Sophie Neuendorf is Vice President of the online platform Artnet. There, she helps to shape the future of the art trade and deals with contemporary issues like sustainability on a daily basis.
She grew up in Frankfurt, New York and Berlin. She lived in London and now in Madrid. Sophie Neuendorf grew up among paint and brushes: As a child, she sat at the table in the Bavarian studio of her grandfather, the painter Georg Karl Pfahler, and scribbled all over sketchbooks. Later she studied International Business in London. Among other things, she took advantage of the pandemic to take courses at Oxford on the subject of sustainable business management – a major theme in the art world as well. Her father, Hans Neuendorf, is considered one of the most important German art dealers, who introduced legends such as Cy Twombly, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and David Hockney to an initially sceptical post-war-public. In the 1990s, he founded Artnet and was the first to bring the art trade to the world wide web. Today, the 35-year-old daughter develops, among other things, the investor relations and global partnerships of the family business, sharing her enthusiasm for art with three of her brothers who also work there. She listens attentively, speaks in a concentrated but not distant manner. Clearly, she grew up with people who enjoy a friendly debate.
Ms Neuendorf, how exactly has Artnet revolutionised the art market?
One of Artnet’s core products is a price database that helps all users get an overview of the prices of individual artists quickly and easily. So in a way, there’s no longer any ‘secret knowledge’ or opacity as far as secondary market prices are concerned. We have also been offering online auctions since 2008. With the pandemic, online fine art sales were finally broadly accepted. Our sales have increased enormously since then.
Isn’t the personal relationship between gallery, artist and collector quite crucial?
It is in fact very important and will not disappear from the art world. However, transactions will increasingly take place online in the future. It’s more convenient, faster, and cheaper for collectors and professionals to buy or sell online than via traditional brick-and-mortar auction houses.
What other upheavals are you observing?
Throughout history, art has usually reflected the zeitgeist. Now, the new generation of collectors is very interested in what drives artists. Banksy is a popular example, who wants to make a difference with his work by creating awareness around certain topics. Issues such as MeToo, Black Lives Matter or the refugee crisis are increasingly reflected in contemporary and ultra contemporary art. My father’s generation was more interested in the art historical context of an artist, who influenced whom and the relevance in art history. Today’s generation finds the socio-political expression very important.
A mix of contemporary art and antiques defines the décor at „Le Sirenuse“ hotel. An iconic setting for this shoot
Isn’t it also a danger when art is put in the service of zeitgeist?
Of course, we have seen that art was abused for propaganda purposes during the Third Reich and in other dictatorships, for example. But one has to differentiate, because art also exists as a mirror of society. Here, it points out grievances, highlighting the need for change. And is not put in the service of an ideology.
Artists such as Tomás Saraceno or Ólafur Elíasson express ideas on sustainability through their work. What concrete contribution could the art market make to this?
I’m very concerned and passionate about this topic. You know, there’s so much wealth in the art market, which is why I wrote an article proposing a voluntary „green tax“ on transactions, for the report of a big consultancy firm in 2019. At the time, they didn’t want to print it because they thought it was unreasonable. Today, one pandemic and several natural disasters later, the topic is on the table. The issue of ESG, or the evaluation of corporate responsibility, is finally being taken seriously. At Artnet, we’re considering the introduction of a voluntary environmental “green tax” for our online auctions. Thus, buyers can offset their carbon footprint, providing funding for organisations that, for example, fight the apocalyptic destruction of rainforests. In the art trade and as private collectors, we need to take responsibility and should do what we can to help combat climate change.
The art market was also in distress during the global pandemic. Younger artists and smaller galleries are particularly affected. Are they experiencing enough solidarity?
At the beginning of the crisis, I was worried whether the art market would survive, because it thrives on personal encounters. However, it has to be said that there were far too many fairs and events, pre-pandemic. It was more „see and being seen“ rather than profound interest in art.
