ART & TECH: DIGITAL TOOLS LANDED IN ART BASEL AND IT MIGHT JUST BE THE BEGINNING

It is a fact that technology is becoming a strategic tool among art stakeholders: the digitalization of purchasing mechanisms in the art market and the search of alternative solutions to attract newcomers is an unstoppable process. 

In latest years the art market is witnessing a growing connection between art and technology: beyond the appearance of the first “robot artist” Ai-Da created by an art dealer, also mayor art players are dealing with a changing environment.

Aiming at boosting their online business and digital presence, big art players such as David Zwirner Gallery and Gagosian Gallery, launched their online viewing rooms during art fairs: Gagosian presented its first online viewing room during Frieze 2018 and Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 while David Zwirner took the testing even further launching Basel Online in 2019, a parallel online art fair booth coinciding with Art Basel, the biggest art kermesse.  

The trend shows that even big institutions are moving towards the digitalization, in pursuit of expanding their catchment area.

 

Art Basel, the hearth of the global art market

Art Basel is like taking the temperature of the Art World: 290 galleries from 34 countries and 93,000 visitors.  

The 50th edition of Art Basel, staged from June 13th to 16th 2019 in the halls of Messe Basel in Basel, Switzerland, presented artworks ranging from early 20th Century Modern Art to the most contemporary artistic production.

The Swiss appointment keeps by far a record among contemporary art fairs, managing to attract collectors from all over the world even if the number of art fairs in recent years has risen exponentially, to the point of tiring even the most dedicated of the globe trotters, bringing collectors’ and galleries owners’ calendars to a puzzle-like complexity.

Basel, Miami, Hong Kong and soon Buenos Aires: Art Basel keeps on broadening its boundaries, making its name a global brand which attracts the whole art world. 

Art Basel 2019 has been renewed by 19 new participants from cities like Buenos Aires, New Dehli, Tallin and Beirut, and a new tariff system that sought to make the fair more accessible and attractive for new realities. “For the first time, it’s a sliding scale based on the size of the booth,” said Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, to The New York Times, “smaller booths pay less per square meter. The bigger galleries really supported this, they understand how important it is to have younger dealers.” This statement confirms that Art Basel has the merit of being redefining constantly the art fair model worldwide and of exploring alternative ways of selling beyond the booth: private viewing rooms, dedicated pre-fair publications and digital platforms are all explored to fuel the business. 

 

How the internet may eventually change one of the art market's oldest customs

As stated by Eileen Kinsella on her Artnet article, the art market lives the tension between the asymmetry of information and discretion about the artworks’ prices and the need to expand its clients base. 

This dynamic was on plain view at Art Basel, where prices were provided to trusted collectors via PDF in advance following a no disclosure policy for press and newcomers.

The sales report drafted by Artsy notifies that among the fair’s 290 exhibitors only 47 of them reported the sales results, proving that there is a common reticence about price transparency.

Hauser & Wirth dominated the fair’s sales, totalling more than $49.2 million. The only gallery that came close, David Zwirner, totaled $46.6 million. At a distant third and fourth place were Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac and Lévy Gorvy, with total sales of $14.8 million and $14.1 million, respectively. 

But the art market’s high entry barriers and exclusionary practices are now coming under unprecedented pressure as galleries need to adapt to the online comparison shopping. 

The first major sale of Art Basel 2019 was presented during the Vip Preview, when David Zwirner announced the purchase of "Versammlung", a rare painting by Gerhard Richter dated 1966 for 20 million dollars by an anonymous collector and a Yayoi Kusama sculpture for 1.8 million, the first sale in the gallery’s physical booth, and the second online. Yes, because, while the fair was swarmed during the fair’s VIP vernissage, the art hunt was taking place also online. Both mega-galleries David Zwirner and Gagosian Gallery extended their sales into the virtual realm.

 

                                                                             

                                                                                                                    Screenshot from the David Zwirner’s online Viewing Room, 2019.

 

David Zwirner, participating at Art Basel for the twenty-first consecutive year, expanded its fair booth’s limit launching a virtual exhibition room called Basel Online that offered artworks exclusively online, where visitors were able to explore and collect twenty works from David Zwirner gallery’s artists and estates, many of which have never been on public view, coming directly from the artists’ studios, for a total value of $5.6m. The top 10 most expensive works online included in Basel Online had been sold in locations where the gallery does not have a physical space.

