By Francesca Vine: Arts Columnist
As lock-down was being imposed, the Courtauld Gallery’s virtual tour saw a 723% increase in visitors over the second-to-last week in March, Hauser & Wirth’s virtual viewing rooms received a fifth of their usual yearly traffic in just three weeks and the British Museum’s online collections page briefly peaked at 175,000 daily hits. Clearly in this time of deep uncertainty and panic, people were turning to art for comfort in their droves.
This sudden and unexpected public interest in their online content left museums and galleries scrambling to put together new resources and re-work long-neglected existing ones. In an already underfunded industry otherwise facing financial ruin from prolonged closures followed by highly restrictive social-distancing regulations, cultural venues quickly capitalised on this new interest. Staff working from home were galvanised to move highly-anticipated blockbuster exhibitions, such as Andy Warhol at Tate Modern, online, while the few staff still on-site created new virtual tours. Others put curators’ talks on YouTube and created learning resources for parents and teachers trying to educate children from home.
“virtual space, from just under $2000 to $7600”,
Auction houses have seen a huge shift in the way they conduct sales as a result of the pandemic. A head of department at Sotheby’s stated back in March that the auction house’s main challenge in the coming months was not with finding buyers, as might be expected, but rather, its compromised ability to source and evaluate works for sale in person, due to the cessation of international travel. Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s swiftly began to move sales online, turning a 97% drop in sales in May, when compared to the same time last year, into only a 49% drop over the first half of 2020, largely due to the success of their newly devised formats. To retain the interest of collectors, they attempted to re-create the excitement and suspense of a live, in-person sale.
In addition to the usual, impersonal, online-bid format, Sotheby’s has experimented with live-streaming its sales, conducted by an auctioneer, where staff take telephone bids in real time. Christie’s went a step further and coordinated a huge sale of 20th century art that was relayed in sequence from Hong-Kong to Paris to London to New York. An immense success, it sold 94% by lot and 97% by value, raising over £334 million.
Perhaps the most challenging arts event to move online, art fairs have really struggled. Art Basel tried to postpone its marquee fair from June to September but, ultimately, made the decision to cancel. Frieze announced the cancellation of October’s London art fairs due to “continued unprecedented challenges regarding Covid-19 (coronavirus)”. It is instead going to again host its online Frieze Viewing Rooms, with its organisers promising “significant developments since its launch in May”, which followed the cancellation of the New York fair. These developments include the introduction of new fees for galleries wishing to borrow virtual space, from just under $2000 to $7600, contrasting with the May edition, where they could show for free.
During this pandemic, art has become, for the first time, truly global. International borders do not apply when people from all around the world, in various time-zones, are able to view the same exhibition, bid on the same lot and browse artworks from the same gallery. In this new digital age, it is clear that the path forward lies in arts organisations expanding and improving their online offerings.