The Art World Is Going Digital Amidst Closures. Will It Work?

This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 20 March 2020. 

Cancellations, postponements and shutdowns are now the new normal in the art world due to the global pandemic COVID-19 and increasing measures put into place to curtail its impact on the healthcare system and beyond.

This week, Sotheby’s followed in the footsteps of auction houses Christie’s, Phillips and Bonhams to close spaces and postpone sales over the next few months. Mega galleries were not exempt from the effects of the coronavirus with Pace, Gagosian, and Acquavella postponing their joint exhibitions while almost every gallery in New York City and London has shut their doors until further notice or viewing by appointment only in some cases. Meanwhile numerous museums and art centres across Europe, Australia and the US have temporarily closed as well—some through the end of May. On a slightly encouraging note—many museums and galleries in Shanghai reopened to the public on 13 March.

Art fairs continue to face the adverse commercial effects of COVID-19. This week, New York City’s major art fair Frieze cancelled its 2020 edition in May. Prior to this, Art Cologne, the world’s oldest art fair,  Affordable Art Fair Brussels, and ArteBA in Buenos Aires announced they would be rescheduled. In the Southern Hemisphere, as New Zealand’s prime minster announced mandatory quarantine for all arrivals—travellers and those returning home—Australia followed suit quickly. Subsequently, Melbourne postponed its art fair, slated for June, until February 2021. Closer to our shores, Art Moments Jakarta, an Indonesian boutique art fair, originally intended to run from 17 to 19 April was rescheduled.

As questions arise about the impact of this unprecedented slowdown in the art world, diverse stakeholders are turning to online spaces and digital platforms for possible solutions. While most museums, art fairs and galleries already have parallel digital platforms for the public to view artworks, such online initiatives have not been put together so speedily and replied upon solely till now.

On 18 March, Art Basel Hong Kong launched the VIP preview of its Online Viewing Rooms, in place of its cancelled edition, with an international lineup of 231 leading galleries presenting over 2,000 artworks originally intended to be showcased at the fair. This new digital platform runs from 20 to 25 March, after preview days from 18 to 20 March.

The site crashed within the first fifteen minutes and while it was sorted quickly, the overall experience incited mixed responses. Seasoned international collectors noted the “website was not an image-friendly platform.” Others described it as “a relatively fuss-free experience.” The notion of placing a bench in front of certain works to give the viewing experience more physical depth did not entirely work with visitors either. According to sources close to galleries, they received inquiries through the platform but mostly from their usual clients.

Nonetheless, the art world seems to favour such online iterations for now, given the current global social distancing and travel restrictions.

Across the pond, New York curators Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen are presenting an online exhibition titled “How Can You Think of Art at A Time Life This?” as an opportunity for artists to express themselves during these troubled times. Featuring works by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Dread Scott, Judith Bernstein, Kathe Berkhart, Miao Ying and Janet Biggs, the exhibition addresses issues such as climate change, politics and dystopian futures. Each day afterwards, the curators will select an additional artist, growing the exhibition until the end of the current crisis, or till November this year.

Art Dubai is offering a slew of digital initiatives in the week of 23 March, in lieu of its postponed fair. This will include Art Dubai’s Performance Programme, reconfigured into a series of diverse performances by international artists such as Bahar Noorizadeh, Angelo Plessas, Tiago Sant’Ana, and Imaad Majeed, exploring the notion of healing as an art form in digital space.

Global Art Forum, Art Dubai’s annual discursive think-tank, will be live streamed as a “Newshour Special” on 25 March, dedicated to the stories and narratives shaping the current coronavirus fallout, featuring local and international speakers in exchange through video.

While online programming and viewing rooms do promote inclusivity through free access since visitors do not need to buy tickets, they may not necessarily be the long-term replacement the art world clearly needs for its travel intensive, physically present, socially connected machinations.

Most of us would rather see art (and the artist) in person. Perhaps the art world needs to seriously start considering the kind of technology and platform that would be required to provide an authentic, up-close and personal experience, instead of waiting till the next black swan and reacting.

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