Because of the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 has seen unprecedented changes to the contemporary art world. In the absence of the traditional forms of dealing and showing work at art fairs and in exhibitions, galleries have wholeheartedly adopted digital techniques to connect with their public and their collectors.
The disruptive year of 2020 has seen the art world going through a significant metamorphosis.
A market and community that in our digital century have stayed fairly analogue, have within a year transformed themselves and caught up with how the rest of the world do their daily, digital business. But this revolting year has also continued to question the injustice in the still fairly white and male art world. and there is also a stronger feeling of community that is growing not only in the art world but throughout the cultural landscape. These are simultaneously frightening and exciting times.
Throughout the 21st century, there have been a large number of new strategies, start-ups and initiatives based on the idea that the digital somehow must change the art world. Lots of investments have seen tech companies open and close. The only kind of winner was Artsy, the portal through which you can follow artists and purchase contemporary art. But then again maybe not? Yes, it has followers. Yes, it works with leading galleries, but still something is missing. It’s a great tool but it does not change things as much as we thought it would.
The reason is that the disrupter arrived much, much earlier, and it was the thing we call the JPEG. As soon you could send fairly good images from your phone and connect directly to potential buyers things started to change fast. And when Instagram happened, the art world exploded (even though it adopted it almost two years later than everybody else).
Leonardo diCaprio is a respected art collector but he has earned legendary art-tech-fame status for buying the first artwork through the app. Today Instagram is the main tool for how everyone
in the art world stays updated on its own visual world.
So, if there is no disruptor to wait for, how should the art word change? The real question is maybe – why? Does it need to change? So far, the percentage of online art sales is small (approximately 7%) but growing. The galleries generate a lot of business from art fairs around the globe to which they drag their heavy sculptures and bulky frames. It’s never been a very climate friendly way of doing business, but hey, it’s the art world. There’s always free champagne, great parties and celebrities (the cool ones – tech industry, HBO actors and hip-hop stars), which helps to create a buzz outside the art world.
The problem with the digital art fairs we’ve been hanging out at during this year is the lack of physical encounters with the representatives and their colleagues, and with the actual installations and artworks.
Yes, you can buy art without seeing it, especially if you’ve seen a similar painting or sculpture by the same artist before. But one of the amazing aspects of art is the subtlety of its sublime presence. Art glows, it has a certain physical power that is difficult to recreate. It is a contact sport and will always be. An architectural art installation can never be a 3D experience on your 13″ MacBook Air.
This leads us to the hot topic of this year: OVR, or online viewing rooms. Basically, it is as someone wisely said: “Viewing room? It’s just a bunch of JPEGs on a website”. However, the digital world is all we can get at the moment so it’s not as if we have a choice. and things are evolving fast. A year ago, contemporary art galleries and their web pages were stiff and simple standardised sites where not much had changed since HTML was new and exciting.
This year it has been pure joy to enter the websites of some art galleries. Videos with interviews and scenes from artists’ studios, close-ups and detailed views, with all the lush visual content you could dream of. The transition from physical to digital fairs has also forced the art world to open up a more transparent approach to displaying the prices of the art
(which weirdly enough in this competitive day and age was previously almost impossible to find online). This year has also seen the web used by established artists as an alternative exhibiting space. Not that the technique is new; this could be done in the early days of internet art in the 90s, but it never took off. Today, however, an online exhibition is fresh and exciting. Look, for example, at what American painter Elizabeth Peyton did with her digital project ‘Eternal Return’, which can still be seen online.
Collaborations and cross-bridging have also started to happen. One of the problematic trends pre-Covid19 was the growth of the so-called mega-galleries, the richest-of-the-rich galleries that grew ever larger. Surprisingly, the mega-gallery David Zwirner responded to this phenomenon (and the pandemic times) by inviting young, emerging gallerists from selected cities to have guest spots on their web pages where they could offer artists to the gallery’s broad and wealthy network. Other interesting collaborations we’ve seen this year include GalleryPlatform.LA,
which also started this spring. Gallerist and art-world cult figure Jeffrey Deitch, fearing that the bubble might burst for the hyped and growing LA art scene during the pandemic, suggested that the galleries all work together. The result was a web page which focuses on different participating artists and galleries and also telling the history of the Los Angeles art scene.
A predecessor to this was the initiative Condo by gallerist Vanessa Carlos which was a strategy to strengthen small-scale galleries by letting them collaborate on an international basis by inviting them to do guest shows at other similar-sized galleries in a different city. The result was a kind of alternative art fair where you got to see the roster of artists from another gallery in your hometown.
This year in the art world has almost felt like a whole decade. So much has happened and changed, and we haven’t even discussed Black Lives Matter and other movements that have come to the fore this year. The art world is a physical one – the core structure of the gallery, art fair, biennale and institutions will not change, but the way we view, interact and purchase art work will change. What was supposed to happen over the past twenty years instead happened within a year. Exciting times, indeed.
Words by Jonas Kleerup
Installation views at Condo New York 2018 of ‘Queer Thoughts Hosting Park View/Paul Soto, Los Angeles/Brussels’ and of works by Hanne Lippard and Nora Turato, ‘Metro Pictures Hosts Lambdalambdalambda’; Oscar Murillo, Human Resources, Yutaka Sone, Aztec Light and Ouyang Chun, Flying Moths at Condo 2017, London (courtesy the artist, Carlos/Ishikawa London, Tommy Simoens Antwerp & ShanghART Shanghai);
Jean-Pierre Roy, A Low History, Jean-Pierre Roy, Nachlass; map of Condo 2017 in London