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Art market

What sort of art will we want after the pandemic ends?

Performance out, domestically-sized painting in

Illustration: © Katherine Hardy

“Excessive, show-off luxury will go through a tough time and luxury will become much more casual.” So wrote the Financial Times in a recent supplement—not about art, but about watches. And yet these words could well apply to the art that people will want to see, buy and display after the Covid-19 crisis finally recedes or is defeated.

One (artistic) victim of these times is sure to be performance art, indeed as its high priestess Marina Abramovic told The Art Newspaper's Week in Art podcast: “Performance is not possible in this period of time, it needs direct contact with the audience; the performer and audiences complete the work, and with social distancing we can’t do that.”

So even if you buy the right to perform a piece, there will not be much point in having it, at least for now. Indeed, my sense is that any non-traditional art form will suffer: history tells us that after a massive shock such as we are living today, there is often a flight back to the tried-and-trusted, the “safe bets”. This is not good news for young unknowns, which collectors might well have had a punt on BC (Before Covid).

As well as performance art taking a back seat, I see anything that requires hopping on an airplane (unless you have a private jet) to see an amazing installation on, say, a Greek island, to be a no-no. And in any case, acquiring any braggart-style art may seem, well, unseemly in what looks to be the coming massive recession. Large, shiny, show-off art is likely to be out for some time, as are hugely expensive trophies—unless they are kept very, very privately.

Instead, since people are spending much more time at home, there could be a boost to art you actually want to live with, as opposed to stuff you buy and send straight to storage. There could be a return to more domestically sized, displayable art—painting foremost, and maybe even reassuring, feel-good and, dare I say it, even decorative works!

I think this flight back to safety will, inevitably, benefit firmly established names, those with curatorial and market validation, since wanting to make a good investment is, not unreasonably, something most collectors have tucked somewhere in the jumble of their motivations—particularly if they are watching other investments crash and burn.

And what about art that documents the crisis? Collectors may want to acquire works that artists made during their enforced lockdown, as a way of retaining a record of such momentous days.

Finally, more positively, I expect strong sales of art that support Covid-19 appeals, enabling buyers to combine collecting with a good deed. Around the world, auctioneers, dealers and artists are offering works, either in dedicated charity auctions or as individual sales: examples include Phillips Auction4NY, Frieze New York’s dedicated charity viewing room and manifold other initiatives. A good reason to still buy art, but with a clear conscience in these turbulent times.