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.