'In times of crisis put your wealth on the walls': why 'revenge shopping' is boosting the art market

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Like everyone else in the country, artist Leah Hewson experienced a “complete fluctuation of emotions” in the first two weeks of the pandemic.

I remember right at the start, I lost my way a little bit,” she says. “I wasn’t motivated to work. You’re trying to wrap your head around the gravity of what’s happening. The main worry was coming out the other end, and what state the economy will be in. In many instances [of economic uncertainty], the art sector seems to drop off first.”

A year later, and it turns out that Hewson, and several of her peers, needn’t necessarily have worried on that front. Online sales increased in the second half of the year, as did corporate and private commissions.

“I had my best year so far last year,” Hewson says. “I had a good few solid projects lined up – the worst that happened is that some of them, like the exhibition at the Atelier Maser [in Dublin], got postponed.

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Catherine O’Riordan, owner of So Fine Art Editions in Dublin. Picture: Jessica Imhoff

Catherine O’Riordan, owner of So Fine Art Editions in Dublin. Picture: Jessica Imhoff

“I levelled off and gathered myself up a little bit after the first lockdown, and was able to go to Kerry [to the Cill Rialaig Arts Centre] for the second lockdown, which really helped… I’m finding it difficult to stay motivated sometimes, but keeping structure and knowing I have to work on helps.”

Similarly, artist James Earley found that, after a “stage of limbo” at the outset of the pandemic, he too has had a pretty good year from a commercial perspective.

“I hate to be overly positive, as I know some people are in the middle of a bloody nightmare, but I’d usually make sure to be really busy,” he says. “In the first lockdown, when I worked from home, I used the time to research and read. I had a lot of ‘down tools’ time.”

It’s no secret that several pockets of the arts sector have been decimated since the arrival of Covid-19. A report by consultants EY published in November (‘Employment and Economic Impact Assessment of Covid-19 on the Arts Sector in Ireland’), made for grim reading. They predicted that a quarter of all jobs in the arts could be lost by the end of 2021, and unemployment in the sector is set to be far higher than in the rest of the economy this year. With economic activity in the arts falling by 67pc in 2020, recovery of the entire sector could well take until 2025.

Yet, ask many people in visual arts, and you’re likely to hear the same trajectory time and time again: after a fallow couple of months, during which auctioneers, galleries and arts practitioners were forced to pivot their business model and rely on online capabilities more heavily, they noticed a definite uptick in buyers; in interested parties; in commissions.

Artist Lola Donoghue was well established online when restrictions hit, and has experienced good fortunes in 2020: “We found that our limited edition print sales went up instantly at the start of the first lockdown last March and have continued to date. However, due to the lack of studio time because of creche and school closures, it has greatly impacted sales of my original paintings – I don’t have any to sell as I cannot get into the studio!

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Artist Lola Donoghue

Artist Lola Donoghue

“Sales have increased because I think people are valuing their homes more and the time they spend there, and while people are doing a lot more online shopping now, I think they spend more consciously,” Donoghue says. “I think people are more inclined to treat themselves too.”

“We’ve been online since 1995, and about 35-40pc of our auctions up until last year were online, but then we had to get that to 100pc,” explains Ian Whyte of Whyte’s Irish Art & Collectibles, Auctioneers & Valuers.

“We started doing extra services online, like showing pictures in the frames, showing what was on the back of it, doing condition reports. There’s an app we put on our website whereby you put [the item] on your phone and you can project the picture on the wall to see what it looks like.”

This new technology has seemingly been a great aid for business. “In terms of percentages, sales went up to 90-95pc in auctions, where before on average they could have been 70-80pc,” Whyte says. “At the top of the market, we sold a Paul Henry painting for €420,000, where we were hoping to get €150,000-€200,000 on it. There have been some instances of that happening, and at the other end of the scale, we had lots of interest in paintings around the €1,000-€2,000 mark, often from beginner collectors.”

“The huge change has been that prior to the pandemic, there was a general view in Ireland that online sales were something to be considered for lower value items, and not a method appropriate for selling high-end art works,” says John de Vere White, director at deVere’s Auctions. “We’ve been flabbergasted by the take-up and success of it. We’ve been able to expand our client base enormously.”

