Working for the Brussels Art Fair (Brafa) since 1992, I am keenly aware of changes occurring within the art market. I have witnessed first hand the way the fair has evolved, and – more strikingly still – the way the role of art dealer has changed. Far from struggling to cope with technological innovations, the world of art and antiques has in fact adapted well to the new modes of information exchange.
One of the main challenges art dealers of all specialities face is how to unearth rare or unknown works of art. The globalisation of information has had two contradictory effects on this. It affects all sectors in a similar way, by turning the world into a village. A vast amount of information is available at the click of a button, and those involved in the art market – dealers, sellers and buyers included – are increasingly well informed.
The art dealer’s task of finding ‘the object’ therefore becomes more complex. They are immediately expected to specialize and excel in their chosen area in order to stand out. This involves having in-depth knowledge about a given period and being able to analyse all aspects of an object. Today, dealers increasingly specialize in particular categories of object or artistic periods.
The fact that both large and small-scale auctions are now accessible online, means that everyone can find out about what is being bought and sold anywhere, whether in Paris, New York, London, Hong Kong, Brussels or beyond. Dealers can therefore access all markets more easily and their hunt for the next object is in some ways made easier.
These changes have also affected art lovers and particularly collectors, because for them too it is far easier to track down an object from a given period that matches specific criteria. Their ability to access the same websites as the dealers means that they are also becoming more competent. Sometimes collectors and dealers even work hand in hand, sharing information gleaned from the different sources they have discovered.
The art world and those working within it have also had to adapt to the new communication technologies that have developed. Only a short while ago, the fair’s catalogues were printed using slides and photos. This involved a huge amount of work: the correct positioning of the image, checking the different layers of colour, the grain of the image etc. And this wasn’t all: usually, we received the descriptions of the artworks by post, either written by hand or typed on a machine. It was our job of course to re-transcribe these texts correctly for the printer!
Then, one day, we received a photo by ‘electronic mail’ for the catalogue. How to deal with it? We had no idea and refused the material because it simply wasn’t compatible! Who would ever have guessed that such forms of ‘mail’ would end up facilitating our lives to such an extent, enabling us to exchange information and documents of all sorts so quickly?
One thing is certain: art dealers have had to accept a completely new rhythm of work and communication. Today, they have their own websites, enabling them to attract increasingly international clients. Brafa is now onto its fourth website, in six languages. The fair is active on social media and offers iTunes and Android applications. A virtual tour of the stands is now proposed from the day the fair opens to the public which allows the viewer to zoom in on particular objects. This offers a whole new way of visiting the fair, intended for collectors who are unable to visit in person.
The art market remains, nonetheless, very much linked to emotion, and the passion that drives the collector, the occasional buyer and of course, the art dealer continues to revolve around physical objects. No new technology will ever replace the ‘eye’ of the professional or the felt link to an actual physical thing. Art dealers, collectors and experts may well be better informed thanks to new technologies, but the acquisition of a high quality artwork can never be carried out without direct contact with it. Experts will always have to handle objects, even if a first analysis can be carried out on the basis of images. This is why fairs and arts-related events where art dealers, collectors and art lovers can share their knowledge and passion are so vital. And, of course, why events such as Brafa are so unforgettable…
Beatrix Bourdon is Fair Manager of Brafa. The fair will celebrate its 60th edition between 24 January and 1 February 2015 in Brussels. More information at www.brafa.be.