How Instagram changed the art market
Museum artwork

Written by Bartek Bezemer

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October 17, 2021

The visual social media platform Instagram has turned the art market on its head reaching millions of art enthusiasts through its expansive reach. 

The art market is a multibillion-dollar industry. Despite shrinking by 22% in 2020, the art market was still $50.1 billion in size. An industry dating back centuries is now at the turning point of embracing the digital. How did this market come to be and where will it go with the emergence of new technologies such as Instagram that have disrupted how art is being discovered?

The Medici and the birth of the art market

The art market goes back centuries and started to take shape during the Middle Ages, although that market is incomparable to the art market today. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church commissioned on-site artworks. They were not meant for sale but purely meant as an item of worship. The price of the works was based on the requirements of the patron, such as materials and the details of the works themselves. The art market took shape when collectors entered the scene and art no longer became stationery ornaments like in the Middle Ages. 

Private collectors overtook the Catholic Church and Medieval guilds as the sole commissioners for art. One of the most well-known art collectors and patrons was the Medici family, who used art as a means to consolidate power. The Medici were a high-class family from Florence, Italy during the 13th century, accumulating wealth through banking and commerce. They used it as a means of symbolism to flaunt their wealth and create portraits as rightful statesmen. Consequently turning Florence into an art hub. Florence became the cradle of Renaissance art during the 14th century and the 15th-century. This period was labeled as the Early Renaissance, where various painting techniques would revolutionize art. One-point linear perspective helped works of art to incorporate foreshortening, anatomical detail, proportions, and perspective techniques to create the illusion of a 3D space. The subjects depicted also moved away from religious depictions, now moving more to the portrayal of everyday life and events. 

The museum we see today though did not start out as collections but as houses of philosophical gatherings, which appeared during the Roman era.

The High Renaissance was heralded by Leonardo Da Vinci who introduced works with scientific accuracy and that was ingrained with symbolism. During this period artists embarked on competitive streaks, one-upping each other to become the pinnacle of art. The most notable rivalry was between Michelangelo and Da Vinci who were commissioned to create frescoes for the Hall of Five Hundred opposite of each other. The works never came to completion as they gravitated towards other commissioned projects. 

The question arises with different high-profile artists being commissioned for creating artworks during the Renaissance at what point in time the museum emerged. The museum we see today though did not start out as collections but as houses of philosophical gatherings, which appeared during the Roman era. The Medici reintroduced the term during the 15th-century, attributing its comprehensiveness and not the building itself. At the dawn of the 17th-century, the museum became synonymous with ‘a collection of curiosities’ across Europe. The museum morphed into different entities during these formative years and was finally recognized and established through the British Museum in 1753. The centuries after museums would further incorporate a building with cultural objects and access to the public. 

The online art market and the impact of Instagram

In 2015 the New York Times reported on the rise of Instagram as a worthy competitor for the art market. At the time Instagram did not have an e-commerce integration, but the art was already proliferating as the platform of choice for the avid art buyer. The NY Times saying, ‘In the past few years, it has emerged as the social media platform of choice for many contemporary artists, galleries, auction houses and collectors, who use it to promote art — especially works by emerging artists — and to offer an early peek into studios, auction houses and art fairs.’ Instagram is a perfect place for galleries to display their collections and attract potential art buyers, who can easily contact them to acquire new works. In 2020 Aimee Dawson at The Art Newspaper observed that the tech enthusiasts were able to achieve fame through Instagram by building large followings and cutting out the art dealer, with some artists reaching hundreds of thousands of followers. 

Today, the online art market is up and coming, especially in 2020 when it experienced major growth. Online sales increased by 100% in 2020, compared to 2019, growing from $6 billion to $12.4 billion. Hiscox observed that a few key players will operate in the online art market. Research shows that the top ten online art platforms will account for 68% of all sales. It is expected the current galleries might be the emerging force in the online art market. 48% expect that a newcomer might disrupt the market. One of the disrupters is Instagram, which is embraced by Christie’s and Sotheby’s who engage with their audiences on the platform through Instagram stories. An impressive 68% of respondents indicated using the platform for art-related purposes, a doubling compared to 2015. 

