In February 2020, New York turned to Italy as the country suffered a devastating blow from COVID-19; their struggles quickly traveled west to American shores. Now, nearly three years later, global lockdowns and travel restrictions have largely been lifted, and the Italian art scene is regaining its typical vibrancy.
The atmosphere was giddy and amorous as the 59th Venice Biennale opened earlier this spring, and that energy continued for the duration of the Biennale (which ends November 27). In October, scholars, activists and artists returned to Venice for the powerful three-day symposium “The Loophole of Retreat”, organized by artist Simone Leigh to coincide with her presentation at the US Pavilion. Crowds also flock to art events in Milan, Florence and Rome.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 has forever changed the art market and artists, curators, gallery owners and collectors have developed new communication strategies. Artsy spoke with gallery representatives from Studio Mariani Gallery, Contini Art Gallery and Studio Gariboldi about how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their gallery practices and how they are coping near three years after the initial outbreak.
At the onset of the pandemic, galleries around the world quickly shifted to online sales models, increasing their social media presence or developing online viewing rooms. However, L’Aquila-based gallery Studio Mariani was already used to online engagement, as staff used Artsy and other online platforms. They actually noticed an increase in sales and collector engagement early in the pandemic. “Working primarily online, our activities during the pandemic have been continuous,” the representatives said. “We have focused on enhancing our archive by offering exhibitions and viewing rooms through Artsy. This is what we have always done, the pandemic has not changed the way we work.
On the other side of the spectrum, staff at Milan-based Studio Gariboldi said the pandemic had completely revamped their operations. They recalibrated their market strategies to survive. The lockdown eliminated public attendance at the gallery and forced the team to adapt to what gallery director Giovanni Gariboldi described as a ‘smart working regime’ – they used online platforms to reach their home audience. “I increased our online presence and designed a new physical exhibition space to change our hospitality strategies,” Gariboldi wrote.
In Venice, meanwhile, the Contini Art Gallery was at the center of the first wave of the pandemic. The gallery’s main showcase is a few meters from St. Mark’s Square in the center of town, with another location in Contina d’Ampezzo, in the heart of the Dolomites. Gallery staff noticed that as soon as Italians were able to travel within the country, a new, more regional audience began to appear at their exhibitions. “We had the chance to strengthen relations with local institutions and visitors who came to visit our magical city finally freed from mass tourism,” wrote gallery owner Riccarda Grasselli Contini.
As art world gatherings return to pre-pandemic levels of enthusiasm, Studio Mariani has noticed that collectors and visitors are also jumping at opportunities to reconnect in person. “The first one [in-person] show after the long break due to [the pandemic] gave us great emotions, especially seeing so much enthusiasm, emotion and participation [from] the public,” gallery representatives said. “The most curious thing was the strange desire of certain passionate collectors to contemplate for a long time the most colorful and gestural works as if to absorb a hidden energy.”
Contini described a feeling of a “journey of revenge” for collectors who were weary of global isolation during the lockdown; they are now hungry for in-person events. Their adventurous mood extended to their collecting practices, leading many to explore new aesthetic interests. Artists also experiment with new styles. “At the end of the health crisis, we found ourselves in front of breathtaking masterpieces,” Contini wrote.
Despite this enthusiasm for in-person art viewing experiences, the online presence of these galleries remains strong. “We are still grappling with the consequences of the economic crisis that resulted from the pandemic,” wrote representatives of Studio Mariani. “Each acquisition or investment is the result of more in-depth evaluations and reflections. We have planned a strategy that allows us to focus on our brand identity by excluding complex and costly face-to-face exposures. We will continue to believe strongly in our online presence.
The Contini Art Gallery and Studio Gariboldi have also strengthened their online presence. Contini noted that she is taking a more analytical and data-driven approach to social media and the gallery’s virtual sales platform. “With great optimism in 2021 about the restructuring of market hierarchies and innovation in the industry, we considered new ways of operating,” she said. “Whether for content circulation, sales or maintaining relationships, an increased reliance on digital channels came as a surprise after the pandemic hit. Online digital presence has proven to be the keystone of buyer experience to increase sales.
With quintessential Italian verve, these galleries find fun and innovative ways to adapt to circumstances beyond their control. As Studio Marini representatives wrote, “[The pandemic gave us] the awareness that the rules of the game can change suddenly, overnight, and that the only certainty to cling to is to fully believe in one’s artistic journey with consistency, avoiding market bubbles and sparkling appearances .