Yes, the sun has come up, as Annie promised. And we have a new reality facing us, as we emerge slowly from the shadow of a global pandemic. What is that new reality going to be? Candidly, nobody knows, as this is a somewhat unique situation. So let’s try to sort it out.
We can all remember major events that occurred in our lifetimes that were game-changers. The assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Being glued to our small black-and-white televisions to see the broadcast of the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. The introduction of the cellphone in 1984. The dot-com stock crash in 2001. The terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. Each, in their own way, led to changes in the ways we interact with the world and with each other.
But this pandemic was different in that it was pervasive around the world and long lasting. It impacted every country, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths, and brought the global economy to a screeching halt for months. Some communities were prepared and had the resources to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, and others were not. New York City, the largest city in the US, was slammed by travelers bringing infections from Europe. New Orleans, in the midst of Mardi Gras revelry, had a rapid and severe community infection. Native Americans, many without adequate access to hospitals and medical personnel, were hit much harder than others. The Navajo Nation, for example, transferred many of their most ill patients to Phoenix and Flagstaff. Many in the Navajo Nation don’t even have running water.
Fortunately, we can learn some lessons from the past. We did learn that pandemics tend to have second waves, as we learned from the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. We learned that economies and stock markets are robust enough to recover to some degree. After all, people do need to eat, purchase clothes, and go about their daily lives.
So what is different this time? Actually, quite a bit. Not just the US, but the whole world went through a systemic shock with quarantines, supply chain disruptions (got any toilet paper yet?), severe unemployment, and untold misery and death due to lack of treatment capabilities. We knew, on a minute-by-minute basis, where the next affected region of the world was, and how many cases of infection and death there were locally, regionally, nationally, and globally. Social media and the broadcast networks kept us immersed in often contradictory information. And many of us learned the new normal of working remotely and without human contact other than our own immediate family.
Social distancing rapidly led to social isolation, and we all saw stories of those individuals who had grown weary of isolation and took action to “reopen” their lives. Sometimes these actions resulted in crowded beaches or parks, and sometimes they resulted in businesses moving outside the reopening guidelines.
But now we are reopening on a much broader scale around the world. Mass gatherings are still generally prohibited, resulting in the cancellation of many events. Of direct impact to us, Native American art markets have been canceled, though a few have attempted to salvage some business by going online. The Zuni Cooperative has worked with its artists to give them a business front, and SWAIA has taken steps to launch the 99th Indian Market as an online venture this year. Most buyers don’t have direct access to the artists that they have had in the past, and most artists also don’t have direct access to their customer base. Many galleries have stepped up their online presence, and some are gradually reopening their brick and mortar stores as their local governments allow. Masks and hand sanitizers abound, but visitor numbers are significantly down from prior years and business suffers. Many galleries may not reopen, due to financial stress, which means a lot of consignment items will slowly make their way back to the artists, or owned items may make their way to auction sites. And sadly, many artists may abandon their endeavors to find new, more stable sources of income for their families.
In times like these, buyers are much more selective and “flee to quality.” In the past, where a buyer may have taken a less picky approach and bought a piece on a whim, today we are seeing buyers who are much more discerning as to where their scarce disposable incomes are spent. Higher quality – not necessarily higher price points – will do well, and those with imperfections may not.
Consumers will undoubtedly become even more comfortable with online purchasing, and remote communications will become even more common. We will figure out the “virtual fairs,” possibly strolling down the streets of Santa Fe in an augmented reality environment, stopping to see artists and their art and converse real-time with them. Artists and galleries will likely open up augmented reality stores, where we can walk through the door and view art and chat with the proprietors. Avatars and shopping bots will handle routine inquiries and transactions, with buyers and seller hovering in the background for more complex situations. The days of static websites showing listings of products, their associated photos and descriptions, and a shopping cart module will disappear, much as rotary dial telephones have all but disappeared in today’s world.
I think this transition may take a while – possibly several years, in fact – but the technology is already there, and the impetus of the pandemic is accelerating the inevitable transition. For those of us who grew up with black and white televisions and corded house phones, this change is both daunting and frightful. But market conditions will cause it to happen, and we can either greet the new morning with acceptance and positive thoughts, or we can suffer the fate of others who tried to resist change – insignificance.
It is a new day, and new opportunities are out there for each of us. I think we will have even better opportunities to engage with the artists, to learn of the passions that drive their art, and embrace the knowledge that flows from this interaction. Embrace the new day – it is here!