Are art collectors embracing online viewing rooms – or are they bored of them?

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When Art Basel Hong Kong launched its Online Viewing Rooms (OVRs) in March amid the spread of Covid-19, it looked like a brave new world for galleries, collectors and art players. . The digital platform had been in development for several months but was ramped up after the Hong Kong Fair was canceled in February due to the outbreak in China.

Hong Kong’s OVR site, free for galleries, offered basic options to view by artist, gallery, medium, and price range (a zoom option to view close-up works was also available). Fast forward seven months and collectors have become accustomed to the new digital landscape, diving into OVRs instead of walking the aisles of fairs in real life. When the final theaters launch next week on the Art Basel website and app, 100 galleries will showcase work on OVR: 20c, a platform dedicated to works created during the 20th century.

These virtual sales spaces are quickly becoming more sophisticated. “OVH: 2020 [the previous iteration] and OVR: 20c introduced a new live chat feature allowing galleries to make presentations and respond to questions submitted via chat, ”said an Art Basel spokesperson. Other technical improvements include improved filtering options and smoother, more direct navigation from room to room. Unlike the free Hong Kong site, participating galleries are now required to pay a lump sum of CHF 5,000 ($ 5,530). The next iteration, OVR: Miami Beach, is scheduled to go live December 2-6.

“Chez Jennie Richee” by Henry Darger. . . ‘ (1930-50) © Galerie Andrew Edlin

OVR: 20c includes a host of important works such as six double-sided watercolors by outsider artist Henry Darger (ranging from $ 200,000 to $ 700,000) at the Andrew Edlin Gallery in New York. The Richard Saltoun Gallery in London will display works by the late British minimalist artist Bob Law from the late 1950s to the 1980s, priced over $ 600,000. “We had good sales online and used digital lounges as a way to interact with existing customers,” says Saltoun.

But after months of browsing and browsing online, are collectors embracing or rejecting new digital experiences? Hubert Bonnet, founder of the nonprofit CAB foundation and collector of 20th century art by major figures such as Donald Judd and Alexander Calder, “will definitely take a look” at OVR: 20c, he says.

New York collector Megan Green

New York collector Megan Green © Emma Craft

New York collector Megan Green, in her thirties, will also visit OVR: 20c rooms. “Frieze, Basel and Galleryplatform.la have done a good job as pioneers of this new medium,” she says. “I try to browse all the online viewing rooms of all the major fairs as soon as I have access to them. I have attended many Art Basel Miamis and Art Basel in Switzerland on several occasions; Art Basel is a brand that I trust for the connoisseur.

Innovators in the art world say there is still plenty of room for improvement, however. Turin-born London collector Eugenio Re Rebaudengo launched Artuner in 2013, producing contemporary art exhibitions online and through international pop-up exhibitions. Its collection mainly includes works from the 21st century, including artists such as Michael Armitage and Avery Singer.

Nazy Vassegh, founder of the Eye of the Collector art fair © Alex Board

“A very important element at this point is the user experience: is it easy for people to navigate the platform and find what they want without getting frustrated or bored? Overall, I find the degree of innovation and creativity still quite limited. For example, I imagined there would have been a lot more 3D virtual gallery experiences, ”he says.

Frieze’s viewing rooms, which went live in May, were accompanied by an augmented reality (AR) app that allowed viewers to view the works at home. That same month, the Vortic app was launched, giving galleries the ability to present works and exhibitions in virtual reality and augmented reality (more than 40 galleries have since registered).

Transactions also took place through the galleries’ own virtual platforms. David Zwirner was the first commercial gallery to introduce an online viewing room in 2017. Elena Soboleva, director of online sales at Zwirner, told Apollo magazine that “for years we have regularly sold works via PDF and JPEG, and saw an online viewing room as a natural evolution ”; it’s recent online Studio The series, dedicated to seven artists including Carol Bove, grossed $ 17 million in total.

