Covid-19, the moment the art world was forced to go digital

On 15 July 2020, by Mala Yamey

The COVID-19 pandemic acutely impacted art galleries traditionally reliant on physical interaction prodding them into the digital realm. As galleries are now reopening will these newly created digital initiatives remain relevant?

Brett Gorvy
© Farzad Owrang, photograph courtesy of Lévy Gorvy 

Three months since the beginning of lockdown, there is a light at the end of the tunnel for galleries across Europe. Monday June 15th marked the first day that London galleries could re-open their doors to the public, while galleries across continental Europe have been open since the end of May. New York galleries opened their doors on July 6th. Re-entering these spaces, we can now reflect on how commercial galleries survived without physical walls to show and sell artworks to collectors. While galleries were closed online viewing rooms became the only option to show art, and it will be interesting to see if these digital methods serve the same purpose now that physical exhibitions are possible again.
As mass gatherings contribute to the spread of the virus, physical art fairs will not be a possibility until a safe solution is found. Galleries rely on taking part in at least one art fair a month to produce revenue, so the many cancellations of fairs at the start of lockdown were especially concerning. In 2019, fairs made up 47 % of sales for galleries with over $10 million annual turnover, and 30 % for galleries with under $500,000 annual turnover, according to the latest Art Market 2020 report. In the face of this challenge, galleries have had to rethink their traditional model and to direct their energies towards online initiatives. For Brett Gorvy, co-founder of Lévy Gorvy, the “first step was looking at how to act and find business, to create the thing that is missing.” The art market is “not just about transaction, it’s about community and contemporary art is such a dynamic force because of the engagement of the audience…now we’ve found a way to do something independent of that drive.”
Here was a moment of reckoning, since online sales provided very small financial profits for the gallery sector before the pandemic; in 2019, they accounted for 9% of sales in the art market by value, as noted in the Art Market 2020 report. Galleries across the world were forced to create in-house online viewing platforms to attract their collectors, in the absence of travel and physical art fairs. According to Nicolas Nahab, Director, Marian Goodman in Paris “quickly adapted to the situation and shifted [their] presence online, whilst preserving the identity of the gallery.” Each gallery offered a slightly different online presence, with some exhibiting a single artwork for limited time periods, while others brought their physical exhibitions into the digital realm using virtual reality programs such as Vortic, Walter’s Cube, and Artland. Hauser & Wirth’s ArtLab, established in 2019, presented a virtual exhibition in its new Menorca space and Timothy Taylor in London invited Katy Hessel (The Great Women Artists Instagram) to curate an online exhibition dedicated to female artists. While there was a clear need for galleries to sell to stay alive, they also displayed sensitivity to the severity of the pandemic, with proceeds of sales of primary artists’ works going to support charities, such as ‘First Responders First’ and the WHO.
 

Frederike Cardello,© F. Kurowski, photograph courtesy of Walter's Cube

Frederike Cardello
© F. Kurowski, photograph courtesy of Walter's Cube


At the start of lockdown, online success was restricted to small works by household name artists in the price range of $75,000-100,000 and Frieze New York saw sales capped at six-figure prices. On June 6th, Art Basel announced that its postponed edition in September was canceled and replaced with a solely online edition. Having produced three months of established digital content, the industry was well prepared to tackle the online challenge. The platform was quite unwieldy and difficult to use, and it was not necessarily as strong as galleries’ own platforms, however for Brett Gorvy, “there was the notion of guerrilla-style tactics, back of the envelope ideas, working literally from your home… making something that was meaningful.” Despite the weaknesses of the platform, galleries found that the momentum of the ‘art fair’ played to their advantage. At this time of year, collectors of contemporary and modern art are used to spending money on art and there were many sales in the build-up to the VIP opening. In tandem with these online viewing rooms, the newly reopened galleries across Europe presented a ‘clicks and mortar’ approach, with their online presentations reflected in their gallery hang. This most recent event saw high-value sales breathing life back into the infrastructure again, but unlike the in-situ Art Basel in June 2019, there were few deals over the $1 million mark. Brett Gorvy acknowledged “the value of selling online is different to the live situation” and even at a physical art fair it is challenging for buyers to make quick purchases above $3 million, therefore evaluating the success of Art Basel Online, he said that the “the sweet spot was around $1-1.5 million”.
With three online art fairs under their belts and the mad rush for galleries to produce digital content in isolation, have they been exhausted or enriched by the process? For galleries, digital now stands to augment their physical programming. As Jason Cori, Senior Director at White Cube in London, confirms: the online initiative is “a new exciting tool to promote artists’ work in parallel as it allows galleries to share insight and behind-the-scenes content…That being said, the physical experience of Art remains absolutely central”. The art market is intrinsically social and requires physical presence: a virtual ‘welcome reception’ cannot substitute walking between art fair stands, seeing friends and inquiring after prices. Art fair sales rely on one on one contact and reading the body language of both parties, but through videos and educational texts galleries have attempted to replace this physical aspect. In fact, collectors can now enjoy exploring an artwork and learning about the artist at home and can pull the trigger on a sale in a more relaxed fashion. Although it is now possible to return to physical galleries, it is on an appointment-only basis and visitor numbers are strictly limited to meet public health guidelines. The mass experience of an art fair will have to remain online and in order to return sales to their pre-Covid levels galleries will need to offer both digital and in-person experiences, as each one reinforces the other.
Galleries and Art Fairs were given a rude awakening from their ‘analog’ ways and from their unsustainable lifestyles. Dealers are emerging contemplative from their isolation at home, and it remains to be seen whether issues of climate change and budgets will impact the mindset of the art market going forward. With streamlined digital platforms and virtual reality exhibitions, the art world’s carbon footprint can be reduced, and there will be more opportunities for a wider audience to engage with art. It is now possible that, as Frederike Cardello, Director of Relationships at Walter’s Cube, has said “there will always be demand for high-resolution, walkable art experiences in digital format, especially for clients with limited mobility”. All live exhibitions will need to factor in the task of reaching the widest audience, which is not new, but the augmented digital experience allows for more sophisticated methods. The advantage is that “we can be everywhere at once, simultaneously” while retaining “the personal factor, it necessitates conversation and negotiation goes on.” According to Brett Gorvy “We are taking on the history of trading of art, it is a different platform and methodology, but the emotion and intention is the same”. Until it is safe to view art in person, it will be difficult for galleries to engage with buyers on the same level as before, but digital initiatives provide a welcome opportunity for the gallery sphere, and are now paralleled in importance to physical exhibitions and art fairs.

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