Five Ways the Artworld Changed in 2020

Meditations in an Emergency, installation view. Courtesy: UCCA Center for Contemporary Art

The ArtReview Power 100, the list of the 100 most influential people and movements in the artworld in 2020, is out now. At the end of a year like no other, here is a look at some of imperatives that have shaped the list.


This year shows what happens when the complex economy of the artworld – from art galleries turning over millions, to artists working other jobs to pay the rent – comes radically unstuck. At first it was the venues that feared for their future; just a few months into the pandemic, large art spaces were raising the alarm that without footfall, ticket sales and other revenues, they would not survive.

In a year of recurring lockdowns, the intricate interdependence of private and public money in supporting art and artists has been starkly revealed, and it has meant an explosion of activity to try to keep places and people afloat. Where the state hasn’t been able to keep up, artists have stepped in. And with the public face of the artworld shuttered, the pandemic has also seen those usually in the background step forward; private patrons and public foundations, those who the public usually sees only as a list of names on the ‘thanks to’ credits outside an exhibition, have suddenly assumed a key role. With the Black Lives Matter protests driving the agenda on diversity, art collectors and philanthropists have made change a priority. An unprecedented year for the artworld has demanded unprecedented resourcefulness – and the redirection of its substantial resources.


Most cultural scenes – whether it’s moviemaking, fashion, music or indeed the artworld – appear intensely hierarchical. Look more closely, though, and it becomes clear that influence isn’t just about concentrated, exclusive power, but something that comes out of connecting with others. In 2020, when once-mighty institutions have wobbled and businesses have found themselves suddenly exposed, the value of more flexible connectivity has moved to the fore.

Or maybe call it collaboration, which is to say the facility to work with others in ways that are temporary but mutually beneficial and that don’t rely on already established structures but on inventing new ones. That approach has, for some time, been of particular importance to artistic contexts that haven’t previously been supported by the traditional centres of artworld activity. Across communities of artists and art scenes globally, new concentrations of collaboration have formed. Some curators have focused on bringing the art of marginalised groups into the exhibition mainstream of international exhibitions, while others have brought a do-it-yourself approach to realising largescale collaborative presentations independent of state and local institutions (and government interference). Art and intellectual inquiry is itself an important form of collaboration, and those organising critical debate and public thinking have become important, since art only thrives in an intellectual climate that is itself energised.


There’s art, and there’s the artworld – the institutions, organisations, economies and systems that make all of that possible. In recent years, however, calls to rethink how all of this works together have become more insistent. So while artists have radically reformed the focus of art itself, 2020 has seen that urge move further into the question of how the structures of the artworld can themselves change.

The year has seen an emphasis on curating becoming more collective, assembling the activity not only of artists, but of practitioners and organisations from other cultural contexts. But altering how hierarchies and inequalities come to take shape has coursed through those hierarchies themselves. So while philanthropic organisations might have once focused on supporting artists through funding their work, they now feel compelled not only to support artists, but to research and advocate for the professional and institutional issues that artists face. And of course, many are no longer prepared to wait for incremental, maybe-later change. So, in a few short months, galleries and museums have moved at breakneck speed to affirm that they need to deal seriously with the historical lack of diversity among the artists they show and the people they employ. The need to shift artworld structures that have been reproducing these more profound and long-standing inequalities is now a key issue, which is why the question of museum restitution has implications beyond returning historical artefacts to the countries once colonised by European powers. Who gets to say what the museum keeps, what it shows and the story it tells are questions that go to the heart of all museums, and their key place in the artworld’s ‘institutional memory’. The sense that the infrastructure of the artworld needs to change, if it’s to live up to its own ideals, is no longer a pressure coming from below, but is now being felt by those at the very top.


In the twenty-first century, art has never been more aware of its relationship to the society it inhabits, and artists never more sensitive to whether their work can – and by extension should – not only reflect what’s going on, but actively try to change it. Never has culture in the broadest sense been more politicised, and whether it’s a question of artists using their position to make political statements about the workings of the artworld, or of turning their activity into a direct intervention into social and political life, events of the last year have pushed artists to centre stage. Whether it’s artists intervening in election campaigns, using research to take on the power of governments or the police, or assisting in the plight of refugees and migrants, artists in 2020 have consistently refused to stay in their box.

This changing ethos means that bigger galleries, institutions and patrons have become more self-conscious about what their role might be in terms of social-justice issues and wider political debates. In the volatile context of the events of the last year, the desire to change things and have an impact has never been more acutely felt. But it wasn’t only the bigger social justice and environmental issues dominating the headlines that mobilised the artworld; underpinning these was a tentative sense of trying to work out – in a world usually defined by power and exclusivity – what solidarity might mean. Will the changes prompted by pandemic and protest fundamentally reorder the way the artworld works and understands itself? At the very least, it seems hard to imagine how things might simply wind back to how they were before.


In the straitened circumstances of 2020, artists, gallerists and curators have had to think on their feet to keep art going, which has meant a new focus on organising, keeping existing networks functioning, developing new ones or tapping into previously existing grassroots networks that were, in past times, often ignored.

This year has been about improvising, and inevitably digital platforms have partly stepped in where physical ones failed. Curators have had to rethink the organisation of largescale exhibitions from the ground up. Digital networks, previously seen as distinct from or sometimes even antagonistic to the interests of the in situ artworld, have become the locus for reorganising and sustaining relationships between artists, organisations and audiences. Even blue-chip galleries, usually the most exclusive and privileged actors in the artworld, and those weathering the pandemic best, found that they needed to respond differently, seeing the point of supporting their less secure peers by sharing their own digital platforms, or by supporting the precarious infrastructures of emerging, early-career art that is a crucial part of the culture they inhabit. But reorganising networks isn’t simply to do with hybridising online-offline structures. For some, it is changing the way things work. Many artists organised quickly to support their peers, for whom a lack of exhibitions and commissions had led to a loss of revenue, instituting DIY fundraisers and no-strings grants to support artists where governments had failed to. And in places without such structures, artist collectives are using their own forms of networking and organising to do things themselves, not just for the artistic networks they sustain, but for the wider communities of which they’re a part.

ArtReview’s Power 100 – the annual ranking of the most influential people in art – is out now

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