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Fine Art goes online: the (virtual) reality of COVID-19 and the changing face of the fine art market

by Sam Miller and Wendy Posner**


We wrote earlier about the COVID-19 shutdown threat to gallery solvency, and possible creditor claims to works on consignment.

“…the sector requires a strong recovery plan, significant market support from collectors, and a preserved ecosystem…”

Now two months into confinement, the threat to galleries is real with a quarter of Los Angeles fine art galleries responding to the Los Angeles Times April 20, 2020 Fine Art Gallery Survey that they would face permanent closure in 2020 “…if the situation doesn’t improve quickly…”. A further five of the thirty-five galleries see closure as a possibility.


An April 8, 2020 Comité Professionnel des Galeries d’Art press release warns that one-third of French galleries “…may not succeed in maintaining their activity in the second half of 2020…”, and that “…[t]his shows that the sector requires a strong recovery plan, significant market support from collectors, and a preserved ecosystem…”.


The question of how that ecosystem, both here and overseas, would be preserved was met with quick dealer response.








A New Fine Art Eco-System?


Deprived of human interaction and beset with almost ubiquitous social distancing rule and regulation, the art world is going virtual. The preserve of the physical object is going online; something which, only a few weeks ago, one would have thought anathema to the fine art industry.


The art market, once set in its ways, old-school and notoriously sluggish in adopting change, is enthused with a new energy and direction.

Odious to the fine art elite and fraught with fears of unsold artworks sitting fermenting on online shelves, for years online art-sale portals were largely relegated to the decorative and emerging.


In recent years though, there has been change in the winds, with the likes of Artsy and others having shown the potential for art in the online.


And COVID-19 appears to have almost instantly accelerated that change. The art market, once set in its ways, old-school and notoriously sluggish in adopting change, is enthused with a new energy and direction.


Now, suddenly, the online space is apparently anyone’s game. The only question is how far will it go to try replicate the (hopefully temporarily) lost physical interaction. With apologies to Plato, by all accounts, in the fine art world, necessity has indeed proved the mother of invention.


One has to ask these questions. As from the collector and art-buying public’s point of view, what really is being done to captivate our interest and preserve the fine art ecosystem?

This change has started with the most venerable of the lot. Sotheby’s, the centuries-old cornerstone of the secondary fine art market, steeped in tradition, white gloved and stiff upper lipped, has succumbed as evidenced by Sotheby’s Home market place, where, in and amongst seating, tables, rugs and other functional design , you can buy, and directly online (one has to emphasize) works from Marilyn Minter and Mimmo Paladino, for $25,000 and $55,000, respectively, presented by participating galleries, and backed by Sotheby’s “Authenticity Guarantee”.


In the pandemic, Sotheby’s has now galvanized its online direct sales presence with the launch of its Gallery Network, a platform geared “…to offer…[Sotheby’s]…gallery peers support and a new way to sell works quickly and efficiently…” Sotheby’s is further “…hopeful that the model can outlast our present circumstance and provide a valuable, full-service transactional tool in the future, particularly for galleries that do not otherwise have this functionality…”.







The galleries chosen by Sotheby’s, according to its Gallery Network FAQ’s, “…represent some of the most renowned galleries in the world, who are important existing clients of Sotheby’s… [e]ach gallery …[having]…established itself as a premier destination showcasing many of today’s leading contemporary artists…”.


The Gallery Network’s online offerings do not, however, appear to offer any augmented or virtual reality interactivity, presenting instead the familiar 2D, e-commerce look and feel. Each artwork offered for sale is presented with one or more expanded view images and a “Buy-Now on Sotheby’s Home” call to action, which routes you back to the ‘Sotheby’s Home’ check-out, hardly a substitute for the real-life gallery experience.


The Sotheby’s ‘Authenticity Guarantee’ for each artwork kicks off with the disclaimer that each works is sold “as-is,” “…and that neither Sotheby’s Home nor the seller make any representations or warranties with respect to merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, the physical condition, size, quality, rarity, importance, provenance, restoration, exhibitions, literature or historical relevance of the Property…” The Guarantee does, nevertheless, go on to offer a limited four year guarantee “… that the authorship, period, culture or origin of the…[work]…is as set out in the large size, hyperlinked, type at the top of the listing page of the Property on SothebysHome.com…”.


