Frieze week Corona-style is a good time to discuss the impact of the pandemic on art fairs and wonder what we can expect from fairs in the post-Corona era.
Usually, at this time of year I would be in London, walking my feet off through the huge tents that pop up in Regents park, for the two Frieze fairs. Frieze week is the most important week for contemporary art in London and one of my favourites in the year. Sadly, like many other art lovers, the only way for me to experience Frieze this year (open till October 16th) is from my desk here in Israel.
Since the Armory Show in March, and for the next six months at least, all major art fairs have been cancelled. What do we have instead and what can we expect in the future? Read on.
The age of the art fair
One of the big questions that preoccupies the global art world in these days of the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns the future of art fairs. Those mega-events, which drove collectors to travel thousands of miles around the globe during the year, which brought together hundreds of galleries in one place for a limited time of a few days – these events became the commercial highlights of the art world. The concept of concentrating merchants in one place for a limited time has existed for centuries and has proven itself as a successful commercial model. Interestingly, in the field of art, the first fairs for contemporary art arose in Cologne (1967) and Basel (1970) – not major art cities, but with appeal because of rich local collectors.
It was not until the early 2000s that fairs began to gain momentum and popularity until as early as 2005, the period was crowned the “Age of Art Fairs”, with a total of 60-70 fairs worldwide. Who would have believed that a decade later there would be almost 300 fairs a year, in almost every major city in the world. The important ones have turned the host cities into attractive art centers, including dozens of satellite events and fairs, held alongside the main fair. Cities like Basel and Miami have literally been redefined as art centers thanks to the important fairs that take place there.
Despite their success, people were already getting tired of fairs. There is even a name for it – “Fair fatigue” and just before the pandemic outburst, there was talk of a dissonance between the carbon footprint of the art world and the state of the planet. One of the world’s most important curators, Hans Ulrich Obrist, stated in February that he was going to reduce his travels around the world and also transport less works to exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London, where he currently works. Then came Corona and put an end to it all. The first fair canceled, after much hesitation, was Art Basel Hong Kong. At the time I was still wondering if this would be a one-time cancellation or the first of a cancellation wave. Oh, the innocence. Of course we already know the answer. 2020 has been erased from the map in terms of fairs. As in other areas, we had to abruptly change our habits and start getting used to seeing a world virtually.
As virtual reality -VR – has now become the dominant reality in our lives, the real world is now referred to with an acronym – IRL – In real life.
an analog field in a digital world
Until the Corona pandemic, the art world was mostly analogic. The art gallery model has hardly changed since the 18th century and although every self-respecting gallery has a website, the trade is mostly done in the good old way – face to face. The UBS Bank report in conjunction with the Basel Art Fair reports that only 9% of all art deals in 2019 were made online. At the same time, a new Art Tactic report offers amazing data for the months of January-August 2020, showing a 255% increase in online auctions in comparison to the full year of 2019.
So we understand that people are starting to change habits and move more confidently to purchasing art online, as we have had to do in almost every area of our lives this year.
Online viewing rooms
The willingness to purchase art online paves the way for a new model of online fairs, which already has a name: OVR – online viewing rooms. The transition from IRL(In Real Life) fairs to virtual fairs was very rapid and actually began as early as March, as a substitute for the canceled Art Basel Hong Kong. Since then, the new concept is still evolving to find the best formula to attract viewers and buyers. After all, an online viewing room is just a web page and the biggest problem is to give viewers a feeling of an actual room.
Another problem with online fairs is that they do not have opening hours and people come in around the clock from different time zones in the world. There are not always gallery representatives available at all times. There is a lot of confusion among the older collectors. This is the time of the young collectors, who are not deterred by technology and indeed, the data show that the millennial generation is acquiring six times as much online art as the older collectors.
Nevertheless, under the umbrella of the fair – whether it’s Art Basel or Frieze – galleries are supposed to get a greater exposure than on their gallery website. Until recently, Art Basel took on the production costs of the online fairs, which took place during the dates the IRL fair was due to take place.
A new virtual fair
Last week another fair was held by the creators of Art Basel, not in sync with the annual fair schedule. OVR:2020 took place over three and a half days under one theme: works created this year. 100 galleries participated and for the first time were also required to pay for the show. Prominent by their absence were the three mega-galleries: Gagosian, David Zwirner and Pace, regular participants in the big fairs, but this time they were more comfortable watching from the sidelines. They may not have wanted to “burn” their artists’ new works at the fair but also, because they invest in their popular standalone virtual platforms, where they can display what they want without the restrictions imposed by the fair.
Art and champagne
Regarding the art fair phenomenon, it is important to remember that a key element in their success is related to the extensive network of contacts that is created in the conjunction of all the field’s players in one place. Gallerists, artists, curators, art critics, consultants, journalists and especially collectors. This network holds many high-brow events such as VIP evenings at different levels (there are always people who are VVVVIP), luxury car rides for collectors that the fair organizers wanted to pamper, tours, meetings and coveted parties, mingling with all who’s and who’s of the art elite. Visibility is very important at these events: who, with whom, what did they wear, what did they buy – fairs provide a lot of gossipy headlines, which create a hierarchy and motivation to climb the ladder to reach the desired echelon.
This important dimension is nulled when the fair takes place online. When everyone visits the fair from their computer screen, there is no mingling. The success of the online fair is based on inquisitive beginners and hard-core collectors – the heavy addicts, who are always looking for the next big thing.
The future of art fairs
As Mark Spiegler, director of the Basel Art Fairs, said, there is no going back after adopting technologies. Therefore, all the virtual tools: tours of stands / exhibitions, videos about artists and works – all of these will remain relevant post-Corona. Even when we resume flying and mingling at the fairs, there will always be people who will not be able to attend. A virtual tour of the fair will always be welcome.
The future is a hybrid – a combination of IRL together with OVR and in all this tangle one thing is for sure – the concept of fair fatigue – the fatigue felt after two full days of wandering around the fairs, is no worse than a fatigue of another kind – digital fatigue.