In 2018, Artnet spoke to Loïc Gouzer, former co-chairman, at Christie’s and the impact of Instagram on the art market. Gouzer himself is adept at using Instagram and at a time amassing a following of 21,100 who engaged with his artwork, sales and wildlife conservation content. When asked how he felt about how Instagram could be a force for the better in the art market he replied, ‘Instagram is an incredible tool because you have direct access to collectors. I would estimate that at least 80 percent of the collectors I deal with follow us on Instagram at Christie’s, so we can use it to undercut the traditional press, which is a good thing.’ To hear that Instagram is able to bypass the press who are perceived as the gatekeepers, is a trend that social media and the internet as whole has been able to facilitate for many industries. Artnet noted that, just like Gouzer, former Chairman Brett Gorvey at Christie’s, used Instagram as a medium to build hype around upcoming auctions. When asked who honed the skill of selling through Instagram, Gouzer replied, ‘Instagram definitely works for selling art.’ Gouzer brings some nuance to his own operations on Instagram as he wants to be less contractually obliged to share artworks, and ensure it remains his ‘private realm’. Undeniable is the impact Instagram has had on the management layers within Christie’s. 

A year after the interview with Gouzer, Forbes spoke with Sotheby’s Worldwide Director of Communications, Lauren Gioia who gave insight into how it uses Instagram to stay relevant in the digital era.  When asked what the relation is between Sotheby’s auctions and its operations on Instagram, Gioia replied, ‘Just as our business is made up of many microcosms of activity and interest, our branded hashtags effectively link related specialist content and reflect the multifaceted nature of the auction world.’ Further saying, ‘Our auctioneers and specialists are central to our business, and we often feature them in our Instagram Stories to share insights from upcoming exhibitions.’ For Sotheby’s, Instagram was not a threat, but an opportunity to expand its reach and attract more customers, even if it has multimillion-dollar objects. It is able to connect with its audience on a closer level and share the enthusiasm for the products in an organic fashion. Through the different tools at their disposal through the platform, they can elevate the auction experience which was impossible before. 

The facts don’t lie. Statista found that in 2020, 87% of art buyers used Instagram to discover new artists. Popular and talented artists can make a good living by selling their art through Instagram. Powell told Artsy she sells her artworks between $500 and $11,000 with receiving 90% of her inquiries straight into her Instagram inbox. Instagram has morphed into a business opportunity with easy access to interested buyers. Sarah Meyohas said to Arsty about the potential of selling art through Instagram, ‘The decision to become an artist is entrepreneurial in itself, even if you don’t consider it like a business.’ 

Instagram is a perfect place for galleries to display their collections and attract potential art buyers, who can easily contact them to acquire new works.

Artist Ashley Longshore from New Orleans has been utilizing Instagram for years and attracting a wealthy clientele in the process, selling artworks ranging from $6,000 to $40,000 per piece. She receives commissions through her website, direct messages. The direct messages prove a valuable source of revenue for Longshore. The Tax Collection spoke to Longshore in a brief interview asking how she navigates the digital art landscape. When asked how social media has changed the relations between artists and fans, Longshore replied, ‘It’s a direct line to the creative main vein. You can circumvent the middle man, you can be friends with the artists you love – it’s just so astounding and incredible to have this technology.’ Longshore is a prime example of how to use Instagram as a medium to connect with fans and clients. In terms of the future of Instagram and social media and its impact on the art world, Longshore said, ‘Connectivity and communication are key. It allows artists to connect – artists need that – artists need to be seen and celebrated. It’s vulnerable to put yourself out there, and then of course the ability to sell direct and not have to give up 50%… THAT is a banger.’

Democratization and a business opportunity

Instagram can be a force for good and the bad. In some ways Instagram has stripped away the power of the art establishment and forced artists and auction houses to rethink their strategies. The platform has opened up a new opportunity for artists and galleries to engage with their audience. From an artist’s perspective, it is the ultimate way to generate exposure and make a living through the platform. 

When approaching it as an entrepreneurial venture, selling art through Instagram can become a career in itself. On the other side of the coin, it poses a threat for galleries that now lose their position as gatekeepers to the closed-off world that is the art market. That does not mean the galleries are left penniless in this new digital landscape. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have found creative ways of engaging with its customers and attracting enthusiasts who lift up the brand throughout the platform. But it must be noted that their collections are high profile pieces which are able to attract large audiences organically and the same might not ring true for smaller galleries.

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