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When it was founded nearly 30 years ago, White Cube offered the art world something new. It mixed populism and privilege, establishment and avant-garde, approachability and chic, transparency and entrepreneurship. It can be argued that this is the definition of Internet culture, which was brewing at about the same time.
Fast forward to 2020, and the feeling is that White Cube has been left behind. An open and transparent market for art may had once been a killer proposition. Today, it’s reality. Art is a reflection of the times we live in, and the idea of white box as an art format is very 20th century. The format of 21st century art is the feed.
Visual culture — from design to architecture to fashion to food to art — is largely shaped by TikTok and Instagram. More than fifty percent of art collectors on Instagram purchased work from artists they originally discovered through Instagram. More than fifty percent of art consumers first bought art online without seeing the physical piece. Add to this the fact that today’s collectors invest in streetwear and sneakers as much as in traditional art, and we have a completely new economics of taste.
In the new art market, taste is not owned-and-operated by few. Rise of curators with the small “c” in the art world expands the notion of who has taste and what a good taste is beyond galleries, institutional curators, and “white cubes.”
For example, luxury fashion stores look and behave like art galleries. They often are: Victoria Beckham features Old Masters from Sotheby’s in her Mayfair store. Simone Rocha’s Hong Kong store contains honeycomb from bee nests that function as sculptures, by Chinese artist Ren Ri, and a trio of lithographic prints of Francis Bacon’s Tripthych August 1972. Danish fashion brand GANNI’s London store is dotted with a selection of paintings and illustrations, and British brand Self-Portrait opened its first New York store with light installations. It has become increasingly hard to know what the store visitors are there for: to shop, admire art, or both. The feed flattens and merges different cultural spheres, and fashion and art co-exist as “experience.”
The biggest question here is how the more traditional art presentation formats can evolve and thrive in the culture that moves at the speed of the social feed. Art galleries have always been obsessed with working with the artists who have the biggest traction; the challenge today is to ensure that something has value fifty years from now, at the time when cultural newness is obsession.
The challenge is not anymore to “make things for people who haven’t been born yet,” as Damien Hirst put it. (Hirst’s own mass-produced art has lost its power to shock, if not its pricing power.)
The challenge is to ensure that the next generation of collectors discovers the most relevant voices of our age. Galleries lost the monopoly on making these voices heard and celebrated. It’s the curators with the lowercase c who have that role now, and they are everywhere: sometimes in galleries, sometimes at art fairs, but mostly on their own social feeds.
*The image above is from this Artnet piece, which is related to the topic of this article.
In this episode of the Business of Aspiration Video Series, I spoke with Waqas Ali, co-founder of Atoms. Atoms is a shoe company "designed for the way you live your life" and the philosophy of the husband-and-wife duo comes through everything from the brand name (the nod to atoms as elementary particles) to the way they approach designing their shoes, raising capital, building their community, and doing good in society. Listen to our conversation below and you will feel heart-warmed and inspired in equal measure.
My book is comes out on October 27th. It’s about what happened to taste, communities, and social influence when the economy shifted from manufacturing things to manufacturing aspiration. It’s also about how this shift changes what we find valuable and worth paying for and how brands should transform their strategies to adapt. You can pre-order here or check out the book’s website here.