ARTS MARKET REPORT: Digital Sales Drive Fine Art Digits


Historically, the upper class established “legitimacy” within the arts. The proper way to showcase fine art was in isolation, within a formal setting, and before limited audiences. In order to preserve this elitist ideal, the market would sustain outside of the popular economic marketplace and focus on the aesthetic desires of wealthy sponsors. The same is still mostly true for today’s fine arts market, which remains confined and controlled by a small percentage of the upper class.

Glenn O’Brien is an arts journalist, former member of Andy Warhol’s Factory, and panelist on the Vice News report Why Artists Don’t Make Money. O’Brien describes the arts market as an unregulated and inscrutable industry controlled by auction houses and independent financiers in which multi-million dollar deals are based on the value of art, a market which is only determined by taste.

O’Brien further argues that art has become the most decadent form of conspicuous consumption in which objects have become “Veblen” goods that operate within a closed market, and in the reverse of supply and demand. Award-winning artist Ryder Ripps argues that the music industry needs to evolve and realize that it is “selling something that is ephemeral and metaphysical. The thing they are selling is the experience of listening to music. It doesn’t matter what medium it’s on. The medium in which people can access it the easiest is the most relevant.”

While the traditional arts market is incredibly difficult to break into, the introduction of digital sales has broadened the visual arts market similarly to digital music, allowing visual art to become part of popular culture, as a commoditized product that is broadly accessible. According to The European Fine Art Foundation 2016 Global Art Market Report, online art sales increased by 39% since 2014 and represent 7% of global art sales in 2015. New collectors and art buyers are entering the market through a less intimidating method, and are accessing their experience much faster.

Online art sales increased by 39% since 2014
and represent 7% of global art sales in 2015.

The marketplace shows that people love the immediate gratification of digital download, however, this is fueled by love of the ritualistic, and elite experience that owning art provides. According to the Deloitte/ArtTactic Art & Finance Report, 77% of art collectors and 69% of art professionals believe that the online art auction market will become one of the winning business models. This means that as arts managers must stay abreast of what happens in the economic marketplace, and how culture changes from generation to generation. This also means there is a growing demand for professionals within arts marketing and digital sales.

The emergence of online art sales open a doorway that did not exist before and can alleviate much of the financial struggles of living as an artist.  Anyone can sell artwork online, so artists need to focus on marketing, and think about the psychology of why people are buying. But, does this mean that the arts market of the future will become muddled down and used as a source of income for any person without particular artistic merit? For the sake of contemporary and future arts movements, I hope that online platforms can utilize some sort of selection process. But then, we would fall back into the same system of a few tastemakers, who determine what is “good” art and control the market.