As a new season of online fairs begins, what initial conclusions can we draw from these alternative platforms?
Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955), Untitled (Blot), 2015.
KerryJames Marshall. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, Londres
Viewing rooms: in just a few months of the global health crisis, these two words have become a trendy expression. A digital concept thought to be a panacea for an art market abruptly deprived of its main physical platforms: fairs. From 23 to 26 September, Art Basel launched a new round of its "Online Viewing Rooms", after an initial salvo in March to replace its Hong Kong version – which attracted a record number of 250,000 visitors according to the organisers – then another in June to replace the Basel fair. So why in September, not replace the Basel fair the MCH Group was hoping to organise this month? Art Basel would therefore be entitled to two online versions... with another looming in October. Talk about confusing! The fair has really been racking its brains to find a way to stand out. Consequently, it has found a concept within the concept: an online fair in September of one hundred galleries exclusively with works produced in 2020 to whet the appetites of collectors looking for new pieces. This will be followed in October by another chapter, this time devoted to the 20th century. "While the art market is still going through a challenging period, we decided it was vital to continue to look for new ways to support galleries and interact with our various audiences," explained Marc Spiegler, director of Art Basel.
From 7 to 16 October, it will be the turn of Frieze to launch viewing rooms for Frieze London and Frieze Masters (both cancelled), with a total of some 250 exhibitors. It is a safe bet the FIAC will also announce its own online exhibition-sale. It is enough to make your head spin, and that is without regional or non-European events.
The glass ceiling has cracked
So, viewing rooms have become part of the landscape. Mega galleries such as David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and Emmanuel Perrotin have also sped up the process, aiming to create their own viewing rooms. Passing away at just 67 this summer, the dealer Enrico Navarra had launched the construction of a gallery at his estate in Le Muy, Provence, at which to hold online exhibitions. Clearly, the unprecedented situation has shifted the goalposts. Whether you like it or not, art lovers – as well as the younger generation, more inclined to embrace this digital approach – have been converted to this new channel, which was previously only at an embryonic stage. Not exactly welcoming, but accessible from home, with no concerns about the virus or any travel fatigue.
Although now commonplace, the viewing room has not yet replaced the physical fair. Nor does it look as if it will. "The conditions for seeing the artworks are not the same. Sometimes they can even be terrible. But during the lockdown it acted as a database that contained some interesting offers," hints the influential Hervé Mikaeloff, a consultant for LVMH. This was a widely shared observation: none of the platforms launched by the fairs have won unanimous support, in terms of design, appearance, user experience, some even going so far as to compare them to vulgar pdf formats!
There is one crucial question: are the works on sale comparable to those offered on the stands at fairs that viewing rooms are intended to replace? "They’re not the same," decides Hervé Mikaeloff. When we asked the Parisian gallery owner Nathalie Obadia which of the online fairs she thought galleries were using to play the game at full tilt, with the best pieces, the answer was: "None of them! The best-known are aware of how to sell their most important pieces by offering them to collectors without waiting for online sales".
For a long time, platforms promoting contemporary art online were confined to the most accessible "middle market". Gallery owners no longer think twice about using them to promote pieces priced at a few hundred thousand euros or dollars. In this vein, Kamel Mennour used Art Basel 2020’s online viewing rooms dedicated to art created in 2020 to promote a work by Alicja Kwade, listed between $250,000 and $500,000. But most of the other works on offer were under the €100,000 mark.
While the glass ceiling may have cracked, it has not exploded. "There’s no doubt online prices have changed. But selling an artwork this way for several million without the customer seeing it is heresy," says Hervé Mikaeloff. "David Zwirner is one of those who have coped well, even if he had few things on offer for a million." The consultant points out, among other things, a beautiful Josef Albers for $1 M, sold in June on Art Basel OVR. The same gallery announced it had sold a Kerry Marshall in this way to an American museum for $3 M. During the same session, Thaddaeus Ropac notably offloaded a Lichtenstein for $580,000 and a Baselitz for €1.2 M. The most expensive artwork Nathalie Obadia has sold through a viewing room reached $300,000. If contemporary art allows us to draw from a pool of new creations, not all of them are "instagrammable" and calibrated for online. On the whole, the online world does not leave much room for installations, difficult, conceptual works, or even a diaphanous drawing on a white background by Twombly! It's not forbidden to think that galleries have been consciously favouring lately the production of their artists which will be the most attractive on a screen...
The right direction
Another limitation of viewing rooms: beyond a few scattered offerings of a million or more, the higher end of the market remains invisible, unlike at large in-person fairs where artworks can exceed five million and serve as a calling card for the gallery. Prudence during foggy weather? Or old-school work for the happy few? "We are well aware that at the biggest fairs like Art Basel a certain number of prestigious artworks are sold before the opening," notes Nathalie Obadia. One segment of the market may not then appear: recipes from the old world...combined with the new! With – as usual – VIP previews for online fairs, advance work put in with consultants, major collectors and institutions...While they may not have turned this world synonymous with discretion and privileged information upside down, viewing rooms have nevertheless fulfilled their role. For Samantha Rubell, senior director overseeing online strategy at Pace Gallery, the benefits are tangible: "Over the past few months, I’ve had discussions with new collectors from areas where we don’t have galleries," she says. "I see that as a major change. The only positive of this health crisis is that it brings innovations to the art market. The enquiries we’ve received from digital trade fair platforms, our own website and those of our partners come largely from new clients." As far as she is concerned, these new supports are going in the right direction: "Price transparency has also played a crucial role on digital platforms, with price lists and available artworks, especially for our inaugural online exhibitions. All this has reinforced the level of trust and accessibility of art." It remains to be seen whether this digital model, relevant during full lockdown, will remain so as galleries become accessible once again and, as Art Paris has shown, art lovers want to get back in real contact with the artwork.