latitudes had done. “Over the past five years or so we have worked really hard to create a personal approach to a physical fair,” says Sophie Lalonde, head of VIPs and partnerships at ICTAF. This may have served the ICTAF brand to some degree, as a number of virtual fairs have struggled with technological issues.
Art Joburg’s online edition in November 2020 was underwhelming, although the online programme was much more diverse in terms of both the number of galleries and the status of those that were able to participate. It broadened the new model, which had been very South African-centric in its 2019 iteration. A platform for curated solo features also widened the net in terms of the fair’s content, allowing for some discoveries. Unfortunately, some of the digital innovations — such as viewing artworks via a 3D augmented-reality tool — made for a strange encounter with the artworks that didn’t necessarily enhance them or encourage buyers.
“We only got one enquiry [from that fair],” says Ashleigh McLean, director of Whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town. This was highly disappointing, given that “the Joburg art fair was hands down usually our best in the year. Even compared to the other fairs in which we have participated, such as 1:54, we would always do well. I don’t think the lack of interest was to do with the quality of the artworks we offered,” she adds. There were also mixed results for other galleries participating in Art Joburg’s online platform. “Our 2020 online edition was our first foray into the online exhibition sphere at this scale. Overall, we aimed to connect collectors from all over the world to our gallerists on an easy-to-use platform. In this respect, the power of the internet can’t be denied: we saw online visitors from 50 different countries and over double the unique visitors compared to in-person fair attendance,” says Nicole Siegenthaler, manager at Art Joburg.
Whatiftheworld gallery has opted not to participate in the flurry of online fairs taking place not only in South Africa but also elsewhere in the world, with many European and US-based fairs having become virtual events. To generate sales during lockdowns, Whatiftheworld and other galleries have instead concentrated on online marketing. Revenue that would have been spent on art fairs have been redirected towards other, more established, online third-party portals such as Artsy. “Our sales on Artsy quadrupled. We weren’t making the same sales as we would at all the fairs, but we didn’t have the same crazy overheads either,” says McLean.
The team behind Latitudes has been keen to adapt to the market since the first fair in 2019, offering stands for those African galleries that depended on selling in Joburg but were excluded from the new, sleeker, and more elitist Art Joburg. In 2020 it made the brave move to transition from being an art fair to becoming an online third-party platform — much in the style of Artsy — catering for the local market. It also offers more services, from packaging and shipping to allowing independent artists to use the platform. “Live events have become secondary in terms of our focus. Doing an event has become so unpredictable in terms of restrictions that we are opting for smaller, more focused events,” says Roberta Coci, co-founder of Latitudes Online. In line with this approach, it will be staging a collaborative event with London-based gallery Doyle Wham in October, to link up with activities taking place around the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and Frieze London.
Coci and Lucy MacGarry (the other founder of Latitudes Online) do not envisage staging art fairs in future. They plan to launch a space where they can stage events in collaboration with the artists and galleries featured on their website. Despite its seemingly stubborn resistance to gravitating online, ICTAF will launch a virtual platform powered by Artshell (an art gallery app) in September that will be paired with miart, its “sister” art fair based in Milan. The organisers seem to view the online platform as a brand-building exercise rather than a replacement for a live fair. “We wanted to leverage Fiero Milano-owned fairs and the database of VIPs. In this way we can give more access to other galleries from outside South Africa and allow our galleries access to their VIPs,” says Lalonde.
In February, ICTAF will stage a physical art fair at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. “It is so needed to host another fair. We feel the pressure to do so. People are finding their way around the digital world and that is now part of the art world, but we really want to host a physical fair,” says Lalonde.
The Turbine Art Fair (TAF) will also be striking out with a live event in September, albeit a smaller rendition of its annual fair. Founded by The Forum, an events company, it is more accustomed to dealing with live quantities and more adept at catering to them — TAF is renowned for the quality of its catering and the live jazz offering. As such, its online fair last year paled in comparison, as it would, and was marred by technological glitches on the virtual opening night. Nevertheless, it had far more visitors online than at live events: 10 500 visitors in 2019, compared to over 21 000 at the online edition.
Yet, while some galleries enjoyed good sales, others didn’t, according to Glynis Hyslop, founder and director of TAF. “I am relieved that Turbine has survived. Artists can’t wait to get their art into the physical world. Art fairs are a lifeline for artists,” says Karel Nel, artist and senior curator at Norval Foundation.
The upcoming edition of TAF will be “smaller in scale; people can move through it safely with a one-way flow through the building. Book and come through — we will keep the focus on younger and unknown artists, independent artists who don’t fit the new demography,” Nel adds. Visitors to TAF will need to have been vaccinated, though there might be rapid testing available on site, according to Hyslop. TAF, like the ICTAF edition in February, will also have a virtual twin. It has designed a new website and will partner with Artsy.
The TAF and SculptX, a large outdoor sculpture festival staged at Melrose Arch, Sandton City and the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, organized by Melrose Gallery, might be the only major art events for Joburg this September. FNB Art Joburg will stage a hybrid event at the end of October. Paired with an online art fair will be a weekend full of art events staged in Joburg, dubbed Open City.
At the time of writing, FNB Art Joburg had not made any solid plans. “In place of a physical fair we will have another online fair, as well as a series of small physical activations in Joburg later in the year,” says Siegenthaler.