Basel Online follows the growth and success of the David Zwirner Online Viewing Room, which was created in January 2017 as the first of its kind and has expanded rapidly to meet demand. To date, the gallery, which has five physical spaces worldwide, has presented forty-one Online Viewing Rooms and considers its virtual space as its sixth location. David Zwirner is planning to present thirty viewing rooms in 2019 that will match the 30 shows at its five physical galleries in New York, London and Hong Kong. Access to the viewing rooms is available to anyone on Zwirner’s website at any time, in exchange for their name and email address. Collectors need to click an “inquire” button, after which they will be contacted by a gallery representative. Each David Zwirner viewing room sale lasts approximately for 10 days. The initiative has been effective in attracting new audience members: 37 percent of the total online viewing room inquiries to date have come from new clients.

“We are honored to offer an Online Viewing Room that matches the quality of a major international art fair, and are particularly excited to offer many highly sought-after works that are coming directly from the artists’ studios. The quality of these works reflects the evolving vitality of this new channel and interest from our collector base in collecting online” said Elena Soboleva, Director of Online Sales.

Gagosian Gallery launched its pilot virtual viewing room timed to Art Basel 2018 with a selection of ten artworks by Joe Bradley, Jeff Elrod, Katharina Grosse, Takashi Murakami, Albert Oehlen, Jenny Saville, Rudolf Stingel, Tom Wesselmann, and Christopher Wool. The leading work was a 1985-86 acrylic and silkscreen work dubbed "Map of Eastern USSR Missile Bases (pos)" by Andy Warhol for approximately $1.2 million.

The Gallery launched a second viewing room coinciding with Frieze London in October 2018, featuring works available exclusively online by artists including Helen Frankenthaler, Roy Lichtenstein, Sterling Ruby, and Jonas Wood.

                                                       

                                                                           Screenshot of Gagosian’s Art Basel 2018 Online Viewing Room. Courtesy Gagosian.

For Art Basel Hong Kong (March 2019) Gagosian viewing room was devoted for the first time to a single painting, dated 1988, by the German painter Albert Oehlen sold just three hours after it was unveiled for $6 million, challenging a common perception in the art market that only low-value works can successfully transact online. 

Gagosian director Sam Orlofsky tweeted about the sale, boasting that the gallery had “set a 7 figure world record for an artist within three hours of the artwork being revealed, and the purchaser never seeing it in person.” 

Although Gagosian, like Zwirner, required interested parties to interact with the gallery staff rather than directly clicking to buy, its online communication channel provided instant response. A “Live Assistance” button on each artist’s page connected users to a salesperson on call 24 hours a day for the duration of the viewing room.

As Sam Orlofsky stated on Artnet: “Obviously, there are a lot of changes occurring in people’s buying habits and patterns, and the more quickly you can identify them on the business side, the more quickly you can adapt to them. The goal is to not be in denial, not be stubborn, not say, ‘This is the way we’ve always done things.”

There is an emblematic takeaway from these premier sellers successful stories: galleries are adapting their digital presence according to a changing business environment.

The goal of visual salerooms is to encourage novice art buyers who might be unfamiliar with the art world or feel uncomfortable asking for a price in person. Also, galleries are testing the virtual expansion because it is an easy way to augmenting their inventory and double the chances to meet the taste and budget of potential clients. 

The online art market is helping new collectors approaching their passion and breaking art market high entry barriers. In this regard, it should be noted that more than half of the inquiries to Zwirner’s online viewing room, which has operated for more than two years, have come from new clients, according to the Financial Times

 

                                                               

                                                                                                                          Ai-DA with Her Paintings, photo by Victor Frankowski.

Technology is indeed filling the gap of contact with art, making gigantic leaps towards the art’s technological future as revealed by the launch of Ai-Da, the first ever humanoid artist. 

Named in honour of the pioneering female mathematician Ada Lovelace, the artificial intelligence (AI) machine, created by Engineered Arts, can sketch a portrait by sight, can walk, talk and hold a pencil or brush, without human input. Ai-Da's solo exhibition of drawings, paintings, sculptures and video art, called Unsecured Futures, is now open at the University of Oxford. Its/Her creator Aidan Meller said Ai-Da was "pioneering a new AI art movement. The work engages us to think about AI and technological uses and abuses in the world today". Even if it’s probably still too pretentious talking about a real first autonomous robot artist, because it functions as a tool, Ai-Da is a clear example of how deeply art and technology are joining forces and even blending together.

In conclusion, in a highly digitalised world, art dealers must face the needs of a new kind of user and arm themselves with experimental formulas in order to be competitive in a growing and demanding field, strengthening the perception that a breath of fresh air is moving some cloudy aspects of the art system such as the lack of transparency and high entry barriers.

The effort of cultivating transparency around prices and transactions should be embraced as an effective way to attract new audience towards art collecting.

Online art market offers the opportunity to bridge the greatest gap between art dealers and potential buyers demolishing the discouraging hurdle represented by the opacity of traditional sales’ channels.

Lucrezia Di Donfrancesco - July, 2019

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