A View from the Market – Q&A with Preston Benson, Managing Director of Cromwell Place

As the outbreak of COVID-19 has intensified, the UK art market, an inherently international industry, which thrives on both its domestic and global events, has felt the unprecedented effects. Despite this, the art market is proving a very resilient and flexible industry finding new and innovative ways to adapt to the ever-changing circumstances we are finding ourselves in.

Art Law & More brings you A View from the Market, a series of Q&As with figures from different realms of the art world as we uncover how they are adapting to the new normal, their reflections on how COVID-19 could change the future of the art market and the great importance of art and creativity.

We continue the series with Preston Benson, Managing Director of Cromwell Place. Cromwell Place is a membership organisation offering a first-of-its-kind exhibition and working space in central London due to open in Autumn 2020.

What day to day challenges or benefits are you facing as a result of the current situation?

Cromwell Place was due to open in May 2020, but with the ongoing pandemic and our community’s safety at the forefront of our minds, we decided to postpone it to this autumn. We are using this extra time ahead of our opening to review our spaces and to make them compliant with physical distancing regulations that are likely to stay in place throughout the end of this year. We have a double challenge, as we need to protect the safety and security of our Members in their workplace whilst also providing a thriving community for their businesses. Across our operations, marketing, membership, and logistics, our team is looking into this delicate balance and studying the best solutions.

In terms of silver linings, Cromwell Place presents an alternative solution for businesses looking to operate in a post-COVID market. Our safe and discreet spaces offer an alternative to busy art fairs, creating a destination for the intimate viewing of fine art and design. For businesses struggling economically, our pay-for-what-you-need services offer a viable solution to traditional gallery and working models.

In your view, how is the global art market changing and adapting currently?

For many, the effects of COVID19 on the art industry have been devastating. However, through the pandemic, we have seen the benefits of collaboration in the art world more than ever. Galleries have shared their client bases through joint-venture viewing rooms, professionals have joined together in forums to tackle challenging issues, and publications have created digital platforms for canceled exhibitions. Our industry is looking towards more flexible ways of working, and we hope that our adaptable services and community can help in the new world we are operating in.

Online viewing has offered additional insight to physical works, but hasn’t proven fruitful in terms of sales. With large-scale art fairs looking unfeasible for quite some time, dealers will be looking for opportunities for more intimate viewing. Our private viewing rooms and visitor controlled exhibition spaces were designed for this type of intimate viewing, with extra measures now in place for cleanliness and physical distancing.

Have you been particularly impressed with any of the ideas or initiatives that particular individuals or organisations in the art market have developed in response to the current situation?

One of the things that really ties our members together is their pioneering nature. Each of them are unique in how they operate and have created innovative solutions to the barriers they have faced. While businesses are closed, they have found new and creative ways to bring their work to life online. Galleries like Circle Art Gallery, Lehmann Maupin and Addis Fine Art have brought their exhibitions online, and others like The Third Line have joined together with other galleries to create curated online exhibitions. Delfina Foundation was quick to bring their offline programming online, with free film screenings and a ‘family lunch package’ which includes presentations, videos, and recipes sent directly to inboxes. Our members have shown kindness and collaboration in this time of uncertainty, for example, Black Box Projects are donating 10% of all sales to arts mental health charity Hospital Rooms and Gallery Wendi Norris’s With Compliments project gives away a vast library of art books on a weekly basis. with over 50 members we cannot name them all, but we have been thoroughly impressed by each and every one of them.

What long term effects (positive or negative) do you think this will have on the area of the art market in which you operate?

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic the global art market is reconsidering how to operate in an environment where, for many, the traditional business model has become unsustainable. Art fairs for instance, which up till now accounted for more than half the annual turnover of many galleries, are facing challenges. The high prices were an issue for most well before this crisis, and now the thought of traveling to crowded venues in busy cities couldn’t be further from people’s minds.

For both economic, health and environmental reasons, we need to propose new solutions. While online viewing offers a temporary solution nothing can really replace seeing art on walls. When viewing art in-person will be safe again, it will be a more controlled experience, with physical distancing measures like limited numbers, directed routes, and recorded entries. Cromwell Place aims to provide a safer, more flexible solution to operate in a post-Covid art world, whatever your business might be. Our pay-for-what-you-need services provide an alternative to unsustainable overheads and fixed costs, while our intimate spaces for viewing art and networking offer a safe and discrete alternative to art fairs.

Is art and creativity more important now than ever?

Yes! Throughout history times of hardship have led to explosions of art and creativity. Surrealism and Expressionism emerged from the war, the AIDS crisis spurred a new form of activist art and recent works like Olafur Eliasson’s Ice Watch restored widespread sympathy around the global climate crisis. We have already seen this ingenuity amongst our Members and the artists they represent, and are looking forward to being part of this journey over the next decade.

In times like these people are hungry for good news, inspirations and ways to escape their confinement. This is what our social media is really focusing on right now, from sharing inspiring quotes from great artists to rounding up the innovative ways our members are sharing art online. Last month, we created a 26-day creativity challenge on social media, with short daily tasks and activities to spur expressiveness and imagination. Head to our Instagram stories to see it for yourself.

If you are using new forms of technology, do you think you will continue to use them in the future?

Technology has always been in our DNA. Cromwell Place members and visitors from around the world will be connected via a custom-built portal launching this summer. Our members are looking forward to connecting, collaborating and managing their membership no matter their location or time zone!

During the COVID “lockdown”, our internal teams and partners have been working remotely. Technology like Google Hangouts and Slack have been crucial for communication and maintaining a sense of community. Our teams were previously familiar with both and are using them more than ever in different ways.

What are you doing/what do you think we should all be doing to prepare for when we go back to ‘normal’?

We are constantly evaluating ways to make our spaces, both private and public, as safe as possible. We have left no stone unturned, covering everything from furniture designs that cater to physical distancing to cleaning regulations. We’re closely monitoring the reopening of art spaces in Seoul, and guidelines for museum openings in Italy and Belgium.

For many, traditional gallery and art fair models have become unsustainable and we hope that Cromwell Place will provide a safer, more flexible solution to operate in a post-COVID art world.

What do you think is the most valuable lesson we can all learn from this new way of life?

Digital experiences have been a welcome substitute, but have proven that nothing can replace the real thing. We will never take for granted again the warmness of social interaction over art, the ability to see an artist’s brush stroke up close, or the serendipity of stumbling across a new work at an art fair or gallery. While our industry finds new ways to replicate these aspects online, a newfound appreciation for those things have emerged. The most powerful thing I have seen from this difficult time is community and collaboration. In times of global hardship, creatives have banded together to prove that we are stronger together.

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