How COVID Accelerated the Evolution of the Art World

University of Demo | January 20, 2021 (Updated September 9, 2021)

Image credit: Heather Morse, Unsplash

COVID shook the art world. Learn how the arts sector quickly pivoted in 2020 and what that means for the years ahead. ​

COVID accelerated changes that were already in progress both in the arts and throughout society. 

In 2020 there was a major leap in creating online access. COVID made the cloud paramount. Consider online education. We were moving to more online models, but COVID made the jump into virtual classrooms a reality. Telehealth visits exponentially increased. Disney launched their first major motion picture online.

Similarly in the art world, the acceleration of access was dramatically fast forwarded by immediate need. 

Here at Artwork Archive we have seen organizations over the last decade drag their feet on the topic of online access—something to do eventually—whether that was managing their collections online, exhibiting online, or providing remote access to their staff. 

During the global pandemic a switch went off and we were inundated with time sensitive calls. Art organizations had to evolve or perish. They needed to provide online collaboration tools to their employees working remotely. They needed to maintain relevancy and bring their art online as their doors closed and events were cancelled. They needed affordable and accessible cloud-based tools for managing their collections as budgets were cut and staff were laid off. 

Desires of the future became needs of the present. 

Here’s the evolution we saw in 2020. 


COVID forced the art world to create digital alternatives. 

Yes, cultural organizations used technology to create and distribute programming before COVID. But before 2020 the online experience was second to the physical one—like an afterthought. Resources were concentrated on physical exhibits and in-person programming and events. 

This crazy phenomenon presented art institutions with no choice. With the global lockdown, organizations and creatives had to turn to the internet to provide access to exhibits, events, fundraisers and education. And within this pivot, they found a silver lining. 

Despite the challenges of low attendance, institutions grew their digital audience. According to the Alliance of American Museums, the Rijksmuseum had its lowest attendance since 1964, but the museum experienced a 23 percent increase in the number of its social-media followers and witnessed millions of unique visits to its website including its virtual collection—Rijksstudio.

Even volunteering went online. Check out how the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum adopted virtual volunteering by adapting their information desk and docent positions to a video-based solution.


The pandemic democratized art. 

COVID forced the art world to move past traditional structures (which were not always inclusive), adapt for a digital-first community and access new audiences. 

With the move to online exhibitions and virtual programming, people were no longer restricted by geography, cost or time. During COVID, an art enthusiast can view a performance online from the comfort of their couch. They can roam the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum via augmented reality. They don’t have to line up childcare. They don’t have to leave work early to take the train into the city. 

Even Art Basel brought its exclusive art fair online. Art Basel’s Online Viewing Rooms were so popular that the site crashed when it launched. OVR was already in the works before the pandemic outbreak, but the virtual project accelerated its timeline so that collectors and art professionals could access the featured galleries and artworks.

While global access became a hallmark of 2020, our own backyards were enlivened by artists. In response to the hardships of the pandemic and civic unrest, creatives took to the community's streets. Murals seemed to pop up everywhere. Public art seemed to have a prominent role to play in the entertainment and education of community members as they explored their own neighborhoods while sheltering-in-place. See how Cheyenne/Laramie County Public Art mapped out their collection for people to view. 

Atlantis Rising, 2020, by Ellex Swavonia displayed at Woodruff Park in Atlanta, GA. Photo credit: Brock Scott with Dashboard 2020.

Let’s admit it, attending events in your pajama pants is kind of nice. 

The attendance of online experiences was normalized in 2020. With face-to-face interactions limited, virtual connections became the new normal. Everyone seemed to use Zoom to celebrate birthdays, flow in yoga classes, attend meetings, etc.

Shanna Hennig of Winston Art Group notes that art events became more accessible with online video conferencing tools. Now, we can attend artist lectures, gallery exhibition tours and art fairs from home. We can attend a conference without worrying about the cost of airfare and a hotel room. 

Even after it’s safe to return to in-person activities, the art world will likely continue to incorporate online channels as a way to connect to larger audiences and offer convenient ways to engage with art.  


Social distancing actually forced us to get closer, virtually. 

