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 SUSIE GOODMAN, Executive Director at Strauss &Co.
ET: Strauss and Co’s premises are centrally located in Houghton and (Newlands) Cape Town for easy access by the public and art collectors alike. Is location important in the fine art auction business?
SG. Yes, location is important as we need to be accessible for buyers and sellers to view artworks on sale and collect and drop off art works. Yet, in the world we currently live in, and even more so in the time of lockdown, one can now live anywhere and still participate in an auction no matter where in the world it is! Over the last few months, we have been able to connect with clients in so many new and innovative ways and this has led to many new conversations and new connections and the deepening of existing ones. When it comes to valuing artworks, we can easily start the process over email, with an image of the work, its measurements and information about its medium and provenance. But this obviously does not replace the fact that the art world is built around relationships and the physical engagement with art works.
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 Strauss &Co? And what adjustments did you have to make in order to still be able to engage meaningfully with your clients irrespective of the challenges during the lockdown?
SG: Covid-19 has certainly made Strauss&Co look at innovative ways of doing things differently and adding new ideas to our day-to-day business operations. We have been very fortunate in these difficult times to be able to work effectively remotely, and to continue running our auctions on our online platform, which is well established, effective, and familiar to prospective buyers. We also started hosting a series of regular Zoom ‘talkabouts’ most weekday afternoons at 4.00 pm and huge numbers of people have joined in. This has proved to be a vibrant new way of connecting with our clients, providing historical content, opportunities to learn and share knowledge, and to gain ‘virtual’ access to places such as museums and artists’ studios that are closed under lockdown. We have zoomed all over the place and we have all loved it!
We also held a ground-breaking auction in May, which was a live virtual auction that seamlessly moved between our Cape Town and Johannesburg teams between sessions. A ‘normal’ live auction gathers clients in an auction room, and bidders bid in person or on the phone, but this was not possible under our lockdown regulations. Our new virtual auction was incredible as we connected beyond our normal Strauss&Co reach with new bidders coming from the four corners of the globe. It was so exciting to have the virtual audience, all in their homes, connecting over art.
ET: What are the current projects at Strauss &Co? Any auction or exhibitions that are on and until when?
SG: As you know, with Strauss&Co we are always onto the next exciting project, auction, exhibition or collaboration. I love it! Life is never dull in our team. We are so very, very lucky to be involved in the creative economy and all its sectors. We have a virtual exhibition on Maggie Laubser and Gladys Mgudlandlu planned for the RMB Turbine Art Fair, with all the education programmes that accompany a project like that, and we have several commitments with regards to charity auctions to benefit people who are not able to earn their living in the usual way because of COVID-19 – from artists to golf caddies!
We have a fabulous Online auction that opens on the 29th of June and closes on the 6th of July, with works spanning all mediums, all interests, and various eras. There will also be a fabulous section of decorative lots that could fill the design and homeware gaps in our homes. We’ve all been spending so much more time at home – a few new decorative items could be the answer for a new look and feel in a room!
Our next major live virtual auction is taking place on the 26, 27 and 28th of July in Johannesburg and we have the privilege to be handling some interesting and memorable art works including some truly remarkable works from the collection of an important South African collector. There will be an extensive programme of Zoom talkabouts accompanying this auction, which give extra context and background information to the items we will be auctioning. Our regular Wednesday ‘Museum Moments’ will be continuing on Zoom and over the next few weeks we will explore the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch, the Tatham Art Gallery in Pietermaritzburg, the Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein, and Welgemeend in Cape Town, to name a few. Armchair cultural travel at its best!