In 2019, when Charles Stwart was named CEO of Sotheby’s, he knew 2020 was going to be a year of big changes. But he got more change than expected, when, due to restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic that began in March, his first full auction season faced a global shut down. Yet when your mission is to continue to move a 276-year-old company into the digital future, more change is probably better than less. For the auction house, the pandemic’s silver lining has been the rapid change forced upon the international art market.
“The longer the current lockdowns and restrictions remain, the weaker the pre-Covid habits become,” said Stewart, seated in a back hallway at the houses’s York Avenue headquarters behind the exhibition for the upcoming blockbuster Old Masters evening sale, in an interview. “It’s not at all clear to me that everything snaps back.”
No one is suggesting that last year was easy. Sotheby’s took the lead with their auction format creating a livestream sale that featured their specialists as the main characters in the bidding drama. “We keep coming back to the idea that at the heart of the company is the expertise,” Stewart says. “It’s what differentiates from any kind of digital only platform. We don’t do enough to showcase the specialists. You have to be in the know to have the access and awareness to know who they are and why you should speak to them.”
The livestream sales were the most visible side of the auction house’s response to the pandemic. But it wasn’t the only one. And the advent of mass vaccination has Stewart looking toward 2021 to consolidate his company’s embrace of ongoing change.
“There was this period of massive adaptation,” Stewart said. “This year is different. Now we know. We know we can operate basically in a fully remote environment. This year, it is a question of looking at the adaption and asking which portions of that were really innovative—which do we want to make strategic and which were just us trying to cope in the moment.”
With all of that in mind, Stewart decided to poll his leadership team—and his employees—for their ideas about the future of the art market. They came up with eight predictions for 2021. If 2020 taught us anything, these predictions are probably more indicative of Sotheby’s thinking about their business than they are literal prognostications. Either way, they are a window into what a major auction house’s internal deliberations are like.
Sotheby’s Predictions for 2021:
New sites and bespoke events:
The art world is pining for in-person communication and a change of scenery. There will be a reinterpretation or reimagining of physical experiences once those can be held safely again and we’ll see a lasting resistance to large-scale events and greater demand for exclusive, high quality in-person events with an immersive digital component. Further, there will be a greater focus on presenting art in unique and innovative locations, and in a way that takes advantage of public spaces and virtual networks outside of the establishment.
Virtual audiences to expand:
The audience for buyers will continue to expand in 2021 as rapid technological transformation and the embrace of digital channels will remain ever present. The comprehensive set of digital tools clients can now access has not only broken down barriers to entry, but reduced the need to view or physically handle works in person prior to purchasing. As a result, the average number of times that a work is seen will exponentially multiply.
A new emphasis on sustainability:
The art world will continue to make significant strides in advancing sustainability initiatives and reducing its carbon footprint. From eliminating printed catalogues, invites, crates and excess packaging in art shipping and handling, to rethinking the need for international air travel for art fairs and exhibitions, there will be a greater consensus about how to reduce waste and incorporate more sustainable practices. In doing so, there will also be a shift in how art itself reflects the growing concerns of our ecological crisis, and the types of art collectors are interested in.
Local will be the new global:
Driven by pandemic travel restrictions, local will be the new global. Having unavoidably spent much more time than usual in their hometowns and areas, many people have come to appreciate more acutely the sense of regional identity that was increasingly lost with globalization. This will mean that local styles and movements will become more pronounced and revered and will impact how and what auction houses and galleries choose to exhibit, as well as heighten the importance of local museums as people rediscover their local regions.
Hybrid auctions will replace old model:
Following the continued rise of cross-category collecting in 2020, which offered contemporary art alongside cars and design objects, auctions featuring property from various departments will continue and increase in volume in 2021. Similar to museum exhibitions, more auctions will be contextualized by era or a specific theme rather than by a singular department.
Market players will consolidate:
The distinctions between art fairs, galleries, and auction houses will continue to blur in 2021 as the primary and secondary markets converge at an even greater scale than last year. Building upon the barriers that were broken down in 2020, market players will experience reconfiguration due to information consolidating and being widely available.
The Asian market will continue to rise:
The strength of the market in Asia saw a step change in 2020, with a steady influx of new, younger buyers and a radically expanded buyer base with greater cross-category participation. This will continue in 2021. The demand for works by Western and emerging artists will continue to rise as well as a strong continued appreciation for classical works and luxury.
African art hubs will be new attractions:
The number of buzzworthy artist-driven projects throughout Africa, coupled with the recent excitement for figurative paintings by young artists of the continent’s diaspora, will segue into a greater interest in African art and art history, which will be enhanced by the continent’s ability to participate digitally at a greater scale than physically within the market. Once it is safe to travel again, various hubs in Africa are gearing up as burgeoning destinations for the arts—among them established cities like Cape Town, as well as others such as Lagos and Benin City, where new world-class institutions are being built.