Galleries and arts organizations have had to pivot and find new ways to engage their members and publics during shutdown. Before COVID, gallery openings may involve someone doing a little socializing and looking at artwork while drinking a glass (or two) of wine. 

The focus on virtual seems to provide more opportunities for dialogue. Maybe that’s because there are less competing distractions? Like a crowded, and thus intimidating, venue. 

Now, we are seeing more conversations with artists and curators being recorded and shared along with the art. Artists are giving studio tours. They are talking through their portfolio—their process and inspiration—all of which makes the artworks come alive. 

We hope this will be a continued trend into the future. The artist’s process and origin stories can be just as appealing as the artworks themselves. 


Social media becomes the new meeting place.

Social media has been bringing communities together for years. So it was only natural that when doors closed, art groups focused on their online accounts and promoted digital content on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They started conversations by sharing videos, streaming live events, and using hashtags like #MuseumFromHome

We also saw artists get creative. Illustrators read their books over Instagram Live. Artists connected with patrons over hashtags. Makers set up flash sales, led studio tours, and recorded time-lapse videos showcasing their process. 

"I am sharing paintings each day on Instagram and Facebook so that people have more art in their lives. While making a living through art feels hard right now, I can do my part to make confinement less stressful.”—Lisa McShane, Artist

At the onset of the pandemic Murosa global art activation agency that brings together artists and businesses, sought to uplift their community through a digital initiative called #MakeWithMuros. Over 30 artists from around the world created inspiring pieces, recorded their processes, and welcomed viewers into their homes and studios, virtually. The hashtag also became a platform for people to purchase the art. "It was a humbling experience to watch so many come together, inspired, uplifted and ready to collectively tackle this global challenge together!" shares Tricia Binder, Co-Founder and President at Muros.


Without in-person as an option, online exhibitions become the go-to experience. 

Art organizations around the world had to quickly pivot and bring their exhibitions online in order to continue their mission and stay connected. And, it wasn’t just museums bringing their exhibitions online. Galleries, academic institutions, hospitals, airports, open studios, individual artists, public art programs all brought their artworks online. 

There was always the argument that virtual reality could not replicate the in-person experience. Virtual reality cannot replicate the ridges and depth from brushstrokes. You cannot walk up to and inspect a miniature or, step back and be in awe of an installation’s massive scale. 

But COVID made the argument moot. Without access to the physical artworks, isn’t virtual good enough? And now that virtual exhibitions are here, people are seeing their value.

Online forums also provide an opportunity to share without the constraints of a brick and mortar space. You can embed videos, share artist-related content and provide more historical context.  

Even before the pandemic we had savvy groups come to us for online access. They used our Public Profile and website embeds to curate online exhibitions and showcase their permanent collection. In 2020 that number exploded. 

Here are some examples:

  • Davidson College’s Van Every Smith Galleries brought their 2020 fall semester exhibit online so that students, faculty, alumni and their community could continue to engage with their programming. 
  • Airports were deserted in 2020. Instead of cancelling exhibits, the Minneapolis-St.Paul International Airport art program (MSP) brought their rotating exhibitions online
  • The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens quickly pivoted in April and made their annual fundraiser, the Winter Park Paint Out, available online.
An online exhibition and fundraiser by Winter Park Paint Out using Artwork Archive's website embed.


With gallery doors closed, online sales increase.

Before COVID we saw a trend of increased online sales due to innovations in technology, increased comfort levels around online transactions, and the creation of democratic platforms like Artsy and Artwork Archive’s Discovery platform, which gives art aficionados the freedom to peruse artists by price point, geography, medium, etc..

Now, online sales increase because of the direct need for galleries, dealers, artists and auction houses to bring their works online while their doors are closed. Their website has become their new showroom. 

“Apart from reaching new buyers, around one quarter of the sales dealers made online this year were to collectors that were already working with them, but that were buying online for the first time. Once they have stepped over that line, it seems likely that they may do so again, even if it’s not their preferred way to buy, ” Dr Clare McAndrew, the author of  ‘Resilience in the Dealer Sector: A Mid-Year Review 2021’ noted.


