Art Basel embraces technology to enhance art viewing, not replacing physical fairs

Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, shares his views on virtual art viewing experiences, purpose of fairs, and strategic plans of Art Basel.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Nov 06, 2020

With the advent of COVID-19 pandemic, art viewing has undergone a significant change. With all physical spaces shut, the gallery ecosystem quickly moved to online viewing experiences. For most part, in my humble opinion, these were kneejerk reactions. While I am all for embracing technology for greater inclusivity, longer shelf-life, and global reach, a very significant aspect seemed to have been ignored: that of handholding the viewers through this change. While a walkthrough at the gallery makes it possible to see textures and play of light on a canvas, there are newer things to be explored while seeing a work online. Further, online viewing ought to be more than merely seeing images of art on the screen.

It is serendipitous that as I collect my thoughts for this story, I got an Instagram pop-up from gallery Tarq of Mumbai. They launched an AR (augmented reality) tool that allows users to bring the art work (image) into their own space, real-time. I immediately spoke to Hena Kapadia, founder and director of the gallery – “We began working on this tool in June. While things were slowly opening up, we took this as an opportunity to allow our viewers to interact with art and have some fun,” she said. Tarq has made a small step-by-step video to help initiate its audience. “You can literally place the work on any wall in your house or view works with dimmer or stronger beam lighting the work, something not easily possible in the physical space,” she adds.

The Tarq gallery created a short video with a step-by-step guide to use OVR | Tarq gallery | STIRworld
The Tarq gallery created a short video with a step-by-step guide to use OVR Image: Courtesy of gallery Tarq

Fairs and biennales/festivals are the other impacted formats. While most have been cancelled for 2020, they are embracing technology. Art Basel, probably the most significant global art fair, leads the way through its ‘Online Viewing Rooms’ (OVRs). Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, says, “… while the digital is providing the artworld with new ways of engaging with our community across the globe, this crisis has also made clear the limitations of the digital. Whether in terms of seeing or selling art, meeting fellow members of the artworld in a physical environment is irreplaceable”.

I speak with Spiegler about use of technology for art viewing, the purpose of art fairs, and the strategic direction for Art Basel.

General impression of the venue | Art Basel| STIRworld
General impression of the venue Image: Courtesy of Art Basel

Rahul Kumar (RK): Art Basel seems to have swiftly reacted to the developing crisis owing to COVID-19 pandemic by launching its On-line Viewing Rooms (OVRs). Yet, you have publicly said that “the future of art is not digital”. Please elaborate your point of view on how you anticipate art viewing and acquiring to pan-out over the next decade.

Marc Spiegler (MS): We started working on Online Viewing Rooms last year, planning to offer our galleries an additional platform during our fairs to showcase artworks to Art Basel's global network of patrons, as well as to new collectors and buyers. So, when we had to suddenly cancel our Hong Kong show in February, we were able to quickly provide the galleries with a digital platform to present works intended for that show.

"The future of the art world is not digital" was actually the headline written by a Financial Times editor, for my article - making the point that while the digital is ascendant, our future will be a hybrid of physical and digital. Certainly, one immediate impact of COVID-19 on the art market was the accelerated digitalisation of the art world. But while the digital is providing the artworld with new ways of engaging with our community across the globe, this crisis has also made clear the limitations of the digital. Whether in terms of seeing or selling art, meeting fellow members of the artworld in a physical environment is irreplaceable. In fact, the desire to see art in person is increasing exponentially during the pandemic despite all the compelling new online platforms now available. Here in Basel we saw the Kunsttage Basel, offering people to experience art in person throughout the city, successfully being held in mid-September. Furthermore, end of November, Art Basel in collaboration with Fine Art Asia will showcase 22 galleries with exhibition spaces in Hong Kong SAR during Hong Kong Spotlight at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC).

Pink and Blue Piece by Paula Cooper | Paula Cooper| Gallery Jackie Winsor and Art Basel | STIRworld
Pink and Blue Piece by Paula Cooper Image: Courtesy of Gallery Jackie Winsor and Art Basel

RK: Art Basel's parent company, MCH Group, made a conscious decision to buy into and develop regional fairs. But later, it chose to exit these projects, including Indian Art Fair. Could you share the motivations for the regional focus and then the change in that thought process?

MS: In response to its poor financial results in 2017 and 2018, our parent company had to implement a fundamental strategic transformation. One of the first measures taken was a strict prioritisation of our strategic initiatives, and we simply did not have the resources required to further expand the portfolio of regional art fairs, which would have been necessary to achieve the synergies we had projected. It made no sense to only have two fairs - in Dusseldorf and Delhi – as much as we believe in the Indian market, which remains a strong focus for Art Basel Hong Kong.