Apparently, Sotheby’s is paid a flat commission on the sale of works offered on its platform, and it requires that its galleries sell the works exclusively through its platform.


Taking all this into account, one wonders where the novelty actually is. Is it simply in Sotheby’s full-throttle venture into the direct-sale online world? Is it thought that the lending of its name to a consortium of selected high-end galleries that would make buying works more attractive to collectors at this time? The guarantee of authenticity, albeit limited, with Sotheby’s stamp of approval, must, at least, help?


One has to ask these questions. As from the collector and art-buying public’s point of view, what really is being done to captivate our interest and preserve the fine art ecosystem? What more is being offered to make up for the absence of physical interaction and the effective shutdown of the experience that comes with collecting and engagement the fine art world? Are we doomed to having just more of the same online? What is so different than before?


Granted, it is hard, if not impossible to replicate a physical, dynamic experience. But that doesn’t mean dealers aren’t trying.


An Augmented Virtual Gallery Experience


What was the preserve largely of realtors’ online open-house show-casings has now become a go-to for galleries. Virtual, augmented reality gallery experiences of the likes built with Matterport where you can navigate through virtual corridors, replicated with the look and feel of the physical galleries we have come to know so well, are becoming regular features.


Santa Monica’s Peter Fetterman Gallery has one up and running for its Ansel Adams exhibition. Frankfurt’s Sakhile&Me has another for its Owanto, ‘Flowers’ exhibition. Artland, also using Matterport technology, has powered up a number of galleries with virtual exhibitions, all allowing for a more realistic online experience as you navigate through 3D gallery renditions. Now we are talking about something new, something which engages and pulls the patron into the experience. But why stop there?


Virtual, augmented reality gallery experiences of the likes built with Matterport where you can navigate through virtual corridors, replicated with the look and feel of the physical galleries we have come to know so well, are becoming regular features.

Other galleries have taken a different approach to their ‘virtual exhibitions’.


Los Angeles’s Vielmetter keeps its viewing rooms 2D, but adds extended content, including artist biographies, videos and price lists (replete with an email-powered ‘inquire’ button), as well as expanded-view images of the artwork.


Various Small Fires, has gone with ‘Online Viewing Rooms’ for exhibitions at each of its Los Angeles and Seoul spaces. Each has expanded-view images of the art exhibited, coupled with 3D gallery images with zoom to view the works as they sit on the gallery walls. Images are accompanied by a single embedded video about the exhibition, and a pdf exhibition guide with further details. Gallery interaction is by email link, at the foot of the ‘viewing room’, and there is talk of integrating gallery-chat too. VSF also provides an online reservation tool to book a tour of its Seoul gallery, and for those who can’t be there, a virtual tour through Zoom, according to Artnet, consisting of a “…lone cameraperson shooting a tour led by a single VSF Seoul staff member.” Artnet also reports that VSF is considering collaborating with other galleries for alternating exhibitions at its Seoul space.


A Sign of the Times: Gallery Collaboration


The COVID-19 crisis has brought galleries together: strength-in-numbers, and collaboration seems to be the way forward. We have seen this already in Sotheby’s Gallery Network, and it is already apparently taking shape in Los Angeles with the Gallery.Platform. LA set to come to fruition on May 15, 2020.


Spearheaded by Jeffrey Deitch, and billed as a communal platform for its sixty starting galleries, the online initiative proposes to offer virtual viewing rooms for its member galleries through a jointly owned digital portal and virtual visits with Los Angeles artists, collectors and dealers, while, at the same time operating as a formal professional association of Los Angeles galleries, aptly titled, the ‘Gallery Association Los Angeles (GALA)’.


According to Artnet, GALA “…will provide shared resources to …[Los Angeles]…dealers and visitors alike, as well as foster collaborative shows and projects aimed at capturing global attention for Los Angeles’s vibrant art scene year-round…”. Quoting Jeffrey Deitch, Artnet goes on to report that membership is “‘… open to every serious gallery’” — no matter their infrastructure, budget, or market profile…” The viewing rooms are poised to alternate amongst the constituent galleries, placing “…smaller, more experimental spaces on equal footing with some of the art market’s blue-chip sales champions…”.


