When it was revealed in February last year that visitor numbers had significantly fallen at two of the UK’s most prestigious fine art galleries, many commentators were quick to proclaim the death of the art world as we know it.
While fine art institutions like the National Gallery and Tate have seen footfall decrease, the British Museum, V&A and Natural History Museum have all enjoyed increases in both domestic and overseas visitors. The same phenomenon is occurring in the US – art galleries are struggling to compete with other attractions.
In its long history, art has never undergone such rapid change as it has in the last 60 years. In a world dominated by digital technology and social media, artists and galleries are targeting social audiences as a means of survival. So are falling gallery attendances a signal that we’re falling out of love with art, or are museums an inevitable victim of the social media invasion?
Artists are less reliant on galleries and museums
In a recent interview with the Sunday Guardian, Indian multimedia artist Owais Husain said: “Much like the internet of things, the integration of everything and how we work today has contributed significantly to the mechanism of art and the artist’s practice. Your geographic location is now insignificant in relation to the platforms and formats on offer to position your art.”
It’s true – street art in Colombia can now be instantly viewed from a sofa in London, just as contemporary installations in Tokyo can be immediately viewed in the USA. A recent survey, conducted by online art specialists Invaluable, found that 23% of US consumers discover art through social media, compared to just 16% discovering art through galleries. Furthermore, almost half of young millennials (aged 18-24) discover art through social platforms.
It’s therefore no surprise that many artists are turning to social media to parade their work, using platforms such as Instagram as an online portfolio or virtual gallery. This allows the artist to simultaneously become the creator, the dealer and the curator of their work.
The emergence of social media as a means of exhibiting new art has reduced reliance on art galleries and museums. Most galleries need to come up with new strategies to remain relevant. For instance, London art house Plus One Gallery uses Facebook to highlight its new acquisitions, thus promoting not only themselves but also new artists, while White Cube regularly engages with enthusiasts on Twitter.
The future of art investment is digital
Commercial galleries are increasingly losing out on art sales as more artists take their work online. Instagram is not currently a direct sales platform, but art aficionados are able to make purchase inquiries. Interested buyers usually begin by direct-messaging artists about specific works of art before sharing their credit card details and purchasing.
In an interview with Vogue Magazine, contemporary artist Ashley Longshore said her canvases are regularly bought for more than $30,000 by investors who discover her work on Instagram.
It’s a trend that looks set to continue. The Invaluable survey also found that millennials are increasingly discovering and purchasing art digitally – 54% of millennials would buy art online, compared to only 19% of baby boomers.
Art galleries need to tap into the experiential economy
Certainly for millennials and increasingly for older generations, creating and sharing memories is far more important than investing in material possessions. This generation’s interest in events combined with their increasing ability to spend is driving the growth of the experience economy.
This extends to the art world, where enthusiasts are keen to share art they have discovered with their peers, rather than appreciating works on their own. For example, rather than taking the time to appreciate the work of Leonardo da Vinci, visitors to the Louvre are now far more likely to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa and instantly share it with their friends back home.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that art is becoming less appreciated, more that the way we experience art has transformed as a result of smartphones and social media.
Visual artist Adam Butcher has said that inquisitive teenagers are often left cold on visits to a gallery, not because of a lack of creativity or interest, but because curators are not taking into account the way younger generations behave. Galleries need to recognize that survival will depend on the social media habits transforming the way art is experienced.
Social media is launching the careers of under-the-radar artists, bypassing the traditional route of gaining popularity through art critic and gallery exposure. To remain relevant, museums and galleries need to cater to the new and future generations that experience art in different ways to their predecessors.