The uncertainties of the past few years, including the pandemic-triggered economic downturn, have exposed the precariousness of various art institutions.
Much of this — especially for those dependent on membership numbers, traffic, and ticket sales — has been magnified by major layoffs and furloughs at legacy institutions such as the Guggenheim in New York and Tate Modern in London.
In South Africa, already struggling art and heritage institutions that rely on the tourism industry, including Museum Africa and the Apartheid Museum, struggled to keep their doors open amid restrictive Covid-19 regulations. As physical spaces for art and recreation re-open, many are still on the road to recovery, while other sectors within the arts have had a quicker recovery time. According to Art Basel and UBS’s The Art Market 2022 report, the global market “plummeted in 2020 but successfully recovered in 2021, with aggregate sales of art and antiques by dealers and auction houses reaching an estimated US$65.1 billion, up by 29% from 2020, with values also surpassing pre-pandemic levels of 2019”.
With some lessons from the past and optimism for the future, we analyse the local landscape for buyers, sellers, and appreciators alike.
During the past (almost) three years of the pandemic, the digital space has offered endless opportunities for the art world to prove itself adaptive to the moment. Latitudes Art Fair, for example, launched in Joburg in 2019 but quickly transformed into Latitudes Online, a platform dedicated to contemporary African art.
“As lockdown happened, there was a lot of experimentation with ways to give people the experience of viewing art as they would in the real world. But our collectors have grown tired of these things. We’ve found that just viewing the art online, quite simply, and sharing a good old PDF is preferable for the serious collector,” says co-founder and director Lucy MacGarry.
The past few years have also seen the unprecedented rise and recent decline of crypto art and NFTs. During the pandemic, most artists struggled with inconsistent funding and income generation. NTFs allow them to sell their work directly without needing a gallery or dealer to act as a broker — and benefit from future resales.
Earlier this year, we witnessed Africa’s biggest NFT art auction in a collaboration between Studio Nxumalo Contemporary and Invictus NFT Lab, which featured 118 unique works by artists from across Southern Africa, including studio co-founder and photographer Musa Nxumalo. However, the future of NFTs is uncertain, with the most recent crash in the crypto market pointing to a downward trajectory in their value.
Galleries, auction houses and spaces for collaboration
Founded by Banele Khoza, BKhz is one of the galleries that successfully managed to digitise exhibitions, sustaining audience interaction during the first year of the pandemic by providing 3D tours of all its shows. The gallery also monetised sales digitally through its social-media platforms and relationship with Artsy, an online art marketplace. However, when lockdown restrictions relaxed, it became apparent that people still preferred to interact physically with the gallery and its curatorial vision. This was evident in the recent success of Zandile Tshabalala’s “Lovers in a Secret Place”, which saw a huge turnout, with attendees queuing to experience Tshabalala’s lush installation in person.
We are also seeing more people who are pursuing creative goalsKwanele Kunene, curator and logistics manager at BKhz
Dale Sargent, owner of the Dale Sargent Fine Art gallery and ArtVault.co.za, which digitally archives South African art-auction results, describes a market strengthened by new collectors and buyers. “Looking at our results, you can see that people adapted quickly to online auctions. It also opened up the market completely — it was no longer just a South African buying market but also a vast international market made up of both expats and international collectors looking to include South African artworks in their collections,” Sargent explains.
Auction house Strauss & Co has noted a marked growth in buyers interested in the investment potential of African art, which represents excellent value for money. Its pivot to online continues to facilitate the bidding process for buyers across the globe. A targeted marketing campaign and its wide geographical reach have led to an increase in its number of international buyers, while its sponsorship of the African Art in Venice Forum at the past two Venice biennales has also attracted attention. We are also seeing collaborative efforts by different players and institutions to pull in larger audiences and increase artists’ visibility. Studio Nxumalo Contemporary, for example, has collaborated with Hallmark House Hotel, Aspire Art auction house, Gallery 2, and Art Joburg on several exhibitions.
“Until now, Studio Nxumalo has operated without a fixed space, allowing us entry into the fine arts industry without the need for major commitments such as leasing premises and employing a team. This freedom and flexibility have afforded us the opportunity to invest exclusively in our real passion — the artists,” says Nxumalo.
The return of art fairs
After years of experiencing fairs in hybrid forms — online viewing rooms, digital walkabouts, zoom panels, etc — digital fatigue has affected audience reach, making the return of top fairs in Cape Town and Joburg a welcome experience. Before the pandemic, the Turbine Art Fair had ended its years-long residency at the Turbine Hall in inner-city Joburg, gone hybrid, and finally settled in a new location in Rosebank. Having hosted a successful digital version, it saw a significantly larger audience this year. Commenting on the difference between its digital and physical iterations, fair director Glynis Hyslop notes that the novelty of online buying cannot be compared to experiencing the work physically. “It is sometimes difficult to understand the scale of the work online, and the colouration… There is nothing more exciting than seeing a work in real life.”
FNB Art Joburg, Africa’s leading and longestrunning contemporary art fair, adapted to the changing times by working on auxiliary projects such as Open City, BMW Young Collectors’ Co, and gallery LAB, which director Mandla Sibeko describes as its continuation of centralising “African ideals”. Open City was a collaboration with galleries across the city, where patrons could enjoy food, art, and the general Joburg vibe. This year, the fair was back after a two-year hiatus at the Sandton Convention Centre.
“When I acquired the fair from its previous owners in 2019, rebranding it to FNB Art Joburg, it was an opportunity for a 100% Black-owned venture to host a world-class fair. With that came the responsibility to uphold a standard that reflects the quality of artists that we have on the continent and in the diaspora. FNB Art Joburg’s mandate is to sustainably support and grow the continent’s cultural offering in ways that go beyond the fair.”
Audiences and their appetites
One of the most interesting exercises in the postpandemic context is thinking through who audiences are and what they want to buy. Curator and logistics manager at BKhz Kwanele Kunene notes that its audience, much like its artists, is primarily young people. “BKhz is an artist-led space. This approach also spills over to how we engage with our wider audience. Our space is consciously personable, and I think the comfort allows people to keep wanting to interact with the gallery and all that it offers."
Kunene adds: “We are also seeing more people who are pursuing creative goals. We’re in an age of creativity and people are looking to be in spaces and around people that mirror the reality of their desires, and who they are.” This audience — both buyers and non-buyers — is mostly interested in figurative work: “I think there is a great desire to experience Black figurative works in their many contexts.”
We have seen a distinct drop in the average age of our buyers across all our auctionsBina Genovese, Strauss & Co’s joint managing director
Strauss & Co’s joint managing director Bina Genovese describes its clients as versatile, curious, loyal, tech savvy, diverse, informed, and adaptive. “Our database has risen exponentially and now includes far more international clients. Younger, tech-savvy prospective collectors, who may hitherto have been intimidated by the auction process, embraced this way of participating in an auction, as did our regular clients. We have seen a distinct drop in the average age of our buyers across all our auctions, with budding young collectors entering the market.”
The most popular artists continue to be stalwarts such as Irma Stern, JH Pierneef, and William Kentridge, with a 100% sell-through rate, while African modernist and contemporary artworks are also in high demand, with the added interest of contextualising contemporary artists against their modernist forebears. Most of Latitudes Online’s customers are based in South Africa, followed by the United States, Israel, and Germany. From its online sales, the biggest trend seems to be a huge upsurge in figurative work by contemporary African artists.