The Changing Demographics of Art Collectors
According to the 2022 Art Basel market report, Generation Z collectors (Gen Z) spend more than 30% of their net worth on buying art. This allocation of capital surpasses that of any prior generation. Why?
I’m no genius and certainly no statistician, so take my speculations with a grain of salt, but I humbly believe I have some insight into this matter. The first thing that comes to mind is material expectations. Many, if not most, Gen Zers and millennials have very little faith in the possibility and, to a lesser extent, stability of more traditional investments. Prior generations benefited from far more affordable and less rent-centric real-estate economies. Millennials (a close second in the allocation of wealth towards art purchasing) and Gen Zers assume they will never be able to afford a house unless they acquire wealth through more unconventional means (think art). This belief is so pervasive (and, in my opinion, reasonable) that the goal of home ownership is broadly ignored. It makes sense that younger people are more interested in the potential for hitherto riskier but cheaper investments. However, financial capital is not the only factor at play.
Gen Z is the Instagram generation. They use, profit, purchase, and socialize on the platform more than their predecessors. The focus on social media, particularly Instagram, has created an exponentially larger and more universal market for social capital than ever before. This emphasis on lifestyle optics breeds a desire to collect and digitally exhibit aesthetically pleasing objects that convey an elegant, envy-provoking, and culturally rich personal image. While this objective may seem to be born of vanity, it is, in fact (for better or worse) a utilitarian endeavor. In the age of social media, social capital translates directly into material capital; the more followers one has, the more likely one's ability to profit off advertising, patronage, and sales becomes. Buying and then digitally exhibiting one's aesthetic-driven possessions are among the most valuable tools to enhance one's following. Purchasing a print from a museum gift store or, far worse, a major commercial chain is demonstrably less valuable than an original artwork with a story attached to it. Social media is based on creating a perception of one's personality and life, and finding narratives that support and enhance one's image is of tantamount importance. And, since time immemorial, uniqueness is always more interesting than conformity.
The final factor is culture. Gen Zers (and millennials, for that matter) are accustomed to buying things online. The social media sphere is one of the primary marketplaces for Gen Z and Millennial consumer consumption and, without doubt, the primary space for advertisements. This predilection for online commerce and a deep-seated distrust of establishment marketplaces translates into an aversion to convention. Pervasive anger towards traditional centers of power disposes younger generations to avoid the stuffy and socially antiquated dealers, curators, and critics of the art world who previously maintained near sole control over the perception of artistic worth. Not only are Gen Zers and Millennials more comfortable with online commerce, but their goal of online visibility is better served by collecting Instagram famous artists regardless of their stature in the art world’s traditional nexuses of power. I mention the focus on online sales not just because they make up the majority of Gen Z's art expenditures but also what it says about the nature of the trend. At least for the foreseeable future, extremely famous, almost always deceased, and outrageously expensive artists will be represented by a handful of major galleries. Still, the future for emerging artists is online, and their audience is those who wish to cultivate an audience.