The transition to online also established more transparency in the art market. Many galleries are now showing their prices. 

The art market continues to expand online, notably with sales at all price points and drawing first-time auction buyers. For instance, with the economic challenges of 2020, we saw artists pivoting and making smaller and more affordable works. 

The art market is social and transactional, and people will return to in-person art-related events when it’s safe to do so again. That said, the success of online sales, particularly at auction has been proven and is here to stay. It’s likely that auction houses will continue popular cross-category online sales, for example selling rare sneakers with jewelry and contemporary art.


Emerging artists may have gotten a leg up during COVID. 

Before COVID, artists and collectors connected at art fairs, studio visits and gallery events. But for the emerging artists without gallery representation and invitations to these shows, they were left out. COVID made gallery-hopping, fair-going and studio-visiting not possible. So art buyers had to adapt to new opportunities to discover artists and their works. 

Melinda Wang, independent curator and Founder of MW Projects, a cultural production and art advisory firm based in NYC, shares her experience: “Thanks to more online content from artists and galleries (especially artist-run projects posting on social media), I’ve discovered artists who I probably would not have come across in normal times by proactively seeking out artist talks, performances, exhibitions and initiatives that pique my interest.”


Amidst a pandemic, new wealth led to a new collector class.

In 2020 we saw new, engaged collectors coming from the technology sector. 2020 was a challenging year for small businesses and individual creatives, but it was a boon for large companies like Airbnb, Doordash and Asana, which all went public last year. There were 480 IPOs on the US stock market in 2020—an all-time record. This is +106% more than in 2019.

These monumental shifts in wealth led to a new collecting class eager to spend and invest their money. But, for this new group, the art world can seem exclusive and out of reach. Virtual exhibitions, online art fairs and online-only auctions have helped to democratize the market—making the art world more accessible to new collectors looking for an affordable and accessible entry point. 

Image courtesy of Unsplash.


Auction houses reinvented themselves.

A key player in this democratization of collecting is the auction house. Previously, the auction house was the pinnacle of purchasing art. But in 2020 auction houses had to rethink everything—their schedule, their offerings, and how they sell their art. 

Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Philips rethought their traditional major spring sale, and instead, pivoted to the first-ever hybrid sales in the summer of 2020. E-bidding wasn’t new to the art world, but the equal footing that online bidders had in 2020 was of note. Auction houses now offer weekly or monthly cadence, which is a great entry point for smaller or more affordable lots. Thus, building up that new emerging collector class that can get comfy here and perhaps purchase bigger in the future. 

Additionally, the traditional auction catalogue, which is typically sent to those who have previously bought or sold at auction, risks missing qualified buyers and emerging collectors. Virtual versions provide greater access to existing and potential bidders and the opportunity for target searches of collecting categories, artists and artworks. Learn more about the lessons auction houses learned in 2020. 


2020 was a challenging year for art groups of all sizes. 

Before the global pandemic, arts organizations were already familiar with struggle. Galleries struggled against online competitors. Museums struggled to maintain their membership and operating budgets. COVID did not help. 

In 2020 we saw a direct hit to the revenue of arts organizations and artists. Ticket sales were down. Fundraisers and workshops were cancelled. Budgets were cut. Staff were furloughed or laid off. Despite efforts, Small Business Loans and arts relief funding did not provide (enough) reprieve for everyone. According to Americans for the Arts, two-thirds of America’s artists are now unemployed.

In the summer of 2020 we saw a shocking statement from the Alliance of American Museums that one-third of museums may close by the end of the pandemic. “Museum revenue disappeared overnight when the pandemic closed all cultural institutions, and sadly, many will never recover,” said Laura Lott, President & CEO of AAM. 

This will have a ripple effect into our communities. Museums are community spaces, job providers, educators, and keepers of our cultural heritage.


But, some institutions found solutions in the virtual world. 

The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens in Winter Park, Florida quickly pivoted in April of 2020 and made their annual fundraiser, the Winter Park Paint Out, available online. An unexpected benefit of bringing the fundraiser online was that they saw sales outside of their community—family members, friends and enthusiasts outside of Winter Park engaged with the show. Plus, artists were able to showcase more works since they were not limited to a confined space within the gallery. 

