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The Art of Engagement

Technology opened the arts to a new audience over lockdown, and it’s changing the way we collect, as Joanna Mathers explains.

6 December 2023

Covid lockdowns thrust so many of life’s pleasures out of reach. Dining out, attending concerts, travelling overseas – stuck inside our homes, the world retracted within our walls.

Technology took on an outsized importance at this time, the internet facilitating connections to life outside our houses. The art world wasn’t exempt from the tsunami of digital. We were deprived of real-life encounters, and new technologies were welcomed, including those that allowed us to engage with the arts.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art partnered with wireless network operator Verizon to provide anyone with an internet connection access to digitally rendered galleries, offering online access to nearly 50 works of art. Art Basel, the world’s most exclusive art fair, launched virtual viewing rooms; interest was so overwhelming that the site crashed.

A recent Art Basel report revealed that online-only sales peaked in 2021 at $13.3 billion; 85 per cent higher than in 2019.

Aotearoa hasn’t been immune to this trend. When Auckland’s Art+Object auction house introduced online-auction technology they increased their audience in the process.

“I don’t have any specific figures,” says Leigh Melville, managing director and part owner. But suffice to say that we have seen a significant increase in people taking part in our auctions, now that they are held both online and in person,”

Embracing the virtual

New Zealand’s active artistic community has long been championed by passionate collectors. They are prepared to spend large amounts to secure works by their favourite artists.

But the rarefied air of the auction room, where people “in the know” spend millions on exclusive artworks, can be intimidating. And lockdown provided a unique opportunity for new or curious collectors to engage.

Art+Object had been dabbling with the idea of online auctions prior to the Covid lockdowns, as Melville explains. But there had been resistance because “we were founded on the concept of presenting art in a meaningful way”, and in real life.

So, when Covid reached our shores, there was a level of pessimism around what it would mean for their auctions.

Like so many workplaces, Art+Object “pivoted” fast-forwarding their online offerings and creating an app through which the public could engage with auctions. And this change expedited huge growth in registration for auctions.

“It was a big change for us, but the technology was embraced and the online auction appealed to a wide range of people. There’s no hierarchy and it’s not intimidating.”

Market broadens

Established collectors may have been at home in the “real world” auction house, but for Millennials and Gen Z online auctions offer a comfortable alternative. The Hiscox Online Art Trade Report reveals that 71 per cent of worldwide online sales were made by people under the age of 54, with 47 per cent being between 18 and 34.

It’s apparent that the move to digital has significantly broadened the reach of art collection. Instagram, for example, allows artists to communicate directly with the public. “Instagram is a great friend of the artist,” Melville agrees.

Nevertheless, there is still a significant market for the celebrated names, which Melville speaks of as a “flight to quality” even amid economic downturn.

“The best pieces will always find a home, even in recession,” says Melville.

And while Melville doesn’t like to talk about art in terms of “investment”, she acknowledges that the right works have the power to exponentially increase in value. She uses the example of a work owned by celebrated collectors Tim and Sherrah Francis entitled The Canoe. They bought this Colin McCahon painting for just $500 in 1969.

When the Francis’ collection was sold posthumously at Art+Object in 2016, it changed hands for a [then] record price for a New Zealand painting of $1.35 million. And Michael Parekōwhai’s A Peak in Darien sold for a record $2,051,900 at an Art+Object auction in 2021.

Investing in ourselves

These figures are an indication of the importance local collectors place on local art. “We like our own art,” says Melville. “Local collectors don’t tend to be great collectors of art from overseas.”

There is immense pride in the quality and “punch-above-our-weight” nature of the art of Aotearoa; an acknowledgement of how hard our artists work to be seen.

Melville points to our offerings on the international stage as an example. Simon Denny’s 2015 work at the Venice Biennale Secret Power, an incisive look at Five Eyes was lauded by many leading international news outlets as one of the most important national pavilions that year.

Don Binney’s work has seen significant increase in value recently, she says, with a piece selling for over $1 million. And contemporary artists like Michael Parekōwhai, are also fetching high prices at auction.

Starting out

That level of investment is likely to be beyond the means of new collectors.

But younger people, who may have had their eyes opened to the potential of art via Instagram et al, are likely to increase their art education through online or real-life auctions.

“It’s a great way to view the bodies of works of a range of artists, alongside different art forms,” says Melville.

Galleries (large and small) provide the opportunity for viewing a wide range of art forms and gaining an understanding of the works that resonate with them.

Prints were traditionally an entry-level art option, but these have become desired objects in themselves, especially limited editions of celebrated artists. It’s possible to purchase inexpensive works from student artists or engage in a shared ownership model.

But Melville says the best advice for new buyers is to go with the gut. “If you like it, buy it.” And make sure you do your research (online or IRL) before you invest.

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