My reflections on art, collectors, marchers and contemporary art auctions
The internet is a blessing for the art world
Matthias Arndt set up galleries in Berlin and Singapore, and today he still organizes exhibitions worldwide - no longer as a gallery owner, but with his Arndt Art Agency. A conversation about the opportunities of the internet in times of crisis
Matthias Arndt knows his way around the art trade. He regularly took part in fairs such as Art Basel and Frieze. Today he still produces monographs and represents artists - but no longer as a gallery owner: his Arndt Art Agency does not have its own program, it exclusively pursues the interests of the artists, museums and collections for which Arndt carries out mandates. Arndt was already focusing on digital strategies - from newsletters to online-only exhibitions - before the Corona crisis.
Mr. Arndt, how have you experienced the past few months?
When the lockdown started, I was on my way to Australia from Singapore, actually with our Tate Asia Acquisitions Committee, to visit the Biennale. When I landed, I had to complete my two-week program in four days and then just made it back to Berlin. The borders literally closed in front of me and behind me - I had to buy several tickets to decide at the last moment which route to take. One of the most adventurous of the many hundreds of trips in recent years. A week of crisis management followed: Adjusting the operation and the planned exhibitions and projects to the new situation. We've been working in "creative mode" again for a few weeks now.
You have been running the Arndt Art Agency (A3) since the end of 2015, before that you worked in the “classic” art trade for many years. What makes A3 different?
Right from the start, I thought internationally beyond Berlin and have consistently worked internationally with the galleries in Berlin, Zurich, New York and Singapore for over two decades. Nevertheless – or perhaps because of this – I came up against the many territorial borders and self-imposed limitations of the traditional gallery model early on. As an agency, the Art Agency does not pursue a programme: it exclusively represents the interests of the represented artists and the collections and museums for which we carry out mandates. Because it does not act as a dealer, A3 does not compete with the galleries, but works with them by supporting the artists in their production and bringing private and institutional customers to the galleries. Accordingly, we can work with artists and galleries as well as museums from all over the world and draw from a gigantic pool of works and projects. While I still thought I would travel a lot when I was in the gallery, I now spend two weeks or more a month on average with our worldwide projects.
The term agency is associated with the proximity to the world of advertising. A world from which art, as a “special case of goods”, likes to try to distance itself. How do you see this supposed contrast?
I think the problem with the art world is that it doesn't think and operate professionally enough. What the art world players, who would rather lament the changing market than proactively redevelop the market for their artists and clients, understand by “demarcation” strikes me as more of a convenience or a lack of professionalism. Although the idea of the "art agency" is completely new, we did not orientate ourselves to the world of advertising, but to the model of "talent agencies" and "sports agents". I see the agent as a person who represents the interests of his talents - athletes, actors or artists - who works at the interfaces, negotiates contracts, supports the artists, works for the galleries and who the customers - private collections, Companies and museums – independent advice without conflicts of interest. The special case of art is rather that – before a market can be served – context must first be created, content conveyed and an audience informed and educated. That is hard work and serious commitment.
Why is the agency model a future model that other art market players should also follow?
Because the format of the Art Agency meets the requirements of the fundamentally changed art business, which is increasingly digitized and completely globalized, and it also meets the growing demands of artists and customers. Art itself is constantly reinventing itself, overcoming all obstacles and facing the questions and challenges of constantly changing living conditions every day. I've always understood the artists' and clients' mandate to adapt my business model to this "urge to innovate" inherent in art. And that's what I've done over the past 30 years - again and again and successfully. There is just as much work and commitment behind the agency format as there is behind the work of the gallery owner. She's just more self-determined.
If you look back over the past four years, what were the biggest challenges that arose as a result of the realignment?
We had already done the preparatory work prior to founding the business model, defining the content of the business model, defining the business areas and then bringing the whole thing into a flexible structure that could be operated worldwide. Continuing the galleries with full commitment over the years and developing a completely new concept at the same time was certainly the greatest effort.
And what was the biggest relief?
The biggest relief was to "flip the switch" and start Art Agency. We knew from the past that the "traditional company" initially felt compelled to list all the reasons why the agency concept could not work... When I published a "Galerie Newsletter" in 1995, I was labeled a "banker". Today there is no longer a gallery that does not send out “news” or “newsletters”. “We”, by the way, are my wife, Tiffany Wood, who worked in the auction business for many years, and I. Together we run the A3 as equal partners.
