Influencing the Art Market: Millennial Collectors, Social Media and Ecommerce

Opinion: Much of today’s creative scene lives and breathes online

Instagram has emerged as a more democratic platform for art Cunaplus_M.Faba/iStock

As Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz recently tweeted, perhaps just 14 people can make an artist’s career: “One dealer. Six committed collectors. Three critics. Four curators.”

The coming decades will see millennials becoming these dealers, collectors, critics and curators—a fact based simply on the passage of time—so, albeit vexing, the predispositions of our generation can’t be ignored. Communicating primarily through social media. Buying virtually everything online. Lifestyle consumerism. And a curious eye toward new, shiny tech.

Creating art icons through social media

It goes without saying that much of today’s creative scene lives and breathes online. Artists using any medium can be fiercely inspired—to create, compete or participate, one way or another—by the energy of other creatives surrounding them. And when it comes to shifting paradigms, the confluence of visionaries makes a difference.

Take the classic 20th century examples of the Saint Germain café scene in 1920s Paris and Andy Warhol’s Factory in Manhattan from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Or, art school, in general. Selective breeding grounds for creative energy have contributed to the growth of major icons in visual arts, music, literature, film and fashion. Many creatives who became household names knew where to flock to be inspired—or at the very least, stumbled into the right party.

Instagram as a democratic platform for new artists and millennial collectors

Exposure to the market at every level is only magnified through social media. As Forbes reported, “Instagram has emerged as a more democratic platform for art, offering unparalleled access to those whose pockets are not as deep as their enthusiasm for art. It also allows serious collectors and critics to discover and evaluate art without bias … Instagram provides a way for art-hungry millennials to get an art education and make that emotional connection with individual artists.”

And fostering an emotional connection is key to securing sales. Millennials enjoy the patronage aspect of art collecting, under the broader ambit of impact investing, and getting to know the artists from whom they collect is easily done through social media. Further, Instagram digital residencies provide additional means to get to know emerging artists.

TEFAF’s 2017 Art Market Report is among the various sources indicating that millennials are largely discovering art online and open to purchasing art digitally.

A 2016 survey by Invaluable indicates that 44.3 percent of young millennials (age 18 through 24) and 33.8 percent of older millennials (age 25 through 34) discover art through social media. Further, 56.9 percent of young millennials (age 18 through 24) and 51.6 percent of older millennials (age 25 through 34) would buy art online, versus only 19 percent of baby boomers (age 65-plus).

The keyword in these prior reports, though, is “would.” Art ecommerce has been around for about a decade without making a real dent in the state of art dealing. For the past 10 years, the art market has still very much been dominated by traditional art dealers, face-to-face meetings and handshake deals. However, as Artsy just noted this July, “millennials are settling down, finding financial footing and beginning to collect.”

Perhaps this is the turning point. We’ve stumbled into the right party. And we can finally afford to get involved.

Social media influencers boosting the art market

Raised on media, millennials (and younger generations) are more visually literate than any of their predecessors. Millennials are voracious consumers of experience—theirs, and that of others—almost such that documenting, sharing and peeking into a desired lifestyle just comes with the generational territory.

Last year, Oxford Dictionary formally added the term “influencer” to our lexicon. Permeating our collective consciousness, ironically, with the same Latin root as influenza, influencers are finally sweeping one of the most guarded and exclusive bastions of civilized society: the art market.

Powerhouse David Zwirner Gallery recently hired social media influencer Elena Soboleva to reinvent its online sales operation.

Sean Kelly, a prominent New York art dealer, also gets it. His eponymous gallery recently launched Collect Wisely, a thoughtful “podcast discussing what it means to be a connoisseur of art, rather than merely a shopper,” and it hired new communications manager Adair Lentini for her “advertising knowledge and social media savvy … [she has] increased the gallery’s Instagram presence, adding more Stories, behind-the-scenes images and even new exhibition-specific accounts.”

And both Zwirner and Gagosian Galleries have launched online viewing rooms.

Artsy recently published an interesting examination of Art Basel Miami’s most-Instagrammed artwork.

Application-programming-interface tool Artrendex combed through images shared by “major buyers, art advisors and museum directors” from early VIP access users on the one hand and casual fairgoers who were admitted during later, regular admission days on the other hand. Artsy noted, “Five works from the VIP top-10 list also appear on the full-fair top-10 list,” concluding that works that appeal visually to art world heavy-hitters must also appeal to the masses.

Fair enough (excuse the pun). But picking the stats apart—particularly the timing component—could it be that the early posts from the art world VIPs may have been scrolled past on social media feeds, silently absorbed and then subconsciously parroted back by the latecomers? This is how influence works. It has subtle but tangible implications, and those savvy in business know that influence can be leveraged—especially onto our millennial generation.

Jason Rosenstein is co-founder of art blockchain network Portion.