Typically we see galleries and individual artists using our sales and invoicing features, but in 2020 we saw an increased adoption of art programs utilizing the online payments and Paypal integration? Why? They had to cancel their auctions and galas. Instead, development teams turned to virtual alternatives, if they could.

Artwork Archive helps artists, collectors and organizations organize, manage, showcase and sell their artworks.


To stay afloat, silos were dismantled and unlikely partnerships were made.

With limited budget and staff, art organizations had to get scrappy. The Metropolitan Museum partnered with Verizon to launch the Met Unframed. And in Utah, the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at the Utah State University partnered with a local real estate company to create a virtual tour. 

Katie Lee-Koven, Executive Director & Chief Curator at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art shares that the idea came from working with a local realtor selling a house. The museum really  wanted to create a virtual tour, but they did not have access to the equipment, software or expertise needed. 

Again, COVID became the push. Katie divulges, “[Virtual tours] is a tool, and I am happy to be able to offer it right now. We were discussing doing this before COVID-19, but like many things we decided to make it more of a priority when we closed the museum.” Now, each upcoming exhibition will have its own virtual tour on the museum’s website. 

Let’s also look to the work of 8-Bridges—a new gallery platform that brings the Bay Area art world together. Their mission is to maintain a vibrant gallery scene, despite restrictions on travel, celebrations and other larger gatherings. On the first Thursday of every month, they launch eight shows of artists relevant to the Bay Area. “It’s a great idea. It brings new and fresh blood,” asserts Susan J Mumford, Founder and CEO of the Association of Women Art Dealers.


Baby Boomers jumped on estate planning. 

Planning for the future of an art collection is not new. Estate planning and will preparation is on the to-do list of many collectors. But, it is something that can be put off until next year, or the year after.

In 2020, estate planning became a priority. Many collectors were thinking of their mortality. Artwork Archive saw a significant increase of individual collectors and art advisors subscribing to online art collection management tools so that they could put their art investments in order. 

There was a great fear of passing without a clear directive for their beloved art. So, collectors finally seized the rainy day.

We’re excited to see this trend continue as proper documentation and record safekeeping avoids perils like infighting, forgotten artworks left in an attic, or works’ values lost in natural disasters. 


There was also a rise in the valuation of artist estates. 

Art appraising firms saw an increase in appraisals of artist estates in 2020. There is a generation of important artists that are passing away, and they did not think of preserving their legacy and documenting their artworks and career. They aren’t thinking about what they left behind, and that affects the value of their artworks.

It is paramount for artists to think of their artistic legacy—to document not only their artworks, but their process, materials, inspiration. Because when they pass, who will tell their story? 

Without exhibitions to install or art fairs to attend, artists are finding themselves with more time to devote to projects like inventory management. Learn what artists can do to preserve their legacy.


Will this online trend continue?

The art world is social. Art is a tangible object. There is no replacing the experience of viewing art in person, and that will not change. People want to be around other collectors, curators and experts. The public is hungry for in-person events to learn and patronize the arts, together. 

Whether it's attending an arts performance online, or purchasing an artwork from a website, these habits we’ve solidified in 2020 will stick around for the future. Online has proven to have its benefits. It provides access whether that is for attendance or purchase. The online platform is now proven. People feel comfortable with buying art online (up to a certain value). 

When we get to a place when the world opens back up again, we’ll see a hybrid model continue most likely. 


Ultimately, the arts will and always continue to uplift and inspire.

Art has been a gift during an isolating time—providing entertainment, distraction and inspiration.

During the dark and challenging days of the global pandemic, art reminded us of its inspirational powers. We’re grateful for the artists who continued to make art during the pandemic, for the art administrators who continued to share it, and the enthusiasts who continued to consume and purchase it. 

We are looking forward to the continued evolution of the art world in 2021—to see how the arts continue to become accessible and shared. 


Learn how to support the arts and artists during these challenging times. 

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