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Art: Reinterpreted

From virtual fairs to online sales, we look at how the art world is experiencing—and thriving amidst—a digital metamorphosis.

By Samantha Lee
June 28, 2021

I attended the 2020 edition of Art Basel—usually held in its namesake Swiss city as well as Hong Kong and Miami—from the comfort of my home in Singapore. One of the world’s most signficant art fairs, it was celebrating its 50th anniversary with virtual versions to dispatch the year’s top galleries and artwork to a rapt homebound audience.

By navigating the sleek official app on my phone, I visited online viewing rooms of galleries from New York, Denmark, Beijing and Tokyo. I scrutinised famous works close-up: the colour and whimsy of Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Blot); the delirious mosaic-paintings, like Untitled Broken Crowd by African-American artist Rashid Johnson. I attended Zoom panels featuring the art industry’s top experts. As I rubbed my eyes after a couple of hours staring at my screen, I wondered: Is this the beginning of a new art world order?

The industry has long been characterised by the mingling of people and global mobility: sell-out gallery openings, the crush and adrenaline of crowded fairs, the forging of relationships between artist, gallerist, and collector. When this year’s corona virus pandemic shut down international borders and mandated social distancing, the art world came to a screeching halt. Galleries, unable to afford rent on visitor-free spaces, burned through cash reserves and furloughed staff. Museums were shut for months; even New York City’s storied Metropolitan Museum of Art reported an estimated $100 million loss. International fairs like Art Basel and Frieze London were cancelled. With dire economic forecasts predicted for the near future, artists are bearing the brunt of a skittish consumer market. The equation is simple: if people don’t spend, artists don’t eat.

But the art world is nothing if not creative. The industry has pivoted rapidly to the digital realm, leveraging on current and emerging technology to survive—and even thrive. “We’ve seen virtual readings, studio visits, virtual-only exhibitions,” said Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler at a panel discussing the future of art. “There’s been this incredible digital renaissance.”

Some might view this as a stopgap measure until things go “back to normal”, but there is no denying that these initiatives are proving successful in their own right. In March, 250,000 visitors “attended” Art Basel Hong Kong’s digital-only edition. Galleries reported big sales, such as David Zwirner selling Marline Dumas’ Like Don Quixote, 2002, for US$2.6 million.

In June, Art Basel’s second online edition reported robust deals too, with premier galleries like David Zwirner and Lehmann Maupin bucking the notion of the pandemic’s chilling effect on sales. The latter sold Cecilia Vicuna’s 1978 painting Camilo Torres (depicting the Colombian socialist and guerilla martyr) within the first hour for US$375,000. Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth sold 20 big-time works, including Mark Bradford’s socially conversant piece the Press of Democracy (2020) for US$5 million.

Galleries around the world are proving especially nimble in going digital, despite numerous challenges. “For the past two years, we’ve had to deal with not only Covid-19 but also social unrest,” says Catherine Kwai of Kwai Fung Hin, an established gallery in Hong Kong. According to her, business has definitely slowed. She has moved her gallery space out of Central, Hong Kong’s
business district, to a location with lower rent. But there is a silver lining. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to deal masterpieces,” she says, including works by French-Chinese abstract master Zao Wou-Ki. “With my top clients staying home, they have more time to study art pieces and start conversations with us about works they’re interested in.”

Gallerists are also taking this opportunity to curate educational experiences online. David Zwirner’s virtual “Studio” experience for individual artists such as Jeff Koons includes exclusive interviews, process notes, never-seen-before images, 3D renderings and in-depth discussions of art pieces. Katie de Tilly, owner of contemporary art gallery 10 Chancery Lane in Hong Kong, takes a
more personalised tack. “We’re taking videos of artwork and sending them to collectors, so they get a good feeling of the texture and details.