How Sustainable Is The Art World Going Online During COVID-19?

This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 21 April 2020. 

Currently, the social media app TikTok, is having a real moment. A video sharing platform previously used by those below the age of 25, TikTok is known for its short duration video clips of 15 seconds to one minute, creating a seemingly haphazard and intimate feel.

With increasing number of people worldwide going into lockdown and isolation in their homes due to the global pandemic COVID-19, even families and couples are uploading clips of themselves doing skits and dance moves on the app. Instagram and Facebook are also filled with home workout and cooking videos that are imbued with an overwhelming sense of the personal and improvisational.

The kind of content we create and digest as a society has been irrevocably transformed, in less than a few short months, into something raw, intimate and open to improvisation, or at least, giving the appearance of it.

This fits with our current appetites as well. We are hungry for up close and personal, for shared intimacy and a sense of connection beyond our four walls. Since we cannot get it in our physical reality, we are turning to spaces that provide this online, even the mere sense of it.

Unfortunately, the art world with its virtual museum tours, online viewing rooms, websites displaying performance art videos, podcasts and more, does not seem quite able to scratch this itch.

The art world has always enjoyed coming across as lofty, remote and intimidating. Yet, in the intimate online space we are currently inhabiting and the kind of unpolished cultural content we are consuming, the online experiences offered by the art world seem even more unrelatable by contrast.

Mega-gallery Gagosian recently unveiled an online initiative known as Artist Spotlight, highlighting new and recent works by artists whose scheduled exhibitions have been impacted by the health crisis. Each week, the blue-chip gallery features one artist and an artwork with pricing information for 48 hours only. There will also be additional editorial features such as videos, interviews, and essays, as well as artists’ playlists, book recommendations, and more highlighting each artist.

For some reason, this brings to mind the typical MySpace page, the social networking website that used to be popular in the early 2000s before Facebook. During its reign, the platform allowed users to create profiles to connect with friends, share messages, photos, blog posts, videos, as well as stream music but ultimately fell short in terms of the interactive and immersive experience offered by the social media sites we frequent today.

Yet Gagosian is not alone in pushing out such online content. Galleries and art fairs all over the world have been launching similar online showcases over the past month or so. Closer to home, Australian art gallery Sullivan+Strumpf launched Viewing Rooms and Available Works for collectors and public to access, including short films, Spotify playlists, podcasts and interviews.

Industry insiders point out that without such online content right now, artists, galleries and the rest of the art eco-system would not be able to sustain themselves, since a large number of physical premises and businesses worldwide have closed their doors as part of precautionary measures against COVID-19.

However, these online showcases are most likely only profitable for those with fixed demand such as established auction houses and art galleries. At best, online platforms may provide the likes of small to medium art galleries slightly more visibility with the global collector base and public audience.

As such, major art gallery David Zwirner invited 12 smaller galleries such as 47 Canal, Bureau, James Fuentes and Magenta Plains to use its online viewing room titled “Platform: New York,” running from 3 April to 1 May. By doing so, Zwirner hopes to help the galleries “bypass the expensive process of building their own online showroom from scratch”.

Similarly, virtual tours of art spaces and museums beyond established art centres could bring an increase in awareness and interest amongst a wider global audience stuck at home.

As part of the global movement of #MuseumfromHome, Indonesian private Museum MACAN is offering audio guides, virtual tours, live artist interviews on Instagram stories related to their collection and ongoing exhibitions “Melati Suryodarmo: Why Let the Chicken Run?” and “Julian Rosefeldt: Manifesto.”

On 8 April, the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA) announced their online platform virtually@HKMoA, which makes available exhibition pamphlets, audio guides, documentaries, animations and images of their collections of Chinese Antiquities, Chinese Painting and Calligraphy and Modern and Hong Kong Art. Google Arts & Culture, renowned for the massive array of virtual museum tours they have been developing for years, is involved in this project.

Nonetheless, it is quite clear such online offerings are merely quick fix solutions for the adverse economic impact of the ongoing public health crisis on the art world. While an online viewing room or virtual gallery tour does provide access to all, increased accessibility is not enough to ensure the proliferation of users. Even those who are not able to visit a renowned museum on distant shores or drop by an art gallery may not be enticed to click on a link and stare at a website page featuring images of an artwork or rove digitally rendered museum halls with little interaction.

We don’t have to abide by audiences’ appetites wholly but we should be considering new possibilities, rather than reverting to what is already on the table for the past few decades. We need to take a beat to explore the different kinds of intimacy, fluidity and interactivity we are so clearly assimilating into our daily online experiences but for some reason failing to imbue into the very experience of viewing art online. Admittedly, nothing will beat seeing an artwork in person but using that as an excuse to avoid figuring out how to recreate such an experience remotely is definitely a missed opportunity.

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