A contemporary Chinese art portrait at mynewmaster.com.

The coronavirus has been a source of disruption in nearly every aspect of public life around the world. It has prompted shutdowns, quarantines, lockdowns, and social distancing as well as other policies and practices that have changed the way we work and live as individuals and as societies.

Aside from the pandemic’s self-evident impact on the public’s health and freedom of movement, it has also hobbled national economies and paralyzed multiple industries and activities across the globe.

The systemic impact has not been evenly distributed, however. Governments have deemed some sectors to be “essential,” such as the financial sector, healthcare, first-responders, and pharmacies, which have continued to function throughout the crisis. On the other hand, other businesses from the social and cultural spheres of life—restaurants, public events, and the art market —have been hurt the hardest, all but grinding to a halt.

China, the country where the coronavirus allegedly first erupted and which has since gained control over the spread of the pandemic, is now beginning to bounce back from the initial emergency lockdown measures, allowing for social and cultural events to begin resuming their natural place in the world order.

The Chinese Art Market in a Coronavirus World

The revival has been painfully slow in the social and cultural sectors of the Chinese economy. The Chinese art market, for example, has yet to truly bounce back, said prominent art collector John Dodelande, who is a renowned expert on Chinese contemporary art.

In addition to prompting galleries and museums to close their doors, the coronavirus crisis has also resulted in the cancelation or postponement of important art shows including major art fairs, which are crucial for the contemporary art sector. Art fairs traditionally generate more than 60% of sales, which is why Art Basel’s decision to cancel its Hong Kong fair scheduled for March 19-21 was a major blow for the sector.

Postponing until September its historical and main art fair in Basel (Switzerland) as well was no small decision either.

Renowned Chinese contemporary art expert John Dodelande. Image: Courtesy of John Dodelande

Much like the coronavirus itself, the crisis in the art world has been global. “The crisis will have (and has already had) devastating effects: gallery closures, US museums losing an estimated 33 million dollars a day, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA having to furlough half its workforce, among others announcements so far,” Dodelande lamented.

Now that China and several other East Asian countries have gained control of the pandemic, museums and prominent art galleries as well as auction houses have begun to unlock their doors.

The Power Station of Art (PSA) in Shanghai is once again open to the public, as is the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art in Japan and the South Korean National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Auction houses have also gradually begun to reopen for business across the region.

Reviving the Chinese Contemporary Art Market Amid Social Distancing

Even as museums and auction houses reopen, the consensus among health care experts is that social distancing is going to remain a part of contemporary life for the near future around the world, which means they are going to have to adapt. The PSA, for example, only admits up to 500 visitors every day and requires them to keep a 1.5-meter distance from one another.

Dodelande has suggested that one way to allow broader public exposure without violating social distancing practices is to rely more on virtual galleries, art spaces, and auction rooms. Online viewing rooms seem to be an appropriate solution from a technological standpoint, he said, despite the maxim that nothing in a perfect world can substitute the immediacy of a physical relationship with a work of art.

Given the novelty of the situation, it is unclear whether virtual online alternatives will cut the muster from an economic point of view. The 2019 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report contended that nearly one-fifth of the USD 67 billion spent on art in 2018 was spent in China, making it the third-largest art market in the world.

Hope for a Surge in Creativity

In any event, Dodelande has not despaired. He anticipates a burst of creativity among the contemporary Chinese artists in the face of the social, economic, and personal upheavals that were caused by the coronavirus.

“It’s been an unprecedented crisis that has precisely highlighted certain values: emotion, altruism, the beauty of certain things,” he explained. “Art can grow out of this crisis because it still remains as the testimony of what is deepest in the human being.”

For that to happen, however, Dodelande argued that it is imperative for patrons of the arts to remain involved. “As collectors, we must continue to buy artwork to support artists in this difficult period. It is precisely the players in the art market who need to be there when it is at its worst because behind the institutions, the galleries, and the art market are the artists.”