Art markets in crisis: how personal bonds and market subcultures mediate the effects of COVID-19

In March, Petzel’s gallery closed abruptly. He now coordinates his team through “laborious” online conferences. He has postponed exhibitions, dealt with canceled art fairs, and worked on online outreach. Beyond navigating such logistical challenges, Petzel connects with his artists on Zoom. However, those interactions feel different in building relations from his multiple studio visits. He notes,

I can’t touch the artworks, the sense of humor and the sparks that fly when you are in someone’s studio is gone…. On Zoom, each one of us just wants to finish this as fast as possible. But when we are in the studio, it usually ends with a few beers or a funny conversation…. We are a very funny tribe that is very much into this conviviality, this kind of gossiping…. With Zoom, it is now down to the basics. Let’s agree to do this and agree to that, it is more goal-oriented.

Virtual meetings seem a poor substitute for cultivating the “traditional sense of community, trust, curiosity,” says Petzel, highlighting how he is experiencing the crisis through the prism of the market’s moral economy, where close relationships between dealers and artists are crucial (Velthuis 2005[9]). These bonds are built on beliefs in shared commitments to art, experienced through frequent informal and intimate interactions.

Connecting with collectors is important to Petzel as well. Shortly after the shutdown, he called long-term clients to “find out how they are doing.” Yet with the absence of face-to-face meetings, the gallery also had to develop digital ties. In November 2019, the staff had already begun working on an online platform, but COVID-19 forced it to accelerate, creating new forms of symbolic production (Alexander 2004). The gallery has launched artist videos on Instagram, introduced curated online exhibitions, and distributed newsletters. None contains open advertising for works or posted prices, but a button says “Inquire.” This allows Petzel to “fish out” speculators, consistent with the non-commercial culture of his gallery segment. The market norms inform the gallerist’s digital extension, even if it frustrates collectors like Megan, who hopes that the market’s online conversion brings more price transparency.Footnote 1[11][10]

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