Today, our communication is naturally linked to the Internet. Which digital strategies did you already rely on before the Corona crisis?
The internet and especially Instagram are a blessing for the art world. The Internet was already one of the most important tools in the business when we were in the gallery. Our work in Asia, especially Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines, would be unthinkable without social media. Although we continue to work with exhibitions in galleries, produce shows in museums and numerous publications, communication is no longer possible without “WhatsApp”, “Wechat”, “Viber” and “Instagram Messages”. Platforms like Artsy are also gaining in importance for sales and mediation. And then the e-mail channel is always full. We have just hired an “Instagram and Social Media” expert for the agency who exclusively produces and posts content for Instgram and Twitter. The feedback is excellent.
In January you launched a series of online exhibitions on Artsy. The first show, My Name is Nobody, came to an end just as the majority of the art world started trying their hand at the field due to Corona. What attracted you to it?
Initially, the idea of the "Online Only" exhibitions was an experiment: I wanted to use the scattering power of the huge Artsy platform and its search engine, while creating a time-limited event that is an exhibition - I wanted the dialogue possibilities and the content moment of the thematic presentation strengthen while remaining sustainable, avoiding unnecessary travel, packaging and transport costs of the works. This became "Online Only" on Artsy and the first show "My Name is Nobody". It was not foreseeable that this coincided with the Corona crisis and the unfortunate circumstances of the global lockdown. Our advantage was and is that we had already worked proactively on the topic earlier and therefore had a small head start. And my instinct to see great potential in the online format was confirmed. In June we are entering the second round with the new "Online Only" exhibition " Reset " - works by Jannis Kounellis, Isa Genzken, Alicja Kwade and 15 other artists from Europe, Asia and Australia can be seen.
Works of art are now being sold on Instagram without collectors ever actually seeing them. Galleries with online showrooms are seeing significant sales right now. How has the new media changed the way art is viewed and bought?
Today, the first contact with an artist or his work is mostly digital. This is initially an advantage for the galleries and artists who sell their works directly. I don't think that the possibilities of new media will increase the total amount of artworks produced. The production was more driven by the countless art fairs beforehand. The success of these new distribution channels is a boon for the galleries and the customers, who can sell their work and buy art with less money and time. After the end of the Corona crisis, it will be a problem for many trade fairs to reposition themselves in a changed market environment. In the end, however, the works will be enjoyed again in their original form in collections, companies and museums. The work of art, which convinces through quality and content, comes into its own.
How do you assess the change?
While the big fashion and lifestyle brands initially distinguished themselves with strategies from art – by reducing or linking them to celebrities – many artists have now become “brands” themselves. And with branding comes reproducibility and access to the “unlimited” new markets in Asia and the US. The speed at which styles and products are created and promoted has also increased enormously, with a tendency towards the fast pace. We've just gotten used to the fact that some art has become an "asset class" and an investment object, and the next level follows. But change is happening all the time. There have been fashions and trends in art throughout the centuries. I'm almost too old to recognize and use the true potential of the new media. Above all, Instagram also offers huge opportunities to distribute artists, works and content worldwide. When I opened my gallery in 1994, I could never have dreamed that contemporary art would one day become as popular as it is today.
Will access to art become more democratic overall if more takes place in virtual space?
I haven't really thought about it that much, but it certainly is. Not everyone can and wants to "collect". The next generations will have their own ideas about “participation” in the art world and new opportunities through Instagram and social media.
A question that remains topical even after the Corona crisis with regard to climate change and rising rents: How must museums, galleries and the art world change if physical spaces are no longer accessible and travel becomes difficult?
I think this realization is still so new for all of us that we still have to let it sink in. For the first time in many years, I'm in Berlin for a whole month and I probably won't be on a plane for a total of six to eight weeks... But what was clear even before the crisis was that all those involved in the art world - i.e. museums, galleries, artists and many others – have to try to attract their audience in a different and new way. Even as a young gallery owner, it was clear to me that I couldn't and shouldn't wait for visitors, that I had to bring them in front of the art I represent through offers and mediation, and that I had to offer the guests content and convey context. The museums, especially in Berlin and Germany, have a lot of catching up to do here. They rest on their treasures, most of which are not even documented, let alone digitized. They speak of an "educational mission", but have long since lost their audience. Whether and with which media this order is carried out and the connection is gained is almost less important. However, online spaces and platforms and the (social) media will certainly play an even greater role than before in the future mediation and experience of art.