A new generation of buyers is influencing how art is being seen, purchased and collected.
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."
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."
RAPID RISE OF MILLENNIAL ART COLLECTORS ARE VIEWING ART AS AN ASSET CLASS
More people are viewing art as a viable form of alternative investment, but collecting comes with considerations.
In 2018, a version of intrepid artist Banksy's Girl with Balloon was sold by Sotheby's in London for £1,042,000 (US$1.3 million). As soon as the auctioneer's gavel fell, the painting slipped through a hidden paper shredder built into the frame, destroying half the image. The half-shredded, newly dubbed Love Is in the Bin (2018) then sold in the same London salesroom for £18.5 million (US$25.3 million) in 2021.
“Ordinarily, you'd say, 'That's a ruined piece of artwork,' when, in fact, the artwork has now been sold for significantly more than it was purchased for," says Alan Binnington, director of the trust specialist team at RBC Wealth Management in Jersey. “It's just so different from anything that's ever happened before, that people become excited and are prepared to pay for it."
The purchase of Love Is in the Bin (2018) is the epitome of art as an asset class, a spontaneous burst in value that represents both the volatility and allure of collecting art as a form of diversifying wealth. The nine-way bidding war for Banksy's Love Is in the Bin (2018) lasted 10 minutes, according to a report from Artsy.
The appetite for art as an asset class has risen among high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs) in recent years, partially as a response to the instability in the financial markets, says Binnington. “When the markets are volatile, people tend to favour investments that they can see and touch, like gold, classic cars and art." According to a report by the Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association (known as CAIA), the contemporary art market appreciated by 15.1 percent in 2020, even as auctions were put on hold or moved into online forums.
However, interest in art as an asset class by HNWIs isn't necessarily about market instability; there's a wider generational trend unfolding.
A new class of interest
High-net-worth Millennials have emerged as key investors in the art market. Their spending patterns, motivations and challenges differ from those of traditional art buyers. Deloitte and ArtTactic's Art and Finance Report 2021 found that the majority (86 percent) of younger collectors (i.e., those under 35 years) rank social impact, emotional value and purpose-led investment in art as their highest motivation, versus 32 percent of older collectors. The survey also found they place a stronger emphasis on the financial aspect of art ownership.
This is reflected in 2021 figures from Christie's, which found that 35 percent of the buyers at auctions were new – a third of whom were Millennials. Buoyed by demand from next-gen wealth, 255-year-old Christie's was the first major auction house to sell a purely digital NFT (non-fungible token) artwork – a form of unique digital asset stored on a blockchain. The piece, Everydays, by Beeple, sold for US$69 million.
Julie Kleis, trust specialist team director at RBC Wealth Management in Jersey, says she's handled a number of works in trusts, but NFTs are an entirely new phenomenon. “I personally don't perceive it as art," she says. But she also says it could very well become more common and accepted. “People have different interpretations about what art is."
The fluidity of art's definition doesn't apply to the complexities of art as an alternative investment. Collecting art carries a unique set of challenges to consider.
Art for more than art's sake
As interest in art as an asset class has risen, trustees have broadened their skillset for supporting their clients, says Binnington. “Now they tend to understand more of the pitfalls and risks."
As an unregulated market, Binnington says, it's important to have independent experts to guide the purchase, and to pay attention as values rise and fall and artists move in and out of fashion. “The old masters have been around for a long time. Therefore, their prices don't fluctuate that much. As you come toward more modern art, prices tend to fluctuate simply because they haven't been around that long," he says. “Then you go to the extreme with NFTs, where it's hard to know if they'll be a multiple of their value or merely a fraction next year."
Of course, investing in a work of art is just the beginning. The next step is where the trustees really come into play, says Kleis. “We also have to consider the tax position – where is the art? Who's enjoying the art? For example some of our clients have a piece of art that we own within our trust structures, but they have it in their homes, so, in effect, they're borrowing it from us."
I had a client who had a violin that had to be kept at a certain temperature and humidity level, but he wanted to play it at a particular concert and the only way he could get it there was to take it on the plane," says Kleis. “So sometimes the risks aren't so easy to manage."
Kleis says there are also scenarios in which a work of art that's meaningful to a family ends up at the centre of a dispute over which members of the next generation will receive it. Placing the art in trust at an early stage can take some of the heat out of a dispute, given that the trustees will be the owners and so they can help navigate these situations says Kleis. “The trustees are well-placed to decide on the appropriate course of action, balancing the wishes of the beneficiaries with the protection of the trust assets."
An (en)viable alternative
According to CAIA, the art market has an estimated global value of US$1.7 trillion, with around US$60 billion in annual transaction volume. But there's something special about art that supersedes financial value. Unlike a structured product or security within a portfolio, art tends to elicit emotional attachment. It makes people feel good.
“Art is a very attractive area for some people," says Binnington. “It's always going to be a much higher risk area … but even if that value falls, you will always be able to display it in your home and admire it.
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