Updated: Aug 31
Digital reinvention, societal shifts and a new generation of collectors with changing motivations are creating a more inclusive art world.
For the art world, a decade's worth of quiet digital reinvention combined with a new generation of collectors and evolving motivations for purchasing art have helped change the shape of the industry. We've arrived at an art world that is more digital, inclusive and expansive.
It's not surprising, says Stefan Hancherow, art curator with RBC's Curatorial Department—the art world is always in flux. “[Ideas] come to the forefront at certain times of the year or certain decades—things ebb and flow." But the current art world feels like a radically different place than what existed before the pandemic.
Here are five trends that are redefining it.
1. The rise of inclusivity
For Hancherow, one of the defining changes in the art world is a shift in inclusivity across the market at all levels. “Not only BIPOC, female and LGBTQ+ artists, but also dealers and collectors, from my perspective, are leading the charge and continuing to incite meaningful change." As museums and institutions continue to focus on championing diverse programs, this change continues to be driven and supported by a broad ecosystem. "I see that continuing to grow," says Hancherow.
Auction house Christie's, for example, strengthened its efforts to increase diversity and representation in 2021 by appointing more women (including BIPOC) to executive roles and establishing a 50/50 gender balance of auctioneers.
Tricia Heuring, curator and coordinator of the Minneapolis-based art collection for RBC Wealth Management–U.S., says she's seen “more openness" in the art world than ever before. “The art world has always been a very exclusionary place," says Heuring. However, societal shifts over the past few years have helped change that. “In trying to dismantle structures and systems that really have been oppressive—by really breaking open the art world in that way—these shifts are creating new markets, new communities and new rules of engagement."
2. New generation, new motivations
In line with a growing sense of inclusivity, the next generation of collectors are also introducing new motivations to the art world. According to 2021 figures from Christie's, a third of new buyers were millennials. Deloitte and ArtTactic's Art & Finance Report 2021
found that 86 percent of younger collectors (i.e., those under age 35) consider art a social-impact investment, compared to just 32 percent of those aged over 35. Social impact is the top motivation (alongside emotional value) for the next generation of collectors.
“There's a lot more empowerment in thinking about where you're putting your money and how you're supporting the artists in your community," says Heuring. She likens it to the idea of supporting local businesses, which really gained prominence during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think that rippled into a motivation or a permission to collect art in that way as well."
The next generation is also increasingly focused on BIPOC artists. A report by online art brokerage Artsy, Art Collecting 2021, found that roughly a quarter of collectors say amassing works by minority artists is important to them, generating a more-diverse representation in the arts.
3. Digital transformation finds its inertia
In addition to new motivations, the next generation is changing the way art is sold. According to the Deloitte and ArtTactic report, Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips' online-only auction sales reached US$1.05 billion in 2020, eclipsing 2019's US$168 million in sales. Artsy's 2021 report found the number of collectors who had purchased art online grew 30 percent between 2019 and 2021.
Online marketplaces like Artland and Peggy are making the art market more transparent and accessible.
Social media has also found its footing as a medium for artists that flips the classic gallery representation model on its head. “There are artists who really don't need gallery representation anymore, because they have 50,000 followers on Instagram and have a built-in audience of their own," says Heuring. “They share their process throughout the year, then offer their artwork when it's available—and their own audience just purchases it directly from them."
4. Blockchain buzz propels NFTs to the forefront
Despite the buzz surrounding non-fungible tokens (NFTs)—a form of unique digital asset stored on a blockchain), Christie's and Sotheby's sold only US$240 million worth of NFT art and digital collectibles combined, a small percentage of their collective overall sales.
But blockchain technology does carry the potential for traceability. “There are really serious artists who are actually using the digital certificate for their own physical art or really complex digital art projects," explains Sara Johnson, vice president of High-Net-Worth Planning Services - International estate, art and digital legacy planning at RBC Wealth Management in Canada. But on the collector side, Johnson likens the appetite for NFT investments to the early days of a gold rush. "NFT platforms feel like a movable feast," she adds. "There's still a lot of risk, especially in overall valuation, payments using cryptocurrencies and the future of code-based artists' royalties," she says. “We're learning more about it as the market matures but it's a daily exponential learning curve—through enthusiastic tribulations."
5. Canadian artists are gaining momentum
Another defining trend is Canadian art's growing momentum on a global scale. “The visual arts in Canada are still one of those underrated and aspects from an international perspective," says Hancherow, adding that Canadian art can be undervalued and underappreciated around the world. “But I think that's changing."
He points to major exhibits by Canadian artists in Venice that have helped raise their profiles. “From an Indigenous and Inuit art perspective, I think Canada's doing quite a bit more than some other colonial nations, in that it's driving that discussion," adds Hancherow. It's in step with the growth of interest in BIPOC artists. But he cautions that the growth isn't necessarily indicative of representation—or of equity, for that matter. “Even though we've seen massive increases in the number of artists of colour, Indigenous artists and women artists in the art world, the separation is still vast—[the artwork] is still so undervalued when compared to male counterparts."
Ultimately, Hancherow says, the rising profile of Canadian art fits into a wider narrative underpinning the trends redefining the art world. Things are becoming more inclusive, innovative and approachable, and the next social-impact-focused generation is ensuring that.