Issue #170  3/10/2010
Art and Photography Market Bounces Back as Shows and Dealers Report More Sales in 2010

By Alex Novak

The economic lead-in to the upcoming AIPAD Show in New York City is looking a lot more positive than it has been in the previous 18 months, as the art and photography market is poised to make some reasonable strides towards recovery. Reports from other shows earlier this year, including Photo LA and Art Basel Miami, and the recent Armory Show and ADAA Show--as well as from gallery and dealer comments to us--indicate that there has been a substantive uptick in sales and activity from most of last year, when declines in business in 2009 over 2008 were commonly 40-75%.

Dealers have told me that sales went from the doldrums to recovery beginning in December (some in New York City told me November), which dozens of dealers and galleries told me was their best month of 2009--quite a departure from normal years. January, February and March haven't been bad months either, especially considering the weather around the country during these months. The market seems to have bottomed out, even if the business doesn't seem exactly poised to take off dramatically from here.

The real question is how dealers will be able to adjust to somewhat lower income parameters. Of course, there are always exceptions: David Fahey told me that 2009 was actually much better than 2008--one of the few photo dealers to have this experience.

Dealers at Photo LA and the smaller satellite show at Michael Dawson's generally reported decent to excellent business. Several, including Sid Monroe of Monroe Gallery of Photography, Santa Fe, NM, and Louis Klaitman of Berkeley, CA, told me that this year's Photo LA was one of their best shows ever.

The dealers at these shows also had better bottom-line results with booth costs dropping for dealers in both shows, with smaller and less expensive tables/booths still drawing good sales. While we ourselves sold just a bit under 2009's totals, we still made considerably better profit due to lower show costs. Crowds were thick and enthusiastic, especially considering the last-minute change in venue from a used car dealership in a questionable LA neighborhood back to the dependable and well-liked Santa Monica Civic Center.

In fact, Photo LA almost became a casualty of the severe miscalculation of its owner and manager Stephen Cohen over the acceptance of an original poor venue choice, which was rejected by most long-time exhibitors. This year's show recovered only with the help and cooperation of a key group of dealers who were intent on coming together and saving this important West Coast institution, once the choice of venue was resolved positively.

Photo LA's future viability though depends largely on better planning and communications with the dealers who make this show work--something that has never been Cohen's strength. There have already been reports that competitors may take advantage of the situation in the future, but that largely depends on how quickly the Photo LA group can regroup and develop better client outreach to its photography dealer exhibitors, as well as pin down an acceptable venue. My suggestion to the management is to stop focusing on shows elsewhere, such as Beijing, NY, etc., and first get your primary show back to the level it was just a year or two ago. Taking your eye off the ball is deadly in this environment.

Despite the show management troubles in LA, as I've noted, the market seems to be on a rebound. Art dealers and show managers at the Armory Show and ADAA Show report big, enthusiastic crowds and big buyers back out on the hunt in recent weeks.

Our own business is projected to be up about 50% through next month over the year before, and we've heard similar stories from photography dealers that we've talked to recently.

There is talk again about the so-called "safety" of putting your assets into art, especially with the currency ups and downs lately. While I've always discounted such loose advice, it does seem to reflect an overall mood that buying art and photography again is fun and poised for growth. Spring is in the air and AIPAD will mark the start of Spring--and perhaps a more than modest rebound in photography sales.