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The art world is in a state of reinvention. Once an exclusive and elite place, its new dynamics have created a directional pivot through piqued interest from Asian, African and the Middle East markets; the grassroots growth of art fairs, biennials and contemporary art museums around the world; and the democratising effect of social media as a gateway for artist exposure.

“There's been a radical change in the global infrastructure around how art is promoted, transacted and made accessible to people in parts of the world that had artists but didn't necessarily have the means to put these artists on a global stage," says Anders Petterson, founder and managing director of ArtTactic, a London-based art market research and data intelligence company established in 2001.

The change felt organic and palpable prior to the pandemic – a natural progression enabled by technology but manageable in its pacing because it centred on coexistence with the traditional art world.

The pandemic changed that. “All these live events, the physical infrastructure that we saw being built up was suddenly disabled during the first lockdowns," says Petterson. The online market, which had been growing over the past decade, became the primary location for auctions. “There was this kind of attitude that you didn't sell your good stuff online – but when the only outlet was online, auction houses started experimenting."

Sotheby's and Christie's historic auction rooms were quickly refitted as TV studios for live-streaming auctions and drew millions of viewers on Facebook. Combined,  the pair sold  an estimated US$240 million worth of NFT art (non-fungible tokens – a form of unique digital asset stored on a blockchain) and digital collectibles in 2021.

The tech-first approach to art threw open the doors to an exclusive market of next generation high-net-worth (HNW) individuals, giving the curious a chance to engage without intimidation, says Petterson. “It had this veneer of neutrality or not being judged for who you are or how you look – it opened the gateway for a new generation to appreciate art."

A contemporary approach

For Corrie Jackson, a senior art curator who directs the management and growth strategy of RBC's art collection, the biggest shift in collector experience has come from the transparency of digital platforms. “You may not always get an exact price tag, but you're being saved the initial ask of 'How much does this cost?'" says Jackson. “I see this often as a huge barrier to access, especially for new collectors who might not have a comfortable relationship with a gallery and are just starting to understand the market."

There are many new platforms for buying and valuing contemporary art online. Wondeur AI , which researches the dynamics of value creation and biases in the art world, and Artland  and Peggy , both online art marketplaces, are just a few of the platforms finding their place in the mainstream and making the art world more transparent and accessible.

A strong sense of personal values is also driving digital adoption, says Jackson. There is a collective awareness of the industry's environmental impact and the carbon footprint attached to collectors flying around the world to view work. Digital engagement is a more conscientious alternative. “Technologies can offer an opportunity to interact with artwork without the need for packaging and shipping it to a potential buyer," she adds.

For change-driven HNW collectors, there's a deep social value in investing in artists and their work. According to data from Artsy  , Gen Z art buyers, in particular, are motivated to purchase art as a means to support artists while also reflecting on their personal identity and relationship to the community around them.

Petterson agrees, and says it's consistent with recent findings that indicate Gen Z tends to be more purpose-driven with their art-purchasing habits. “We thought it was a side effect of the pandemic," he says. “But what we found is three-quarters of the young people we surveyed this year are saying the same thing – they like feeling they're actually contributing or giving support to a creative process."

High-end hybrid

As the art market adapts to attract the next generation of HNW individuals, the biggest question in Jackson's mind is: which platforms deliver the value clients need to support their engagement? “Art is a physical experience, [whether that is] standing in front of a painting or being immersed in a digital installation," she says. “Artists work with mediums that engage our senses to convey their intent, and the intermediary of digital platforms can inherently dilute a direct experience of art viewing."

She says that's why she encourages collectors to prioritise the physical experience. That said, NFTs may connect new digital collectors with the art world of old. Jackson adds, “I think this will drive those collectors toward the benefits and connection of living with art objects in a more traditional sense too."

The art world is always in a state of becoming something new. But even as the lines between physical and virtual blur, neither the sense of tradition nor the sense of potential can be overlooked.

“In this moment of so much social and cultural change, I see collectors being drawn to the work that not only reflects personal values and interests, but shapes the conversations they want to engage in within their personal and private spaces," says Jackson. “There is a level of vulnerability, transparency and intimacy in this [approach to collecting] that is new and exciting."

Read more about the evolution of art as an asset class.


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