When the coronavirus hit, the art world went online to try and offset plummeting sales and falling numbers of visitors while taking time to reflect on ways out of the crisis.
Still Life with Odalisque and Goldfish by Tom Wesselmann, which can be seen in Art Basel Hong Kong Online Viewing Room.
Physical spaces are long in reopening. Fairs have been called off and exhibitions postponed. As things slowly creep back to normal, what will remain of the art world’s search for virtual solutions during the lockdown? How will market players integrate digital experiences into their overall strategies? The global health crisis has laid bare the art world’s wide digital divide. Major international galleries that already have a tried and true digital strategy are playing their cards right while reaping a return on their previous research and development investments. But others cannot afford the technology, not to mention the cost of maintaining teams dedicated to setting up digital infrastructure, producing editorial content and fuelling social media.
The Big Moves
Hauser & Wirth just launched ArtLab, a new high-tech division that has been in the works since summer 2019 and rolled out a life-size virtual reality modelling tool, called HWVR, in April. Combining technology borrowed from architecture, design and video games, it was developed in tandem with software that converts the gallery’s database of artworks into 3D files.
Meanwhile, David Zwirner has taken a series of steps in developing his viewing rooms. His “Platform” project successively hosted works from 12 small New York galleries, followed by others in London, Los Angeles, Paris and Brussels. Zwirner has also just launched Studio and Exceptional Works to address museums and collectors "in response to the decrease in the activity of auction houses and art fairs", to enable them to buy and sell works of art.
Another key player, Gagosian, launched the Artist Spotlight initiative to support artists whose shows have been cancelled. Based on the idea of "One Artist, One Work, One Week", it is backed up by editorial content on social media and the website.
"Right now we're working with 14 artists on this project, which will cover the period up to mid-July," says Gagosian head of publications Alison McDonald. "Since the Online Viewing Room (OVR) was launched in 2018, we've been striving to create experiences that come as close as possible to the perception of a work in the real world, which is a challenge because every piece is different." With 1.8 million followers on social media, their online initiatives draw many more visitors than classic physical exhibitions. "We strongly believe that experimenting and investing in technology is a huge opportunity," says Ms. McDonald. However, she says nothing can replace visiting an artist's studio "or the feeling of seeing a work in a museum or gallery". The OVR aims more to complement rather than replace this "ritual". "They offer collectors and art lovers a new entry point. By the same token, there’s never been a greater need for a strong bond of trust between gallery owners and their clients."
The Impact of Cancellations
For all galleries, regardless of size, the wave of fair cancellations also served to spur digital experiments, with varying degrees of technical and commercial success. Nevertheless, for the first 100% virtual edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, which ended on March 25, most of the 235 galleries selected for the physical fair participated in OVRs set up by the organiser.
"Faced with this challenging situation, it was a pleasant surprise to see Art Basel Hong Kong offer online sales. This turn of events was inevitable, but the present moment created a true sense of urgency for everyone," says Ms. McDonald. "As usual with online sales, the quality of the material determines the level of success."
Moreover, she says, "digital technology, combined with the current crisis, seems to be pushing price transparency to unprecedented levels. This is just the beginning. It’ll be interesting to see if the trend continues."
Art fair cancellations are having a significant economic impact on gallery owners. The share of sales made by dealers at these events is steadily rising. According to the latest Art Market 2020 report, it increased from less than 30% of turnover in 2010 to 45% in 2019. And 64% of these transactions are reportedly negotiated face-to-face with buyers during a fair. The question today is whether they will be carried over in the same proportions as these events become virtual.