This year, after the coronavirus outbreak and the government regulations to prevent the spread of the virus, Art Basel, now one of the most important art fairs in the world and specially in Hong Kong, has been cancelled and instead, it will showcase more than 2000 pieces in online viewing rooms.
The first week of march, Hong Kong shut down schools, museums and started limiting flights from China and from this decision, many of the participants, investors and attendees of Art Basel, started to call about the event expressing their thoughts on its possible health implications and risks.
Art Basel 2020 was supposed to run from March 17 through March 21. However, the decision was made to cancel the fair, even after considering just postponing it, since the advice from government health institutions, gallerists, partners and external experts, was that cancelling was the best option.
Bernd Stadlwieser, chief executive of MCH Group, the Swiss-based company behind the fair, expressed his concern and mentioned numerous factors for cancelling, including the health and safety of fair workers and visitors, the logistical challenges of mounting the event, and the escalating difficulties of travel to Hong Kong, which reported its first fatality from the virus on Feb. 3.
Despite this decision, Art Basel now has decided to offer an online fair. Using the development of dealer David Zwirner of virtual viewing rooms. The 230 dealers who planned on bringing their work to Asia will instead offer around 2,000 pieces through the virtual fair with an estimated value of $270 million, including 70 items over $1 million.
When talking about online developments in the coronavirus era, we can think of many companies who have evolved and adapted to fulfil the new customers’ shopping behaviours and needs. Amazon, Rappi, UberEats, are just examples of brands who have taken advantage of the coronavirus situation.
Moreover, the main challenge has been for industries that require people gatherings and interactions. Air travel, tourism, sports games, concerts, and art are specially being hurt by all of the shelter-in-place, voluntary quarantines and all of the restrictions that have dominated for the past months.
In this era, companies have had to adapt to their customers. And now, it was turn for the art world to change.
Many in the art world say an online viewing room cannot replace the experience of encountering a painting or a sculpture in person. But collectors have grown comfortable buying based on PDF images of artists they know from galleries they trust. Both galleries and auction houses have even made some significant sales based on images posted on Instagram. And when visiting a work of art becomes impossible, a digital substitute is better than not seeing the art at all.
The value of online galleries is that there is more information and historical context on a piece than on a physical gallery, and even being able to reach rare collectors who can’t easily travel to galleries or art fairs; and leaving much less of a carbon footprint by eliminating shipping and flights to fairs.
What is more, by removing the real spaces, and people interaction, some of the intimidating factors of entering a gallery or auction are also removed from art purchases, making the process more democratic and giving equal opportunities for all.
Such virtual buying experiences may become increasingly necessary for the art market, given current restrictions on congregating. The Tefaf Maastricht fair closed after an exhibitor tested positive for the coronavirus. Art Cologne, the world’s oldest art fair, has been postponed from April to November. Whether Frieze New York and Tefaf New York Spring will take place in May, as planned, or Art Basel Switzerland in June, has yet to be determined.
The whole art landscape is still uncertain. After the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its decision to close temporarily, the rest of the art world fell like dominoes, with one major museum after another announcing their decisions to close, as well as just about every gallery — though some are shifting to appointment-only visitation.
Galleries, artists and museums are adjusting to this new reality. Not all of those in the Hong Kong fair have signed on for the online version. However, some galleries are encouraging potential visitors “to visit and explore our exhibitions online,” as well as world renowned museums such as the Reina Sofia, MOMA, among others, are encouraging people to take on the virtual tours and many online materials they have made available for the public during this difficult times.
There have been amazing changes in the way we work, learn, buy and communicate with others. All of which has been a sign of proof that we can do things no one had expected and that will probably move the course of history from now on.
The art situation is adapting and using technologies that will take their business further than ever before. The coronavirus pandemic has only shown the amazing ability of mankind to adapt and do everything to survive. With the help of technology, we are just a step closer from a new era in business, art and the way we live.