Stuart Cole, director at Adam’s Fine Art auctioneers, found that his auction house had “constant” auctions from July through to December. “All of our sales were super successful,” he says. “I’m noticing a lot of people new to us, people we haven’t dealt with before. In terms of age profile, we would usually have an older age profile, but the age group is getting a little younger. For clients in the 50-60-plus range, it’s interesting to see them make the transition to online [buying].” At its auction on January 11, Adam’s sold 98pc of lots on sale. “That’s a very high margin of sales,” Cole says.

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Artist James Earley, photographed by Al Higgins

Artist James Earley, photographed by Al Higgins

Shaun Davin has been collecting artworks since 2006, co-curating an exhibition, ‘Collector’, at the SO Fine Art Gallery in 2017. In 2020, he bought a handful of artworks, including a Mary O’Connor painting, a Maser edition from his exhibition in December and two Damien Hirst charity editions from Heni editions online.

The charity aspect was a big factor in spending, but Davin acknowledges that he bought more artwork last year than he usually might.

“There was a phenomenon that started after the outbreak of the virus last year called ‘revenge shopping’, where as a consolation, there was a mountain of people treating themselves to feel better,” he says. “In the last year, there were definitely more prints released… than in any other year. Editions were selling out as soon as they were released.”

The Royal Hibernian Academy’s annual exhibition was ousted from its usual summer slot and reborn as an online event in December. In the first two days of the 190th annual RHA exhibition, art worth €52,000 was sold, without any of the buyers seeing it in person. Of the €500,000 in sales made during the entire show, half of the sales were made online (purchases over €10,000 were made offline).

Says RHA director Patrick T Murphy: “It was surprising – I think we were expecting to do half that. About 80pc of sales were [for works] under €2,000 – that’s probably people exploring the idea of buying art. There’s a French saying that translates as, ‘in times of crisis, put your wealth on the walls’.

“The one thing I have seen happen in the city is that artists who depended on bartending, waiting, the gig economy stuff, a lot of artists have literally gone home. They can’t afford town any more, there’s been a pinch on that front.”

Technology has certainly abetted this perceived surge in interest, but other factors related to the pandemic have given the Irish art world an unexpected boost.

At last count, it’s estimated that Irish households had over €123bn in bank and credit union accounts by October 2020, up €12.6bn from the year before.

“There’s ‘forced savings’ arising from fewer spending opportunities because of pandemic restrictions, and there’s fear, borne mainly of a trauma that’s still fresh in the national psyche,” Austin Hughes, chief economist with KBC Bank Ireland, says.

“The thing with wealthier clients who had large deposits in banks, the banks were charging them interest on deposits, so many of them thought, ‘well, I might as well buy pieces of art – that way I can at least see my money’,” Whyte says. “There was definitely a pent-up demand. In fact, the problem is that demand has outstripped supply – it’s more difficult to get in to see art [for valuation], particularly during lockdown periods.”

Elsewhere, the simple act of staying home in accordance with Government guidelines has prompted many to appraise their home environments afresh.

“There are so many different reasons why we are selling more than usual,” says Tara Murphy, owner/director of the Solomon Art Gallery, Dublin.

“People are no longer buying holidays or going to restaurants,” she says. “We’ve had a few [clients] say that at the start, they wanted to curate their Zoom background. A few people wanted to make their home office situation nicer. We have a beautiful Diana Copperwhite at home, and every time my husband goes on Zoom, he is asked about it. It becomes an ice-breaker, especially if you’re talking to strangers.

“The main thing is that I think everyone is so depressed, and art brings joy to people who are not normal buyers,” she says. “You hear people say, ‘I’m just looking at my four walls all day, and it makes me happy to look at [this piece of art].’ The home is now an office, a classroom, a gym, and in some respects, a prison. People are like, ‘I wish I could buy a nice painting for that wall – let’s do it now’.”

Hewson is in agreement: “A lot of people that were getting in touch were mentioning ways of enriching their homes,” she says. “They are re-evaluating what’s important to them, and without the bombardment of advertising or the pressure to do or buy things, people are bringing it back to themselves and thinking, ‘I’d like to invest in a bit of art’.”

Catherine O’Riordan, owner of SO Fine Art Editions in Dublin agrees. “People really understand the value of art right across the board, and what’s missed in their lives. It’s food for the soul – it really is.

“Also, people were keen to support artists that were in no man’s land, thanks to Covid,” she says. “People realised that by supporting galleries, they are supporting artists, and it keeps everyone in the business, if you like.”

Intriguingly, applied art was a big hit commercially in the first lockdown, with several vendors noting that woodcuts, ceramics and hand-turned pieces sold particularly well. “It was support for the wealth of Irish makers that are out there,” O’Riordan suggests.

Elly Collins of Dublin’s Kerlin Gallery says that like many others, the gallery has shifted its focus to promoting exhibiting artists online. Additional material, ebooks, and artist interviews now feature heavily in its online exhibitions.

“We are keeping viewers engaged with artists in lieu of having physical shows,” she explains. “We launched our first online viewing room in April, essentially bringing the viewing experience home. It was very important for us to keep people up to speed on what artists were making. When people are at home, it gives them more time to engage with the content.”

Down in Cork’s Crawford Gallery, director Mary McCarthy noted that the gallery had two major concerns to tackle in 2020. “One was to go online to make the programmes available, and then planning for reopening with Covid restrictions,” she says. “Pivoting to online is something that we had been doing anyway.

There has also been fresh impetus to lend support to galleries and artists on a more substantial level.

One way that the Government has been able to assist the industry was through expanding the Arts Council’s collection of works. In December, the Arts Council added 82 new artworks by 70 artists to its collection, bringing the total number of works in the collection to 1,200.

Ben Mulligan, acting head of visual arts for the Arts Council, says: “The Arts Council has renewed its commitment to its collection-developing initiative, and throughout this period of time when exhibitions and other projects are closed to visitors, continuing this is ever more vital. There was a really significant amount of purchases in 2020, reflecting the seriousness of Covid and our renewed commitment to purchasing for the collection at the time.”

Mulligan has kept in close contact with visual artists, many of whom are struggling.

“Obviously, it’s a hugely challenging time for artists, for exhibitions and for arts organisations as well,” he says. “It’s not possible to open doors to studios or spaces where artists make their work, so things have had to be postponed – this is massively challenging, and things like childcare or looking after loved ones also adds to this challenge.

“A lot is still happening – artists are looking at other opportunities to engage and develop their practice,” Mulligan adds. “There’s obviously a huge amount of applications for arts bursaries through all awards, and we have been able to increase the number of awards we are able to offer.”

Mary McCarthy adds: “Covid has been decimating for the sector. To be fair to the Irish Government, extra funding has been given the Arts Council and local authorities to support, but it’s never obviously enough. People are worried about stability – are they able to make work mentally? It’s quite hard to create when you’re feeling anxious.

“Additionally, artists are finding it hard to get their works framed; their studios are closed, and all of this impedes people’s ability to make or finish work,” says McCarthy.

Noelle Campbell-Sharp, former owner of Dublin’s Origin Gallery, now owns the Cill Rialaig artists’ retreat in Ballinskelligs in Co Kerry. The village is “full of artists” at the moment, although she paints a slightly less rosy picture of the reality for the ones that she encounters.

“I think Covid has had a dreadful impact on the arts world – not just artists, but institutions,” she says. “I don’t think in any way the Government is doing enough to save artists.”

The artists at the Cill Rialaig centre, Campbell-Sharp says, are “all worried financially, of course they are. Yet there is likely to be a great Renaissance in Irish art. I’m sure of it. A lot of people now have the time to concentrate on their creative practice. We’ve had a flurry of applications from artists, and some have chosen to stay here longer than they would normally stay, and are creating wonderful works right now.”

Collins at the Kerlin Gallery has also noticed a fresh urgency in the works that she is seeing: “With Richard Gorman, we opened a second part of [his collection] in the summer called, Dalkey 2,” she says. “They were works painted in lockdown, and they were definitely very dynamic and off-kilter.”

As to what the post-Covid landscape for Ireland’s visual arts sector might look like, there’s a sense that a duality of online and physical experiences will dominate for years to come.

“There has been a shift with people engaging with work online – I think the strength of the potential there has been hammered home. Still, I think people will be delighted to get back into spaces and visit exhibitions and different events,” says Mulligan of the Arts Council.

“We are all dying to get back into the physical spaces,” Patrick Murphy at the RHA says. “There’s a cohort of people who come regularly to exhibitions. We’re missing them, and they’re missing us.”

Sunday Indo Living

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