Frieze was forced, for the first time in its history, to go fully digital. Is going virtual the future of art fairs? If so, what are the pros and cons?

11 March, 2021

When Frieze London and Frieze Masters opened last week, they faced the unprecedented challenge of doing so in the midst of chaos, sparked by the rapidly surging number of Covid-19 cases across the UK and around the world. Obviously, opening their doors in the outdoor setting we had all been accustomed to was impossible this year. Frieze was forced, for the first time in its history, to go fully digital. Since the beginning of the year, galleries and museums have had to deal with the same challenge. This begs the question: Is going digital the future of art fairs? What are the pros and cons of virtual exhibitions?

According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Market Report 2019, art fairs continue to play a key role in the art market. Dealers reported spending approximately $4.8 billion attending and exhibiting at art fairs, representing an increase of 5% from the previous year.In parallel, according to the Hiscox Art Online Report (2020), global online sales in 2019 showed an increase of 4% from 2018, totalising an estimated aggregate online sales volume of $4.82 billion Arguably, it could be concluded that if the two joined forces, this could be a marriage made in heaven. 

Ever since the pandemic hit earlier this year, galleries worldwide have had to modernise at an unprecedented speed, spending a big chunk of their budgets on digital technology and strategies that would help them reach their usual audiences and make sales virtually. The Internet has emerged as a temporary solution to a drop in sales and physical visitors. While most online exhibitions have been limited to curated web pages of images and videos, some organisations are developing virtual reality and game spaces to support galleries; yet, it is important to note who are managing these organisations and whether they are truly working in the interest of the art institutions. 

One example of this is Occupy White Walls, which presents itself as a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game. They have had the idea of creating a fantastical art gallery, using a method similar to that in The Sims, whereby each player is able to create their own space and fill their walls with recommended artworks, which are selected according to the artworks the player has previously viewed from a database controlled by the system’s ‘Art Discovery AI’. It is free to play; however, artists need to pay $9 per each work submitted. 

One of the big advantages of digitalising art fairs, as noted by Occupy White Walls, is that it leads to a greater democratisation of the space by removing the intimidation factor of walking in to a gallery space or participating in a live auction, and importantly, by posting prices in a famously opaque art market. 

Additionally, while many artists may be reluctant to open up to the “ecommercification” of their work, others welcome the arrival of new platforms and technology. Artist Jeff Koons, for example, sees digital platforms as being “good for the dialogue of art” (as quoted in The New York Times). 


Above: Collectors and Visitors Looking at Art on Georg Kargl's stand at Frieze, the Annual International Contemporary Art Fair in Regents Park London, October, 14 2010


For Frieze London, many galleries, including Hauser & Wirth, have chosen the path of virtual reality and digital technology to exhibit their artworks, relieved to be able to at least return to art fairs, particularly due to the fact that they are such a big part of their business. However, the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, which took place in parallel with Frieze, was successful due to the fact that as Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of 1-54, stated, “There’s strong enthusiasm for events and people want to see the art physically rather than just doing it online. I think people missed it” (as quoted in The Guardian). 

The idea that buyers and collectors are more reluctant to make purchases virtually is strengthened by a recent report by Dr. Clare McAndrew for UBS and Art Basel, which showed a 36% drop in global gallery sales in the first half of 2020. Another study by ArtTactic supported this, demonstrating a 50% fall in auction sales during that same period. This is especially true for collectors, such as Italian art collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, who prefer to physically view the artwork before buying. 


“We need to be there in the booth or in the room to see the art and be in the real time presence of others, to share our experience of art.” - Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, as quoted in The Guardian. 

Grimm owner Jorg Grimm also agrees that “personal interaction with a work is (and will always remain) key” (as quoted in Artsy). 


To conclude, Frieze London unarguably brought back some energy and buzz to a London art market that had been made flat due to the pressures of the pandemic. Just as art institutions, including fairs, galleries and museums have had to adapt to the need for rapid digital transformation, so have art audiences and artists. Time will tell if sales increase as audiences adapt to the new technology. Going digital has helped democratise a market that was lagging behind in this regard, opening up the art dialogue to a wider audience; however, sales appear to be dependent on the ability to visual works of art firsthand. The way forward, it would seem, is a harmonious blend of the two. 



Art Basel, ‘The Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2019’,

Benjamin Sutton, ‘What Sold at Frieze London and Frieze Masters Online’, Artsy, Oct 2020,

Hiscox Online Art Trade Report 2020,

Robin Pogrebin, ‘Art Galleries Respond to Virus Outbreak With Online Viewing Rooms’, 2020,

The Guardian, ‘Frieze Art Fair goes virtual as art crowd stays home due to Covid’, 

Thomas McMullan, ‘The Art World Goes Virtual’, Frieze, 2020,


Aurelia Clavien

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