Art Fairs - For your calendar
Platform: Online portal
Dates: All year
Reasons to visit: Rediscover the country’s established mid-career artists
Investec Cape Town Art Fair
Dates: Online only, 15-19 September 2021; Hybrid, Cape Town International Convention Centre, 18-20 February 2022
Galleries: 33 (but likely to be more in February)
Reasons to visit: South Africa’s biggest fair; see art from Italy, France, Brazil, and other parts of Africa; strong international flavour
Turbine Art Fair
Dates: 29 September to 3 October 2021, 10 Fricker Road Illovo
Printing studios: 6
Reasons to visit:Good food and music, discover a new or overlooked artist
FNB Art Joburg
Platform:Hybrid - No dates yet
Reasons to visit:The best of the best of the South African art scene
While there are questions about the value and future of art fairs during Covid-19, the secondary market — auction houses — seems to be flourishing. The two most prominent art auction houses in South Africa, Strauss & Co and Aspire Art Auctions, were already conducting online sales before the pandemic, and thus were well positioned to transition to virtual art trading.
“It was quite seamless,” says Marelize van Zyl, senior art specialist at Aspire Art Auctions. “We had the platforms in place and the world was already moving away from print, so we were also distributing e-catalogues. Many clients preferred that because they could view the works on their phone.”
According to Alastair Meredith, senior art specialist at Strauss & Co, “The real silver lining of the pandemic in the past year was that it forced the majority over the hump of buying and bidding online. It was the only option and people could see how much fun it was. We won’t look back; I think a lot of people will continue to bid online.” Other auction houses selling art as well as furniture and antiques, such as Russell Kaplan, weren’t using online sales for lower-priced art, as had become the norm for online sales. The digital turn has proven to be a turning point for these smaller auction houses, and there has been a collective sigh of relief that higher-priced works, such as those by Irma Stern, are also finding buyers online. “People are ready to buy. Many of these pieces only come up once in a lifetime, so people move. The African art market is relatively undervalued, and there are still opportunities to be had. We’re seeing confidence in those artists who are familiar to people,” says Hannah O’Leary, director: African modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s, London.
Nevertheless, not having a live audience for an auction has proven to be an adjustment. “They tend to be big social events. Our auctioneer [director Ruarc Peffers] misses having an audience in front of him. It’s always good to read the room; you can see who is interested, zoom in on that client, and push the bid up,” says Van Zyl. For this reason (and because bidders and observers feed off the drama of a live auction), hybrid auctions with a livestreaming element depicting the auctioneer tend to generate higher revenues. More important or valued lots also tend to be placed in these kinds of sales. “The auction world has always been linked to glitz and glamour, and the excitement in a room. That is part of the magic of the auction. It is a blessing we can create it with a livestream,” says Susie Goodman, executive director at Strauss & Co.
The turn to online auctioneering also allows auction houses to experiment with different kinds of sales, such as ones dedicated to an artist. Strauss & Co held two such sales this year, focused on John Muafangejo (from the Orde Levinson collection) and JH Pierneef. The latter proved a white-glove sale — a sell-out. “Online sales have allowed us to be more nimble; we can put a sale together in a few weeks. This would not have been possible in the past. We still handle the works in the flesh, but we don’t have to hire a venue and the e-catalogue means we have more lead time,” says Meredith. In terms of contemporary works, from January 2020 to June 2021 works by Marlene Dumas — October 1973 and Score, both offered by Aspire — fetched the highest sums, at R7-million and R3-million respectively. In the same period, two Irma Stern paintings that went under the hammer at Strauss & Co saw the highest-priced sales for modern works. Her Still Life with Lilies (1947) fetched R14.7-million and Zanzibar Arab (1939) R11.3-million, both at a sale in May last year. In April this year Strauss’ highest-priced sales were a Pierneef (Baobabs, 1952) and an Anton van Wouw sculpture (Slegte Nuus, 1907), with both fetching over R5-million (including buyers’ premiums). The most recent talking point is the R4-million ($300 000) commanded by a work by Cinga Samson (Two Piece 1, 2018) at a Phillips auction in New York this June.
Given the ease with which auction houses have segued into the digital art-trading realm and the interest in contemporary works, both Strauss & Co and Aspire have offered more contemporary lots in the 2020/2021 sales. There has also been a marked increase in the number of works offered at auction that come straight from gallery storerooms and/or artist studios. In this way, some auction houses — Strauss & Co’s staff say they don’t ascribe to this, outside of charity sales — are functioning less as a secondary market for art and more as a primary one. “Before Covid, the primary and secondary markets were removed from each other, but they have been coming together. The gallery sector was hit hard because of the art fairs’ shutting down, and the auction houses have kept them trading,” says Van Zyl. Auction houses are thus almost becoming the new art fairs — until the latter once again become a space to discover art and connect with new buyers. For now, however, the action in both realms will have a strong digital aspect.
We have officially entered the era of “hybrid” art sales, which may mean that this summer you can “attend” an art fair or bid on an artwork while lying by the pool with a cocktail. Which is not an unattractive outcome.
Auctions - For your calendar
Live auction in Cape Town, 30 September 2021
Live auction in Johannesburg, 9 November 2021
Timed online auction, 7-14 December 2021
Strauss & Co
Impression/ Expression, 14 September 2021
Desmond and Leah Tutu Foundation Charity Auction, 22 September 2021
Live virtual, Cape Town, 11-12 October 2021
Live virtual, Johannesburg, 8-9 November 2021
Timed online auction, African modern & contemporary, 14-20 October 2021
Live, African modern & contemporary, 6 October 2021
Live, African modern & contemporary, 13 November 2021
Live, African modern & contemporary, 16 November 2021
• Mary Corrigall is an art journalist, consultant and researcher at Corrigall & Co.
• From the September edition of Wanted, 2021.