7 Key Points From Yesterday’s FT Weekend webinar “The Shift to Online Art Fairs: an exploration of how art fairs and the art market are adapting to online-only models”

Introduction: Jan Dalley, Arts Editor, Financial Times

Hosted by: Melanie Gerlis, Columnist & Contributor, Financial Times

In conversation with: Loring Randolph, Director, Frieze New York and Garth Greenan, Founder, Garth Greenan Gallery

Taking place on the eve of Frieze New York, it was only right that much of the webinar, entitled “The Shift to Online Art Fairs” was focused around Frieze New York’s robust decision to significantly extend and develop an already existing virtual platform to allow them to move the entire fair (VIP Preview and all) online.

Whereas last year, a standard single admission ticket to Frieze New York cost around $50. Now, anyone with an internet connection who registers can access for free some of the finest works currently being offered for sale by several hundred major international contemporary galleries.

Visitors will be able to view video art and narrative content, as well as use a search facility to find works by artist, medium, gallery, by price, or by themed section, which this year includes:
• Spotlight – a showcase of solo exhibitions of work by pioneering figures of the 20th Century,
• Frame – dedicated to solo artist projects presented by emerging galleries that have been active for 10 years or less,
• Focus – dedicated to exhibitors that have been operating for 15 years or less and whose programs represent the vanguard of contemporary art,
• Diálogos – a celebration of Latin American, Latino, LatinX Artists,
• Chicago Tribute – an homage to the pioneering women artists of Chicago, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the ratification of women’s rights. 

7 Key Points To Emerge From the Panel Discussion

1. Virtual Fairs are Nothing New

The concept of a free to access, open to all virtual viewing room seems such a bold departure for a major art fair, one of the many interesting points raised during the webinar was by New York Gallerist Garth Greenan, who reminded the panel and audience that virtual art fairs are actually nothing new, reflecting the simple fact that for many years art enterprises have been shifting more of their business online.
Having taken part in several virtual art fairs already, Greenan said of his Frieze experience, that it had been great and cited the easy to navigate booth diagram on the Frieze NY virtual viewing platform, and the high standard of the curated sections. 

2. As with all things, there are Advantages and Disadvantages to Virtual Art Fairs

One of the potential advantages of virtual art fairs is that a gallery can show more works than they would otherwise be able to, as they will not have the expense and logistical complications of physically shipping art to an event.
If a shift to online enables galleries to show more artworks, this will enhance the art fair visitor experience, furthermore it will allow a gallery to become bolder and potentially more experimental in their curation.
One of the disadvantages cited was that a virtual art fair is a harder selling platform for lesser known and emerging artists.  However, this assertion was countered by the view that young and emerging artists are already selling their work via digital platforms like Instagram, proving that there is an online market for less-established talent.

3. In terms of Sales, We Will Have to Watch this Space…

It is impossible to talk about major international art fairs without talking about sales, the usual benchmark of whether an event has been a success or not.

Interestingly, no predictions emerged from the discussion about expected sales, in terms of whether they will be slower or not, or whether the same value of sales will be made. We will have to watch this space.

As an aside, gallerist Garth Greenan made the point that he has been making sales in lockdown either by would-be buyers seeing images on his website, or by him sending images of relevant artworks to existing clients. On a further positive note, for the most part, galleries have not experienced people backing out of sales.

4. The online Art Fair format will lead to more Market Transparency

A key topic that surrounds the international art market, is the issue of transparency (or lack of it).
A view expressed during the webinar was that the online art fair format will inevitably lead to more market transparency as most (but not all) prices will be listed against the artworks online where anyone can see them.
On the question of whether online art fairs’ have more of an ability to reach out to new buyers than physical art fairs, certainly this less intimidating sales format would seem to pose far less of a barrier to entry.
Furthermore, the online art fair will broaden the market by lowering the cost base for exhibiting, meaning that we will see an increasing amount of less expensive works of art being offered.
There was a real sense among the panel, that the shift to online art fairs will lead to a greater democratisation of the art market.

5. If Online Art Fairs are to Succeed, High Production Values are Key

Another key point discussed during webinar was the challenge of making viewing artworks on a virtual platform an enjoyable, and potentially different and more special experience for visitors accustomed to browsing art online.

It was agreed that in order to succeed, an online art fair must have exceptionally high production values.

One of the ways that the Frieze New York Viewing Room is doing this is through augmented reality (AR) technology, that will allow users to virtually view artworks, such as paintings or photographs, to scale on their own walls. If you have ever wondered how your living room might look with a work by Gladys Nilsson, now is your chance to find out….

Furthermore, the galleries exhibiting can send 4000MB images of each work of art to potential buyers, better allowing them to gauge the quality and condition of a piece.

6. Physical Art Fairs Are Here to Stay, But They Will Have to Adapt

A key question posed in the webinar was, ‘will fairs come back, and if they do, how will the landscape change.’
Loring Randolph, Director of Frieze NY expressed the view that fairs have not gone away, but she acknowledged that fairs will have to adapt, and that having an online offering as well as a physical presence will become standard.
Furthermore, any organisation running a physical fair will have to have social distancing measures in place and this will become the new normal. (Which begs the question, will PPE manufacturers become the new key sponsors of art fairs, with branded hand sanitiser stations throughout the event!?)
Over the last few years, art fairs have been springing up at an insatiable rate and the view of the panel was that the huge number of art fairs currently in existence is simply not supportable, given the difficulties of staging and attending these sorts of events.
What we will see are galleries becoming far more selective about which events they exhibit at, and buyers becoming far more selective about which events they attend, the suggestion being that doing just one key event a year becomes the new normal for galleries and buyers.
Overall, the feeling amongst the panel was that people love going to art fairs, they love the camaraderie, the social contact, and the chance to meet people within the industry.
Although the focus of this webinar was art fairs, the panel expressed the view that when galleries reopen, they will also have to change the way they operate.  For instance, VIP times will have to be expanded from one hour, to five hours to allow social distancing. Furthermore, both gallery exhibitions and art fairs will have run for longer time periods because fewer people will be accommodated in a space at any one time.
Gallerist Garth Greenan expressed the view that for him digital platforms were just for art fairs, and therefore he wouldn’t be continuing to offer a virtual viewing room after Frieze New York.  Instead, he will fall back on the traditional approach of his website, and by emailing clients images of artworks that he thinks they might be interested in.

7. The Webinar Influenced the Views of the Audience…

Finally, of the 250 people who took part in the webinar, 57% of attendees were positive about online art fairs before the webinar, but this percentage rose to 81% after taking part in the webinar.