The arrival of the novel coronavirus has not only affected human life, but businesses as well, in South Africa and globally.
With countries implementing lockdowns to effect social distancing in order to slow the rate of infections, businesses have found themselves affected negatively and some will find it hard to survive the current restrictions. The art business has not been spared either. Depending largely on foot traffic, art businesses such as art galleries, theatres, art fairs, art auction companies, concert organisers and arts festivals have been significantly affected.
However, with its capacity for creativity, the sector is finding innovative new ways of connecting and doing business, irrespective of the onslaught by the coronavirus, with various degrees of success and failure.
Citylife Arts has started a series that focuses on art business leaders and how the art businesses they run are responding to the challenges posed by the coronavirus, especially during the lockdown, by adapting new models of running businesses, for example using new technologies.
In this instalment of the series, CityLife Arts editor EDWARD TSUMELE chats to RUARC PEFFERS, Managing Director at Aspire Art Auctions
ET: Aspires’ premises are centrally located in Illovo in Johannesburg and Cape Town for easy access by the public and art collectors alike. Is location important in the fine art auction business?
RP: Art businesses will always benefit from physical spaces for exhibitions and displaying art, and art certainly comes alive when physically interacted with, but we have noticed over the past few months that a number of art collectors are comfortable in the online space and that they are still willing to transact based on digital support systems alone. Good websites with strong presentations of artworks, high quality images, accuracy in cataloguing and documenting of artworks is slowly becoming high currency, and will perhaps supersede a highly coveted physical address in the future.
For now though, I believe, good location, coupled with great online capabilities are key, all of which are hinged fundamentally on reputation and relationship.
As collectors are increasingly reliant on buying artworks based on digital images and details alone, the more the trust and confidence a collector has with a company, the more likely they are to engage in return business.
ET: The advent of the coronavirus has come with its challenges of how businesses are run. How has the arrival of COVID-19 affected the operations at Aspire ? And what did you have to make in order to still be able to engage meaningfully with your clients irrespective of the challenges during the lockdown?
RP: Since inception, Aspire has possessed agility within the digital space which resulted in the capacity to conduct auctions through online platforms.
While we may miss the excitement of the live auction environment and opportunities to spend time with our network in more physical settings, there are many technologies that facilitate the process and can present art in compelling formats.
As part of our effort to assist other companies, charities and the broader South African community, we have conducted four fundraiser online auctions during lockdown – The Lockdown Collection, Domestic Animal Rescue Group, Clarke’s Bookshop and Absa.
ET: Many companies have been forced by the advent of COVID-19 and the current lockdown to use new technologies in order to continue to operate relatively smoothly during lockdown. Aspire has been using technology before the lockdown to do some of its business? Has that experience helped in smoothing the transition from hosting events such as auctions live where those bidding have to be physically present to participate, to now hosting all events virtually?
RP: The transition to online events and auctions was easier for Aspire due to the business’s intrinsic digital awareness. Online auctions were not new to us, and we had a lot of experience in conducting auction style sales via the internet. The only difference now is that the audience feels quite open to the concept since it is unsafe to physically attend social events.
Overall, the shift to virtual eventing has been a welcomed development for Aspire and adds an interesting element to the art industry as a whole.
ET: Are there any limitations to the current situation of running an auction house remotely and relying on technology mostly to interact with customers and clients?
RP: Sure. The most prominent limitation is the physical viewing aspect – and this is felt from both our side in wanting to show something physically to a client and potential buyer, and also from the buyer’s side, wanting to see and be in the presence of a potential acquisition, prior to purchasing.
That said, advances in technology have mitigated this greatly – virtual viewings over Zoom or WhatsApp video call or FaceTime can be very helpful, digital photography is exceptional and good photographers can really convey the physicality and three-dimensionality of objects and surfaces over the two-dimensional photographic plane, and virtual exhibition rooms can also be very compelling – as we were doing as early as November 2019.
However, while we have welcomed the digital era into our business, we do look forward to a blend of physical and virtual interactions with our network in the future. Nothing can ever trump a personal interaction with another human, and we highly value those occasions. The next 18 -24 months will be increasingly interesting to watch unfold as we navigate the ‘new normal’ of business.
ET: What are the current projects at Aspire? Any auction or exhibitions that are on and until when?
RP: We have just finished our first auction in Europe when we held a sale of modern and contemporary art from Africa in Paris. This was a world first and an extremely exciting and rewarding experience. We are currently finalising consignments of fine art for our next auction which will be broadcast from Johannesburg on 3 September 2020.
ET: What are Aspire’s social media handles?
LinkedIn: Aspire Art Auctions