How home-office video calls are helping to boost art sales

With works ranging from $45 into five figures, gallery says it has had its best sales year yet during the pandemic.

With works ranging from $45 into five figures, gallery says it has had best sales year yet during pandemic

When Grace Afonso isn’t at work as a charge nurse at Toronto’s Sick Kids hospital, she works at home as an artist. Her work has sold to multiple clients, many seeking a background for the growing number of video calls they're doing as they work from home. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

Videoconferencing has become so common during the pandemic that "Zoom" is being used as a verb. We zoom friends and colleagues, and they peer inside our bedrooms, basements and condos, perusing our bookshelves and decor.

Many of us worry about what's there, what it says about us, and want a change.

"People are finally looking at what's behind them as they stare at their screen," said Andrea Rinaldo, co-owner of the Butter Art Gallery in Collingwood, Ont. "And they don't like what they see."

That has prompted something of a renaissance for the gallery, and the local artists it represents, in what has become the best year for sales in its existence.

"What we've introduced is the idea of Zoom Art," Rinaldo said.

"Something that might also offer the people that they're on the call with [some] eye candy," added her business partner Suzanne Steeves. "Something to look at besides the books."

Art sales are booming at this Collingwood, Ont., gallery co-owned by Andrea Rinaldo, right, and Suzanne Steeves, with customers wanting 'something other than books' for the background of their Zoom calls. (David Common/CBC)

Sales have skyrocketed at the gallery as customers have sought to spice up their backgrounds. From smaller pieces for $45, to larger works of fine art selling for well into five digits, the gallery aims to be accessible to all buyers — even those who just want to browse options on social media

Exponential growth in videoconferencing

The use of videoconferencing ballooned during the early months of the pandemic, with Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Go To Meeting and a series of other services showing enormous growth in both the number of users and amount of use.

Zoom ended 2019 with 10 million daily meeting participants, for example. When the pandemic was declared in March, that rose to 200 million. By April, daily users surged to 300 million, and have kept growing.

Simultaneously, people began to focus on the backgrounds of their calls. Social media feeds posted some of the best (and the worst), and people passed judgment on RoomRater on Twitter and other forums.

"Instead of the power suit, it's now the power art," said Steeves at the gallery.

Andrea Rinaldo said the gallery-going experience has changed for some. 'If they don't see something on the wall here to stand in front of, we just lift one up … and they stand in front of that piece so they can make that comparison and see which piece behind them makes them look the best.' (David Common/CBC)

Working from home has fundamentally altered the gallery experience for some. People used to come to look at the art — now they come to stand with their backs to it.

For those who come into the gallery, "if they don't see something on the wall here to stand in front of, we just lift one up … and they stand in front of that piece," Rinaldo said. "So they can make that comparison and see which piece behind them makes them look the best."

And during lockdowns, they're offered Zoom or Facetime tours of the options available.

There are also some additional considerations when choosing art for a wall featured in Zoom calls, said Rinaldo.

"Is it too distracting for the people who are viewing you? Are they going to be paying attention to what you're saying or are they going to be focusing on the art?"

As director of sales and group services for the nearby Blue Mountain Resort, Helen Stukator wanted something bold to help boost online pitches and client interactions.

"I'm very used to being face-to-face with my clients, entertaining them, wining and dining and having those opportunities to really build a relationship. And if it's just a boring wall or a white wall behind me, it doesn't have the same effect."

Stukator went with a painting from Ontario artist Grace Afonso, and said she is delighted by the response.

"People really like it. You can't not see it," she said. "It's a conversation starter and it's personal."

Helen Stukator, seen on a video call with her new background painting by Grace Afonso. (David Common/CBC)

Expanding audience

Artists are also surprised by the extra attention.

"It's fun and exciting for me," said the Hamilton-based Afonso, stunned by the sudden exposure of her art to far more people. "It's bringing a little cheer to everybody else and it's bringing cheer to me to paint it.

"Hopefully they're getting a little peace and happiness by looking at it, because Zoom calls can be quite stressful," she said.

The artist knows a lot about stress herself, working as a full-time charge nurse at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children. She works on crisis and psychosis cases in the hospital's eating disorder unit, which has seen a substantial increase in patients during the pandemic.

So back in her art studio on days off, it's an "opportunity to recenter yourself … go back to that place where you're peaceful and joyful and calm."

Grace Afonso said her income from painting has at least tripled since last March, with many customers buying larger and more expensive pieces for the background of their video calls. (Ousama Farag/CBC)

The artist is also excited that her art is being seen by more than just visitors to someone's home. They're now being shown to a much wider audience through the video calls of those who have purchased her works.

It's not what she expected from the pandemic.

"I thought with COVID, everything for art would kind of die down and it would just be quiet time for us artists in the studio just to paint," she said, "I didn't expect everybody to be so interested in what we're doing right now."

Afonso has painted about 75 works over the pandemic year — similar to an ordinary year — but this year all have sold quickly. The greatest difference is size. In COVID times, there has been demand for larger pieces, which equates for the artist to a higher selling price. She said her income from painting has at least tripled since last March.

Meanwhile, a banner year was not what the founding partner of Butter Art Gallery expected when the pandemic first hit.

"We were very worried," Steeves said. "We were having discussions about how long do we stay closed and not make money. But surprisingly, we did make money."

Butter Gallery co-owner Suzanne Steeves worried how badly the business would be hit by the pandemic, but 2020 would turn out to be its best year yet. (David Common/CBC)

The gallery's contemporary art collection has also caught the attention of a growing internet-based community, who peruse the ever-changing collection online.

"We had a conversation with a couple," Rinaldo said. "They [told us they] got their glasses of wine, put up their big screen together, and flipped through our repertoire of art. And that's what they did for the whole evening."

The couple called up the next day and arranged to pick up two pieces curbside.

The success has trickled to artists across Ontario and Quebec, with surging demand creating a constantly revolving selection of available pieces at the gallery.

"I just think it's really important to support local arts," Stukator said, with her new painting prominently hung on the wall opposite her laptop. "It keeps the community going. It shows appreciation and it makes our community beautiful."

WATCH | The National's feature on video calls driving sales of art:

Small gallery sees ‘Zoom art’ boom

2 years ago
Duration 4:23
A small art gallery in Collingwood, Ont., has seen a boom in sales during the pandemic and it’s at least in part from people buying ‘Zoom art’ to make video calls a little brighter.

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.


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