Aggregate by Alexandra Pirici | Art Basel| STIRworld
Aggregate by Alexandra Pirici Image: Courtesy of Art Basel

RK: Purpose of an art fair format is largely focused on commerce. Please share with us the specific initiatives taken by Art Basel to encourage the discovery of young talent.

MS: Let's start with the big picture: Art fairs require the selling of art, but Art Basel is much more than purely a sales platform. At our fairs, people make new contacts and build existing relationships; galleries introduce new artists to a wider audience; the artworld gets a broad and deep overview of international production at a certain moment in time.

In that context, Art Basel has a long history of promoting and investing in younger galleries, because these younger voices represent our future and are an integral part of a healthy artworld ecosystem. Thus, the emerging-artists sectors - Statements in Basel, Discoveries in Hong Kong or Nova and Positions in Miami Beach – have always been subsidised by Art Basel to bring in younger galleries at a reduced rate. Furthermore, in 2018 we introduced a sliding-scale pricing system for our shows to benefit young and mid-size galleries in the main sector.

(L): Hagen Man by Pacita Abad and (R): Omdurman by Pacita Abad | Pacita Abad | Art Basel| STIRworld
(From L to R): Hagen Man and Omdurman by Pacita Abad Image: Courtesy of Art Basel

In general, the Selection Committee of each show makes a concerted effort to bring a diverse range of new galleries from all over the world into the fair. And our own team puts a particular focus in our marketing and communication on younger galleries, to introduce these fresh perspectives to new audiences.

Unlimited by Franz West | Art Basel| STIRworld
Unlimited by Franz West Image: Courtesy of Hauser and Wirth, David Zwirner, Art Basel

RK: In continuation, is it true that the capitalistic framework encourages furtherance of few practitioners? Additionally, is there a generic curatorial framework that the fair follows (to control or guide the quality of art displayed)?

MS: First off, more than 500 galleries take part in our fairs every year, showing thousands of artists. We do our utmost to highlight a wide multiplicity of perspectives and practices, and to drive patronage from across the globe to as many artists from as many places as possible. While Art Basel puts a strong focus on quality, there's no generic template to how the Selection Committees judge quality. They are selected individually for their knowledge and integrity, but as a group for their diversity of personal tastes and perspectives.

What we want in the end is to show the widest possible range of the best possible works. For example, coming up, we are hosting another Online Viewing Rooms dedicated to works from the 20th century. This will give 100 galleries from 23 countries and territories the opportunity to present curated exhibitions online. Multiple galleries will offer presentations that showcase defining decades or critical moments within 20th century art. Highlights include: Fraenkel Gallery’s presentation of photographic works from the 1960s, featuring artists who redefined the rules of the medium, including Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Garry Winogrand; a selection of monumental sculptures and paintings created in 1990 by Kishio Suga, Lee Ufan, Tatsuo Miyajima, and Toshikatsu Endo at SCAI The Bathhouse that illustrate the innovative legacy of Mono-ha; an exhibition by Luciana Brito Galeria that fosters greater international awareness of the Brazilian Concrete art movement of the 1950s, showcasing historical works by ‘Grupo Ruptura’ artists Waldemar Cordeiro, Geraldo de Barros, Kazmer Féjer, Hermelindo Fiaminghi, and Maurício Nogueira Lima; Mazzoleni’s presentation of works by three pioneering Italian artists – Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni – who had a profound impact on the growth of new creative trends in the post-war period; and more.

Untitled | Art Basel| STIRworld
Untitled Image: Courtesy of Galleries Cheim and Read and Art Basel

RK: There is a sense of global emergency across social disparities, deteriorating ecological balance, and general political polarisation. What in your view is the role and relevance of contemporary arts in such times?

MS: In times of crisis, I believe that art is more important than ever, as artists provide another viewpoint, another way of looking at things in a time of tremendous uncertainty. While not all artists are political, many more artists today are addressing socio-political or environmental questions. Many galleries are addressing this fraught moment, showing work overtly tied to the current context as well as work from the past whose themes are particularly relevant now.

Untitled by Mazzoleni Lucio Fontana | Art Basel| STIRworld
Untitled by Mazzoleni Lucio Fontana Image: Courtesy of Art Basel

RK: In conclusion, please talk about the future strategy of Art Basel, given a tectonic shift in the very structure of our global society.

MS: We will continue our efforts to support our galleries in these extraordinarily difficult times, with the digital continuing to play an important role in the overall strategy of Art Basel. At the same time, we continue with our planning to host physical fairs in 2021 and are looking into new opportunities. In collaboration with Fine Art Asia, Art Basel will present Hong Kong Spotlight, showcasing 22 galleries with exhibition spaces in Hong Kong SAR. Hong Kong Spotlight by Art Basel will take place from November 27 to November 30, 2020 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre (HKCEC).

Marc Spiegler, Global Director, Art Basel | Art Basel| STIRworld
Marc Spiegler, Global Director, Art Basel Image: Courtesy of Art Basel

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