Included in the line up are heavyweights Gagosian, Blum & Poe, and Sprüth Magers and also local and up-and-coming galleries including Various Small Fires (which sits on GALA’s operating committee), Luis De Jesus, and Five Car Garage.


While it is currently not clear to us what form the online platform, viewing rooms and virtual visits will take (its website currently static and its Instagram, boasting a solitary April 17th post), there is the expectation that, with collaboration and combined resources, it would venture further down the virtual realm than current dealer offerings.


The Auction Market: A Revisit

It isn’t too hard to imagine beyond online convention to replicate, at least somewhat, the energy and space, of a live auction or to give depth to its viewing rooms.

Online too is where the traditional auction houses have gone. While online auction sales, have, for some time, been a regular feature, there is now a discernible move.


Christies, for example, has expanded its calendar by refashioning some previously-intended live auctions into online sales, and with a marked shift in focus to taking bids online. Its ‘Private Sale-Viewing Rooms’ invite email enquiries for “…[w]orks available for immediate purchase…”, including a Basquiat, KAWS and Kapoor, each without price disclosed, but available on request.


One wonders if this will be enough and whether, like Sotheby’s, a move into a formal dealer collaboration space will be on the cards or whether a push for more virtual interaction will unfold. Again, the online features apparently offer little novelty. It isn’t too hard to imagine beyond online convention to replicate, at least somewhat, the energy and space, of a live auction or to give depth to its viewing rooms.


Fine Art Fairs: How Virtual is Virtual?






It is arguable that it is the fine art fairs with their implicit in-person raison d’être that have been hit the hardest. Frieze presented its virtual gallery space at as part of its New York edition, this May 8 to 15 (previews were May 6 and 7).


According to Frieze , “…[t]he inaugural edition of Frieze Viewing Room will showcase an extraordinary cross-section of artwork, from today’s most exciting emerging artists to pioneering figures of the 20th century. With the use of augmented reality (AR) technology, the Viewing Room will offer users the ability to virtually view artworks, such as paintings or photographs, to-scale and upon their own walls. Audiences will also be able to view video art and narrative content, and search for works by artist, price, medium, gallery and section, amongst other fields…”.


Exciting indeed.


The Frieze viewing rooms, appear though, to be largely the 2D artwork presentations that we have seen elsewhere, with some video, zoom-in features and an ‘inquire button’ that leads to a message relayed to the exhibiting gallery.


It is arguable that it is the fine art fairs with their implicit in-person raison d’être that have been hit the hardest.

Billed as a “New Reality”, the inaugural Photo L.A. ‘Virtual Collect + Connect’ virtual photo fine art fair is set to kick off June 27th, 2020 for two days, Promising “…digital [exhibitor booths]…[and]… curated digital installations…” the art fair is also to make use of Whova, the event and conferencing mobile application, and Zoom to reimagine “… the traditional fair space… digitally connect galleries and private dealers, collectors, photographers and enthusiasts from around the globe…[with the art fair]… [n]o longer confined to four walls… play[ing] host to over forty exhibitors via interactive, 3D booths accessed via the Whova app and on the photo l.a. website…”. With a $20 per-person ‘day pass’, all eyes are on Photo L.A. and its precedent setting possibilities for other art fairs in this socially-distanced world.


Anyone’s Game


And it is not only the established, venerable dealers and auction houses that are taking these initiatives by the horns. A cottage industry of online, virtual art openings and artist-dealer-collector interactivity is taking place. Powered by simple Zoom, Google Meet or Hangouts sessions, small and emerging dealers are getting face-time with artists and collectors, often adding a charitable component to their virtual engagements.


A cottage industry of online, virtual art openings and artist-dealer-collector interactivity is taking place.

One such enterprise is The Zero Experiment, founded and curated by New York Based gallerist Marina Dojchinov, which last week held a ‘virtual opening’ for artist Jessica Mafia. Simple, but effective, the Zoom forum provided an easy way for art buyers to experience Jessica’s work, ask questions and get some ‘real-time’ with Jessica, with a portion of the proceeds going to charity. The Zero Experiment currently plans to hold similar events on a fortnightly basis.