In the meantime, I’m positively surprised at how much innovation the pandemic has triggered. The virtual exhibitions and online transactions have been incredibly well-received. David Zwirner has set up a platform where smaller galleries can exhibit, and he has stated that he would be willing to pay more at a fair so that a smaller gallery could pay less.
I like this approach. Without the Pandemic, I’m sure it would have taken another ten years for digitalisation to develop within the industry, such as it is now.
It’s amazing that two families from Cologne have played such a big role in the development of the art market. David Zwirner’s father Rudolf and your father founded Art Cologne in 1967, which opened the door for Germans to art in the U.S. This also had a tremendous impact on art production in Germany. How do German collectors differ from American collectors?
German collectors are more deliberate and need more time to decide on something. But when they make up their minds and trust a gallery, they remain loyal customers. They are still rather sceptical about the online trade, in comparison to other nationalities. Americans are a bit more impulsive, they decide quickly, spend a lot. In any case, we will experience a generational shift within the art market soon. According to some estimates, two billion dollars worth of art will be inherited worldwide in the next ten to twenty years, and some of it will come to market. Thus, I expect there will be a lot of movement, which will have a positive impact on the online trade in particular.
Art itself is also becoming more and more virtual. Take, for example, the works of Munich-based photographer Julia Leeb, who uses Virtual Reality to showcase the reality of conflict zones. Are we becoming voyeurs of conflict zones and human suffering?
I believe it’s good that Julia Leeb opens our eyes to situations that we may otherwise not be able to experience in this way. To be honest, the news often seem very abstract to me. But when you really have it in front of your eyes, it has a much more blatant effect. It triggers much more emotion and empathy. On the subject of Virtual Reality, I think it’s brilliant that children are now being offered virtual reality goggles. Now, they can experience museums that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. In that respect, this technology is fantastic! As with everything, it depends on how you use the technology.
Much of what you see in art only receives the desired attention after a period of time. Who do you wish had a bigger audience?
My strategy when buying art is to buy a blue chip painting and two or three by emerging artists who inspire me and whom I want to support. Recently, that included a painting by Ed Ruscha. I grew up with West Coast pop artists, they were all over our house and have shaped my aesthetic considerably. A few weeks ago I also bought a work by Tunji Adeniyi-Jones. He’s beautifully showing his West African heritage and has just been accepted by London’s White Cube gallery, which I’m really excited about. New York artist Eddie Martinez is also great as well as Donna Huanca. All these artists show their visual and cultural heritage, underlining the fact that art can bridge divides.
What do you like about Donna Huanca?
I like her strong, free choice of colours and movement. I can’t get enough of it. And she’s a female artist. I think it’s important for women to support each other.
Is it still more difficult for women to assert themselves in the art market?
I think so. Female artists have been invisible for the longest time, whereas men have many hundreds of years more experience in the field. Women are just starting to assert themselves.
Did you have to assert yourself against your four brothers?
No, I didn’t. I’m very close to my father and have learned a lot from him. There’s an inseparable bond between my siblings and I, precisely because we sometimes have different opinions. Occasionally we clash, which usually results in great ideas and in a can-do attitude. I believe it’s very important to not always agree on everything. This discussion, this friction can be very beneficial and positive for the firm. Also, it’s a privilege to work with family, in a field that inspires me so much and brings me so much happiness.
When you move around so much, is there such a thing as home?
Yes, our house on Mallorca. How classically German that sounds (laughs). It’s a house that was designed by John Pawson and Claudio Silvestrin, over 30 years ago. We spend every summer there as a family, it’s lovely and peaceful.
Do you think there will be a bit more moderation after the pandemic? A little less jet-setting, more focus?
Yes, I believe so. There will be a concentration on quality, not quantity – at least that’s what I would hope for. It was just too overheated. This may sound very German, but the art world was too frivolous, not serious enough in terms of the artists and works. I also believe that there will be a focus on local markets. Think globally, act locally: That also applies to the art world.