Damnation in the Details
Another week in spring, another art-market report to cringe through. On Tuesday, insurance carrier Hiscox (in conjunction with analytics firm ArtTactic) released their annual Online Art Trade Report for 2016. As the name implies, the study is meant to provide a sweeping view of e-commerce development across the industry's various market sectors. But remarkably, it also managed to produce an actual data point that made me even queasier than the methodology behind it.
To be clear, the Hiscox report's data-mining strategy is even less inspiring than the one powering the most recent TEFAF report. Many of its results come from the responses of just 672 art buyers surveyed through Twitter, Facebook, and ArtTactic's client mailing list. (On the up side, that's an increase of almost 30 percent over last year's sample size. Progress!) Those results were supplemented by publicly available seller data and a separate survey of 127 traditional galleries and dealers––a sub-microscopic sample of the nearly 300,000 businesses alleged to exist in that sector last year by Arts Economics.
Long story short: If, like me, you consider the TEFAF report to be a shot in the dark, the Hiscox report is something like an accidental discharge in a black hole. And given how hard I've been on the former document in the past, fairness suggests I should use this post to treat the latter as mercilessly as a childhood bully would treat a stuttering pants-wetter.
However, the following stat, found on the Hiscox report's third page, takes precedence:
39 percent of galleries in the survey (down from 41 percent in 2013) indicated that they had no e-commerce strategy in place.
Now, let's keep this figure in perspective. For a sample of 127 galleries and dealers, 39 percent equates to only about 50 businesses. We also have no clue who these galleries are, even in the abstract. Some could be newly founded and still in the midst of figuring out almost everything about their strategy. Some could be owned by proprietors planning to retire in a few years. Given the extreme limitations in the Hiscox report's data then, it would be an overreaction to start running down the streets of Chelsea screaming that we have a total Luddite rebellion on our hands.
Still, even skewed data can be telling. Tiny as the Hiscox report's sample may be, it nevertheless aligns with anecdotal evidence about how wary, resistant, and/or ignorant the gallery and dealer sector is of technology today. Having no e-commerce strategy essentially means saying, "You know what, the Internet just doesn't seem important enough for us to think about yet." Outside of birth-year or twilight-years businesses, that's a straitjacket-worthy response from anyone selling anything in any industry in 2016. And it's especially so in the gallery and dealer sector, where the field's late-adopter mentality could endow smart innovators with a sizable competitive advantage.
It's no easy task to figure out how technology will impact art sales in either the short or long term. (Take it from someone writing a book on the subject.) But one thing I'm absolutely sure of is this: The single easiest way to commit commercial suicide in the coming years will be to ignore the question entirely. Whether you're a gallerist, dealer, artist, entrepreneur, or arts professional, I implore you not to follow those 50 or so directionless sellers in the Hiscox report. Because no matter how anomalous they maybe, and no matter how long the trip takes, they're ultimately whistling their merry way straight into hell.