The digital age has brought a considerable transformation to many aspects of everyday life and business, however the gallery system seems to be left more or less intact. Although many bricks and mortar galleries had to close, this trend cannot be exclusively accounted for the growth of internet sales but rather for the recession starting in 2008. Since the internet has been globally accepted as a major platform for commerce, buyers have become more and more confident in making high value purchases online. This not only applies to the digital natives but also to the art collectors with a well-established existence between ages 40 and 70 who are the most significant group among buyers. This tendency raises the question: is the internet making commercial galleries superfluous which will slowly lead to the demise of the gallery system?
If we consider art dealing a general business it involves nothing else but selling, trading and buying. Yet, it is never as simple as that. Selling art is more of a performing act than a plain retail practice and galleries are much more than shops. When visiting an art gallery buyers are looking for a cultural experience and the product they buy, besides being an investment, has additional historical, intellectual and aesthetic values. The middleman between artists and collectors is the dealer whose profession emerged as a result of the demand by the participants of the art scene. Art dealing has become accepted as an official business form in the 19th century and shortly after the commercial gallery was born. Artists needed a space for exposure with an expert who assures their credibility and connects them with collectors, whereas consumers called for a reliable and knowledgeable consultant. The real value of an artwork generally goes way beyond the buyer’s knowledge, therefore a special relationship and deep trust between the dealer and the collector is crucial. Collectors deem galleries the pledge of quality and value, thus the reputation of the gallery becomes the pledge of the value of its artist, where the dealer is not a retail worker but part of the additional value given to the work of art.
The personal relationship between buyer and dealer may be an essential part of the whole dealing process, however, the online sales of artworks has been constantly rising. One reason for this is that in the age of constant haste, one doesn’t have time to sit around and talk in a gallery all day long. Online data is accessible at any time, which is a great asset, as the collector doesn’t need to talk directly to the dealer if he wants to get informed. On the other hand, this great asset has its downsides such as the democratic nature of the internet. It is a forum where anyone can publish anything which often questions the credibility of the available information. In case of well-established artists this is not an issue, but emerging and mid-career artists need to find platforms which have already earned their validity and buyers trust them. As everything is very high-speed in the modern world, most buyers will figure out what they want online and after that, they might decide to find a place where they have chance to see it in person and seal the deal. While meeting in person does not seem to be pivotal for everyone, the fact that the internet can serve as a perfect archive for data collection cannot be argued. This is what proves to be a very strong tool in the hands of the artists.
With the help of the internet, artists can expose their work to a much larger audience, which is a great opportunity without doubt. The question is, if artists decide to be completely independent and they start marketing themselves through their own websites, which sources will they have to find new collectors? Furthermore, galleries spent many years with earning respect and building a network. For artists it would be an extremely time and energy consuming process to attain the same network and prestige on their own. This can – even if not inevitably – result in a negative effect on the art they create. However, by now, many online platforms have managed to attain a status where they have the means to provide a credible and prestigious background for the artist, and they also have the network to reach collectors. These platforms are contributing to the transformation of the traditional gallery system and gives numerous opportunities to artists.
So the demise of the traditional gallery system might not be here yet, but a new era has clearly begun: the high-speed life and the endless opportunities offered by the internet triggers vital changes. Artists are no longer depending exclusively on galleries but they have more options to choose from. It had been extremely hard for emerging artists to get gallery representation and galleries exercised authority over artists and the whole art world. Today, if artists take their sales in their own hands and manage to generate online sales through a platform of good-report, besides making a living, they can prove to galleries that they are worth exhibiting. On the long run this can result in a more democratic art scene. As artists get more independence and choices, galleries will learn to treat them as equal business partners for their own interest. As for the artists, galleries will just be one option of the many offered to them to market their works. On the whole, it would be premature to say that art galleries are on the verge of collapse, but the art scene is definitely going through notable changes in the digital age. Success lies within the ability to cope with the changes, and if these changes are handled properly, it will benefit everyone.
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