“Forlorn Dork” by Carol Bove (2020) © Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner; Husbands hutchinson

One has the impression, however, that the fatigue of virtual fairs is setting in. Nazy Vassegh, founder of the Eye of the Collector art fair, observes: “Speaking to collectors, enthusiasm for some OVRs wanes. I think we still need moments of discovery in the art world, whether online or live. The auction world appears to have successfully transitioned to a global multi-center live broadcast scenario. ”

Vassegh plans to organize a second digital edition of Eye of the Collector early next year, where the works will again be presented as an “organized in-situ exhibition”. She gleaned some significant findings from the first online iteration held in May, highlighting the “surprising” price range for works sold (€ 8,000 to € 500,000). “The most expensive work dates from the 20th century; perhaps it is easier to acquire such works without seeing them physically, ”she adds.

Surprisingly, many collectors say they will buy an artwork online without seeing it in person. Florentine collector Christian Levett is candid about transforming his buying habits. “Normally, there would be no way I could buy a work for, say, € 200,000 without taking a plane somewhere to see it. However, this year I have broken this rule several times and have actually added a lot to my collection of 20th century female abstractions, as there have been a unique number of great opportunities to purchase works. by Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan and Hedda Sterne, among others. “

Most of the works were purchased in the United States, which he was unable to visit during the pandemic. “It worked really well, although I have to say there were a few that I wouldn’t have bought if I had seen them live first – it’s worth paying for that plane ticket. ! ” Levett notes, adding that he got most of the works through the Artsy app.

London collector Eugenio Re Rebaudengo © Courtesy of ArtColLab and JI + DOH photography

Re Rebaudengo says he has been acquiring works via digital images for “a very long time, and I’m very comfortable with that”. On the other hand, the American collector Carole Server has always been reluctant to buy works without seeing them in person. “However, necessity is the mother of invention, and we have been to art fairs or exhibitions online and bought three works that way,” she says.

But is this digital jamming a turning point? Re Rebaudengo does not consider OVR to be revolutionary. “We can think of them as incremental innovation,” he says. “They can change the behavior of collectors and, hopefully, will become a channel to dramatically increase the number of collectors, making art more accessible and the acquisition experience more transparent and less intimidating.” He believes that in the future the art world will depend more on hybrid physical-digital models.

Most importantly, OVRs help dealerships acquire data. Artnet columnist Tim Schneider wrote that “unnamed and faceless information” is gathered by galleries and fairs, helping them identify trends (the number of pageviews per piece and per work of art is, for example, nuggets of useful information).

Nonetheless, Green likes how digital platforms have led to more transparency (galleries often keep prices confidential at fairs, keeping them as state secrets). “Being able to see the prices transparently is what I appreciate the most,” she says. Most OVRs give price ranges rather than exact prices, and these can be wide – $ 500,000 to $ 1 million, for example.

Collector Christian Levett at his home in London © Leo Goddard

“Digital is an addictive experience and these platforms have been forced to improve because of the pandemic. They give collectors access to places they can’t be, more search tools and transparent pricing, ”says Green. “All of these are amplified online and help collectors find their perfect pieces. However, I think nothing will ever replace seeing a work of art in person.

She sees this current digital shift as an inflection point rather than a major step. “I also miss the physicality of art and the social element of developing dialogues with artists and gallery owners,” she concludes. Bonnet confirms: “Digital technology is omnipresent in our daily life. For me, the physical interaction is better and more pleasant.

Many collectors become decidedly nostalgic for traditional art fairs as arenas for shopping, chatting, and meeting key people. Levett says, “I think the big shows will come back and be as successful as before. It’s just a matter of whether it’s next year or, more likely, 2022. Nothing beats walking around a fair and seeing something live with works that are more striking in person than they are. never will be on a computer screen. And they’re social and fun!

Art Basel OVR: 20c, 28-31 October, artbasel.com

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