The Back Room: Waiting on the Future


Despite the many tragedies COVID-19 caused last year, the silver lining to the once-in-a-century upheaval was supposed to be that it would spark a radical rethinking of life, politics, culture, and business. But to paraphrase funk legend Rick James in the Chappelle’s Show sketch that defined an era of comedy for old millennials, inertia has turned out to be a hell of a drug in the art market.

With our third year under the shadow of COVID just a few months away, I argued in this week’s Gray Market that it’s time to stop pretending the industry has responded to the epic challenge of the pandemic with sufficient creativity and vision for the long term.

Even the best-resourced players seem most interested in re-establishing the status quo with bare-minimum tweaks.

  • Major auction houses have fixated on improving their live-streaming capabilities and “disrupting the traditional calendar” by holding the maximum number of sales that consignments will allow.
  • Dealers and art fairs have concentrated on online viewing rooms that lightly refine the same grid-based, click-to-buy template used in every other form of e-commerce.
  • NFTs are largely being treated by art sellers as just another item to flog in more or less the same ways as every other work in their respective holdings.

I had to ask: Is this really the best we can do?

It shouldn’t be. As I learned from futurist Doug Stephens’s latest bookResurrecting Retail: The Future of Business in a Post-Pandemic World, a vanguard of forward-thinking brands is putting art-market innovation to shame with their big moves toward transformational change.

His case studies reveal a grand irony: Art sellers have largely been pirouetting away from showmanship and engagement toward mechanized, repeatable, low-friction transactions at exactly the moment future-conscious retailers are doing the exact opposite.

For example, consider…

CAMP, a toy store where toys take up only about 20 percent of the space in each brick-and-mortar location.

  • The rest houses a “black-box theater of experience for kids and their families,” hosting rotating productions built inside out from currently featured toys by a team of Broadway veterans.
  • Camp sells tickets to all performances and sponsorships for each production, turning the toys into buyable souvenirs of an unforgettable day.
  • The ethos echoes what could (and sometimes does) drive great for-profit gallery exhibitions, fair booths, and (to some degree) museum shows, like the beloved John Baldessari-designed “Magritte and Contemporary Art” at LACMA.

B & H PHOTO VIDEO, meanwhile, is an A/V superstore whose sales staff consists entirely of expert photographers uniquely fit to guide buyers through costly, often-confusing specialty purchases.

  • The business thrives by offering elite customer service—something even more lacking in online viewing rooms than in physical galleries, many collectors say.

MORPHE, a next-wave cosmetics venture, has re-engineered each of its stores to double as an accessible content-production house for customers.

  • Studio time, equipment, and onsite specialists can all be booked for users’ shoots.
  • This creates (and monetizes) a reciprocal relationship between the brand and buyers who were already crafting DIY social media content in its spaces anyway. (Sound familiar?)

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