Thus, disruption and the art world are finally making friends. For too long innovations in the fine art markets have been kept at bay, whether it be simple inertia or a defined, and set way of doing business. The question though is how far can they, and will they go? How much of the in-person, physically-close experience can we replicate while we navigate this change. Arguably, 3D augmented reality tours have been the boldest steps forward, but it shouldn’t stop there. As illustrated by the ‘pop-up’, Zoom powered virtual gallery openings, we have tools already and readily at our disposal which can take remote interactivity far beyond the uninspiring traditional 2D experience of expanded-image viewing rooms and check-out pages.


Taking Virtual Further: Technology Startups

From Blockchain, image recognition, micro-imaging, to virtual reality, machine learning and the internet-of-things, the fine art world is ripe for disruption.

There are a number of technology startups actively driving this even further, and which are set to change the way we provide access to fine art, and capture people’s fine art interest. Even how we authenticate, validate, own, secure and buy and sell fine art.


From Blockchain, image recognition, micro-imaging, to virtual reality, machine learning and the internet-of-things, the fine art world is ripe for disruption. Authentication by artwork material structure, captured with a standard-issue iPhone camera, interactive experiences and digital-physical galleries are all here or on the horizon.


One such start up, The Fine Art Ledger, (in full disclosure; founded by this article’s co-author, Sam Miller) serves Blockchain powered digital, content-rich interactive experiences directly to art-patrons’ mobile phones, in the process making artworks, and the spaces, whether virtual or physical, in which they hang, digital repositories of the artist, art and dealers’ information, story and experience, all available, literally, on-tap.


Currently-on-offer virtual gallery or auction experiences can easily be augmented with this new technology to enrich the interactive experience. For now, when the in-person experience is off-limits, and after, to augment our already rich fine art personal interaction.







Looking Forward: All Boundaries are Conventions

“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.”

How long the pandemic will last and direct our day-to-day is, at this stage, anyone’s guess. It seems by most reports that the virus will be with us for a while. The act of social distancing may become an art in itself as we navigate a new hybrid of the augmented and real-life worlds.


A least for the foreseeable calendar, that is. After all, the world has seen pandemics before, survived and gone on to bigger and better things. Human interaction; the human, tactile experience, it has shown, cannot, at least yet, be replicated in a virtual reality of our own making. But embracing the technology at our disposal may get us very close.


We look forward to soon, and once again, IRL (aka in real life) walking the spaces, stalls, rows, halls and floors of the art world that we have come to love and enjoy, and have, apparently taken for granted.


It has taken a pandemic for the art markets to conceive, move and embrace the technology that it has long dismissed, with the silver lining of all this loss that it will yet be reborn stronger and smarter. And embrace it we should, beyond that to which we have so far become accustomed: beyond the pale of the flat 2D online experience. Even if it means at the expense of the conventional.


After all, as author David Mitchell writes in Cloud Atlas, “[a]ll boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention if only one can first conceive of doing so.”

******

**Sam Miller is a Los Angeles-based fine art and corporate finance attorney and partner at Rimon P.C.. Sam is licensed to practice law in California, England & Wales and in South Africa. Sam also founded TheFineArtLedger.com, the Blockchain powered fine art title and authentication platform which uses technology to improve access to fine art and better capture fine art interest.


**Wendy Posner is CEO of Posner Fine Art , Inc, the Los Angeles fine art consultancy, working directly with international corporations, public institutions, developers, architects, interior designers, wholesalers, retailers and private collectors. Wendy and Posner Fine Art (PFA) have long-established roots, and decades of experience in fine art. Founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1960, PFA began as art dealers servicing private clientele, as well as art publishing pioneers in launching one of the first large-scale poster companies in the world. With Wendy as CEO, PFA has grown into an international art consultancy catering to artists, galleries, publishers, real estate developers and other clientele across the world.



**** This article is intended to be informational only, and does not constitute legal advice. Competent, specific legal advice from a suitable, licensed attorney, should always first be obtained before taking any action, and the information in this article should not be relied upon independently of that advice.

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