The world is moving to digital at breakneck speed. But what about the arts world? Some innovators, such as Mário Ferreira, believe that art should go digital.
“The ideal gallery subtracts from the artwork all cues that interfere with the fact that it is ‘art.’” — O’Doherty, Brian
Brian O’Doherty proposed a review of the art gallery concept, based on the needs and developments of modernist art, in a moment when the relationship of the spectator to art was changing. Today, we can say that something similar is going on. This is not only because we were locked inside our homes, unable to go out and see art in museums or galleries. It is also because, for some years, the relationship between contemporary art and the new spectator has been drastically changing the perception of what art is and how to interact with it.
The covid-19 situation squeezed a behaviour change of decades into months, leading many different areas to sudden changes. Artists, mostly amateurs, ran to create digital content to overcome this crisis and keep reaching the target audience. But in the end, we were overwhelmed with Instagram artsy posts and live performances. Is that how we are perceiving art?
A few people in the world are dedicated to rethinking this new system of art, and we had the privilege to discuss this topic with one of these innovators. Meet Mário Ferreira da Silva, director at Lehmann + Silva Contemporary Art Gallery, proudly placed in the Bonfim neighborhood in Porto, Portugal.
The Lehmann + Silva contemporary art gallery was founded in 2017 with a selection of Portuguese and international artists. Like in every other business venture, and aware of the art market peculiarities, Mário knew that the gallery could take a few years to become profitable, and he was prepared to resist. With a lean structure, not cheap but agile, he maintains the gallery with a smart and more flexible approach. Being lean allows any business to easily adapt or act in difficult situations, and this is one of the ingredients of Portuguese resilience.
Mário and Frederick have an internal motto: “We don’t want to be a big art gallery, we want a good art gallery.” And this is how they are building Lehmann + Silva, day by day, and keeping safe during the current crisis. In Mário’s perspective, medium-sized galleries are going to suffer the most, having a larger structure, but without the financial security of the big players.
In the Portuguese art market, Mário is counting on the resilience learned during his first crisis in 2010. But now, for his gallery, there is little space for reflection, and the time has come to act and adapt, based on previous preparation.
Since the art gallery’s grand opening, Mário and his team have been prepared for a crisis. Of course, they weren’t ready for a global pandemic. They were minimally prepared for another round of the cyclic economic crisis in Portugal. How will this be overcome? Through the targeting of foreign markets.
But how can an art gallery based in Bonfim, Porto reach foreign markets? They can’t do so in the usual ways, like going to art fairs, etc. Due to COVID-19, all the fairs have been cancelled. So how exactly are they doing it?
Since the very beginning, the gallery has been investing in digital, and they learned how to be prepared from other businesses. For Mario, it was only a matter of time until the art market turned to digital. And using his previous experience from other sectors, he was ready to act.
They first started with a website. It is simple but efficient and offers fanzines, t-shirts, and small and easily shipped art pieces. It even has a private area for the gallery collection, which potential customers and collectors have exclusive access to. They then launched an app with the same features and is simple enough to be used on every mobile device around the world. What started as a tool used as a dynamic catalogue during fairs ended being an invaluable asset for the gallery during the crisis.
There are still very few art galleries in the digital sphere. Lehmann + Silva gallery is a pioneer, not only in Portugal, but in Europe. In the USA, the market is more mature and demonstrates good results, which can show us that here in Europe, it can grow exponentially and, sped up by the crisis, be a solid alternative.
He explains that the art market is still very resistant to the online concept, and is very much based on fairs and physical shopping. For the primary market, which means buying directly from the gallery, the art market is still taking their first steps into digital. But now, there is not much time to wait and see if there is space for it.
As Mario said, “Perfectionism makes us slow. We must act with agility.” It is a lesson from his former business experiences, and very conscious of the current situation, which can be, somehow, ironic for the arts. When we think about the art world, we think about masterpieces and perfection. In aesthetics it is important. On the business side, we must run faster in order to make a profit. It is a fine line, keeping a smooth balance between these two worlds, and Mário walks it safely.
For Mario, there is no formula for being innovative. It’s about testing. It’s about getting an idea, implementing, analyzing, revising and repeating it. This is how the social-media gallery strategy came up.
During the lockdown phase, the team continued to work in their homes, developing new business contacts remotely. One of their ideas was to open new markets through Instagram, Facebook, Google and it worked. Today, online sales are a good and steady portion of the whole organisation, representing more than 50% of Lehmann + Silva sales.
As opposed to the white cube theory of the last century, today we must rethink how we interact with art. How do we appreciate it, consume and buy it? The lockdown showed us that this relationship doesn’t need to be restricted to the white walls of the gallery.
For Mário, we are still going to see the impact of the lockdown in people’s relation to art, how we visit museums, and how we consume contemporary art. There are some behaviors that could stay the same, such as virtual tours and buying through social media. But there is a long way to go until the art market can be compared with some more digitized industries. The shift is inevitable.
Again, to be ahead in his current industry, Mário is already thinking about the next step: data science. Knowing what the user wants is the key for future endeavours, and digital data can provide some precise hints. The app and the website can generate precious information about consumer behaviour related to art, to better understand what they are looking for and how to better respond to this demand.
Mário Silva could tell us that there is nothing new with doing that, that other markets already have had this strategy in operation for years. On our side, we can say that innovation rests exactly on this sweet spot, where we are smart enough to see what is working for other industries, and wisely apply it to our practices based on previous lessons learned.
In the arts we still have an inspiring layer on top, that is making everything business, in a beautiful and enduring way, that has the potential to make some eyes shine for generations. Thank you, Mário, for enabling us to be inspired by your gallery art and business, overlapping learnings just like you did.
O’Doherty, Brian. Inside the White Cube, The Ideology of the Gallery Space. San Francisco, CA: The Lapis Press (1976).
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