This analysis was originally published on CoBo Social on 25 June 2020.
Over the past year, there is an increasing split in the way we perceive our current existence, emphasized by the ongoing global pandemic coupled with deep social fragmentation and unrest. The art world is not immune to this phenomenon and this was never more apparent than during one of its most important events of the year—Art Basel, or in this case, the online iteration of the megalith art fair in Basel, Switzerland.
Fair organisers intended to improve the user experience from the earlier March edition launched in place of the cancelled Art Basel Hong Kong, which was put together last minute when most of the world was caught off guard by COVID-19’s indiscriminately virulent nature.
The latest Art Basel OVR presented 282 galleries from 35 countries and territories with improved technical capabilities such as video clips accompanying artworks, the ability to “favourite” artworks and galleries, a packed schedule of VIP events, and talks and walkthroughs. Through speaking with mega galleries involved in the OVR and looking at their sales reports, you would be deigned to think the aforementioned improvements worked.
First day sales included Mark Bradford’s mixed-media-on-canvas work The Press of Democracy (2020) for US$5 million by Hauser & Wirth; Keith Haring’s Untitled (1982) for US$4.75 million by Gladstone Gallery; and 14 artworks from Lévy Gorvy including major works by Donald Judd, Pierre Soulages, Frank Stella, Pat Steir, and Andy Warhol, as well as a new Dan Colen painting, Mother (2020) for an asking price of US$500,000. In fact, according to The Canvas, an art world newsletter, at least one major gallery was “holding back on sharing their sales in an abundance of caution so as not to draw too much attention to themselves after recent furloughs and layoffs.”
Even media coverage on the art fair with headlines such as “High-Octane Sales During the VIP Preview of Art Basel’s Second Online Fair Solidify the ‘New Normal’ of the Socially Distanced Art Market” might have you convinced all is good in the art fair-industrial complex. What does it matter that sales took place both through galleries’ own online showrooms and Art Basel virtual booths? Or that most transactions were with pre-existing clients?
However, veteran art collectors, OVR users and the occasionally honest art dealer were generally not impressed with the latest digital offering in the art world. Some even cited “vir-tigue” (virtual fatigue) due to the recent overload of online content put out by art galleries, museums, art fairs, auction houses and more in a desperate bid to ensure the business of buying and selling art continues and art stays relevant during one of the most uncertain periods in human history.
Speaking to CoBo Social, Belgian art collector Alain Servais said, “I truly reached ‘vir-tigue’ and one of the lessons I learnt during this intermission is that the art I love and care for needs to be experienced in real.”
“It is now over a week that I have received continuous PDF previews before the OVR opened. I can understand the idea of pre-selling or triggering reserves before the opening to be confirmed when seen in real but I see no sense of sending the PDF preview of a PDF presentation. It seems to me counter-productive to actually bringing people to the OVRs,” he added.
Servais is not alone in his assessment. Sarah Johanna Theurer, Director of Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, a Berlin art gallery, would not even call Art Basel OVR an event, preferring to use the phrase “online catalogue.”
“The pre-designed (online) rooms are not ideal for anything that is not painting. The pre-settings are very rigid and don’t leave room for adjustments. Navigation is a little bit more easy than in the previous ABHK OVR. The possibility of adding a video is great. We would like to get more metrics on clicks and bookmarks or something, rather than just the number of visitors,” she said.
Other industry insiders also reported experiences of slow load times, broken links, and a persistent sense of “scrolling through a demoralizingly dull e-commerce site.”
However, focusing on ways to fine-tune these technical aspects and improve the overall online user experience for yet another edition a few months down the road is wilfully ignoring the larger issues at play.
The real issue is that new discoveries and connections are just not possible without the physical experience. “While this digital space (can be) valuable, the viewing room in itself is no panacea. Having someone that discovers an artist or a work from the viewing room only (is) extremely rare,” said Marisol Rodríguez, Director of GB Agency, a Paris art gallery.
Additionally, as Servais noted, the art world has a lot to learn about how online communication is more than just “a multiplication of extremely boring Zoom online tours” with no consideration of the listener and viewer. There is clearly a gap that needs to be addressed and now is the time to take a pause and do so, especially since it will be a long while before we can even envisage the typically frenetic global art calendar filled with physical interactions and viewings.
Even with lockdown restrictions easing in certain parts of the world, there remains a multitude of uncertainties about organising small and large social events, travel and logistics, especially with the world going in and out of confinement at different times, Rodríguez pointed out.
“This lack of coordination (product of the very unpredictable nature of the problem we are all facing) will be our biggest obstacle for the sustaining of the calendar as we used to know it, and that may be a good thing,” she added.
Truly, the art world needs to slow down. We always needed to, even before COVID-19 brought communities and industries worldwide to its knees. In fact, merely focusing on sustaining sales and the art market for the sake of survival is infinitely foolhardy and potentially damaging in the long-term, specifically for the likes of blue chip art galleries and mega art fairs which can truly afford to take this time to pause, refocus, and most importantly, innovate.
Nonetheless, the single aspect of Art Basel OVR that almost everybody agrees upon is the high calibre art and artists on show.
Speaking with CoBo Social, Marcio Botner, co-founder of A Gentil Carioca, an art gallery in Rio de Janeiro and a first-time online art fair participant, said, “Most of our artists are receiving attention such as Maria Nepomuceno, Vivian Caccuri, Arjan Martins, Marcela Cantuaria, Maxwell Alexandre amongst the others.”
One of the most intriguing and timely artworks on the OVR is thanks for staying alive Fern.1994 (2020) by Rafa Esparza, a Mexican-American multidisciplinary artist. The subject of the painting, a nostalgic 90s portrayal of the artist’s older brother, is raw and relevant. The acrylic on adobe panel comprising local dirt, horse dung, hay, Hoosic River water, chain-link fence and plywood gives tangibility to the young lives lost to gang violence, the prison-industrial complex, and other types of structural oppression.
The painting boldly epitomises a downright refusal of erasure in a narrative largely dictated by individuals and organisations with far too much power and mourns for those who cannot access a life that is good and safe and sustainable.
This is the kind of boldness, authenticity and vulnerability we need in order to deal with the myriad of pain and suffering we are experiencing as a civilisation. For this reason alone, perhaps in fully embracing the current slowdown and taking a much needed pause, the art world should consider focusing more on art and artists.
Moreover, cultural stakeholders seem to favour a development which could hopefully outlast COVID-19: the availability of extensive written and video documentation on artists and their art as well as effective efforts by art galleries to focus a single extensive email on a single artist or artwork.
Maybe the key to the art world staying relevant in these turbulent times is to simplify, instead of constantly expanding in a bid to keep up with the herd.