by Sukanya DebMay 01, 2023
The onset of the novel Coronavirus pandemic has led to some drastic steps across sectors, globally. The art fraternity has also been responsible in postponing and cancelling various exhibitions and fairs, and some of these have been done voluntarily. The current crisis aside, there has been a continued evolution of how viewers and collectors engage with the visual arts. Internationally, galleries increasingly depend on fairs to generate business. To stretch the net wider and induct new breed of buyers, they indulge in walkthrough events, discussions and discourses that are pedagogical in nature, focussed on making arts understood and accessible for the uninitiated. The concerted efforts are also being made to take art to people, out of the white-cube. And in doing so, making it available online has been a natural and an obvious progression.
The global art platforms that are e-commerce enabled is nothing new. But an international art fair moving virtual is relatively novel. After the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong edition earlier this year, the fair launched an initiative to present the gallery booths through an online platform called ‘The Viewing Rooms’ (OVR). It follows a similar pattern as would have been for the physical event; initial two days are dedicated for ‘by invitation only’ visitors (i.e. VIP access), before it is opened to the ‘public’. Art Basel Hong Kong’s press note announced, “The new digital initiative will offer exhibitors an additional platform to showcase artworks to Art Basel's global network of patrons, as well as new collectors and buyers. The first iteration of the Online Viewing Rooms will launch in March 2020, providing exhibitors the opportunity to present works they planned to show at Art Basel Hong Kong. The Online Viewing Rooms will be live from March 20 to March 25, 2020, with VIP preview days from March 18 to March 20, 2020.” The viewers get access to hundreds of galleries and artists, and thousands of handpicked works. Some of the artists whose work have been displayed by galleries at the Art Basel OVR include Rana Begum, Cao Fei, Takashi Murakami and Marina Abramovic among others.
“Going virtual is the only way in times of emergency such as these when galleries and museums across the world are being forced to down-shutters and large numbers of people are working from home. Art Basel OVR is a timely initiative, in that sense, allowing people to access art remotely,” says Renu Modi of Gallery Espace in New Delhi.
Being a new initiative, several participating galleries are not entirely sure of what to expect. Jhaveri Contemporary received a few inquiries on day one. “People have been acquiring art digitally through pdfs from galleries or online auctions for years now. The gallery has subscribed to sites like Artsy and Ocula, so the idea of a digital platform is not novel. The Art Basel OVR offers audiences and collectors yet another platform to engage with our work and we are very happy to be a part of it,” adds Priya Jhaveri of the Mumbai-based gallery.
Kolkata based Experimenter is also optimistic about the results. “OVR is an interesting format and we are keeping a keen eye on the first one by Art Basel-HK. In principle it is a sound idea (24 hours accessibility, worldwide reach, and direct access to the best galleries in the world), but in reality it may be a bit early to talk about the success of the OVRs as there are multiple variables at play at the moment,” says Priyanka Raja, who co-runs the gallery.
Viewing, and certainly buying art is not merely about the image or form. Artistic concerns, historical references, and the sheer physical experience of scale are critical. There are a few interesting features already plugged-in at Art Basel OVR, like a virtual tour. Further, it would be more challenging to place works of new artists, or those with whom buyers are not already familiar with, through a virtual show. “A large part of the experience of viewing art is sensual and it's hard for online to reproduce that feeling. But it's also true that a lot of art is being seen and bought online and that this is the future,” adds Modi. “It has to be an interest driven market, and collectors who are interested in specific artists/works will search them out in the online viewing rooms, unlike the physical fair, where there is a higher chance of walking into a booth and discovering a new artist or from the gallery's point of view, meeting new collectors who one may have never met otherwise,” adds Raja, who also confirms receiving few inquiries on the opening day.
For Gallery Chemould Prescott Road, too, the first edition of the Art Basel OVR was to test the experience out. “We used interesting works from our inventory rather than curating an experience as one would for a physical booth,” says Shireen Gandhy of the gallery. She agrees that virtual may be an integral part of the way art is showcased around the world in times to come. “Physical art fairs are expensive, and with economic slowdown, this format is certainly valuable,” she adds.
Art Basel, in the meantime, confirmed few big-ticket sales.
- Galleria Continua sold Antony Gormley’s ‘Slump IV’ for USD 482,000
- Gagosian sold Mary Weatherford’s ‘Splendor in the Grass’ for USD 750,000
- Tetsuya Ishida sold Derelict Building Worker’s Chair for USD 500,000 and Fanzhi Zeng’s Untitled oil on canvas for USD 450,000
- David Zwirner sold Marlene Dumas’s ‘Like Don Quixote’ oil on canvas for USD 2.6 million to a collection in the US
As the world conquers the COVID-19 virus, it would be prudent to consider the climate crisis with similar vigour and commitment. An online fair such as this reduces the carbon-footprint by many folds. While it cannot fully replace the physicality of the experience, it certainly poses for an attractive option. Added innovation for real-time conversation with gallery staff are things that the technology can easily plug-in. So, what art are you engaging with while you practice social distancing?
Explore Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms here