Galleries Recoup Vast Job Losses Amid ‘Resilient’ Market: Art Basel UBS Report

The loss in sales and jobs suffered by galleries in 2020 as a result of the pandemic improved in the first half of 2021, according to a mid-year survey published today by Art Basel and UBS and written by art economist Clare McAndrew.

For her research, McAndrew surveyed 700 international galleries as well as 500 high-net-worth art collectors based in the U.S., the U.K., Hong Kong, Germany, and Switzerland. The review found that gallery jobs lost during 2020 were mostly recouped by mid-2021, and gallery sales are up 10 percent overall from last year.

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“While art sales have been relatively resilient during the crisis, some of the biggest fears for [the] dealer sector have centered on employment,” McAndrew said in a statement accompanying the report. Last year, 23 percent of galleries were forced to downsize their workforces, according to the report. In the first half of 2021, 25 percent of dealers were hiring new employees, while 13 percent of galleries continued to make staff cuts.

Half of the dealers surveys said their sales increased in the first part of of 2021, while 45 percent reported a drop in sales compared to the same period in 2020. Just under 5 percent of dealers saw sales remain at the same level between 2020 and 2021. A closer look at galleries by size shows that the situation is improving for bigger dealers, while mid-to-small size galleries are still struggling to return to pre-pandemic sales levels. Dealers with an excess of $10 million in yearly sales reported a rise of 21 percent in their annual total. Mid-sized dealers—those with sales revenue between $500,000 to $1 million—saw values decrease by an average of 3 percent. The smallest dealers—those with revenue under $250,000—saw sales fall slightly below the same time-frame in 2020.

One of the report’s other findings reflected the rise of the Asian art market, particularly since the pandemic began. Dealers based throughout Asia saw the highest uptick in sales in the first half of 2021, reporting an 18 percent increase. European dealers, however, suffered the biggest dip in sales, with an average decline of 7 percent.

The expansion of online sales is also continuing apace, according to McAndrew. Online sales channels accounted for 37 percent of all dealer sales, including sales made via art fair–hosted online viewing rooms. In addition, nearly half of the collectors surveyed reported an interest in acquiring digital art works, including film and video art, in the next year. Millennials were the biggest spenders on digital art, averaging $20,000 in the first half of 2021. Overall, however, digital art sales continue to occupy a small fraction of overall sales for galleries, making up less than 0.5 percent of their totals, the report found.

The ongoing global crisis has not deterred the ultra-wealthy from investing in art. The median expenditure by the collectors surveyed in the report rose by 42 percent on average, to $242,000. As with digital art, that rise is being driven in part by millennial collectors, who marked the highest average expenditure overall, at $378,000, or about three times the level of their older peers.


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