Culture will save the art market, not a viewing room

Stefano Pirovano

Online art fairs still have to find their way. Galleries are suffering. But focusing on culture might be the key to recover the art market.

Across Europe, Covid-19 appears to be slowing down. Governments are gradually moving on to the post-lockdown phase, which means learning to live with the virus, until or unless a vaccine is developed. If on the one hand the Coronavirus outbreak is now under control, on the other hand it’s time to face the many challenging economic and psychological consequences of the pandemic. The art market has also been heavenly disrupted by the Covid-19 virus, and the whole system needs to be rethought, as clearly pointed out by Dominique Lévy in an interview on CNN Money Switzerland a few days ago.

It’s hard to think that art fairs, the real core of the art business before the epidemic, will go back to what they were, at least until when the highest standards of hygiene for mass events are guaranteed. Let’s not forget that the collectors who used to go to Basel, Maastricht, Paris, London or Milan, bearing in mind that the US and China alone hold 70% of the market, do indeed travel for pleasure, and not out of necessity. In this regard, we would like to point out that the Milan furniture fair Salone del Mobile, which attracts more than 600,000 visitors in a week – when MiArt barely brings over 20,000 people-, producing an induced activity of 600,000 euros and a turnover of more than 100bn euros, has already been postponed to 2021.

Mark Leckey, Installation view of GreenScreenRefrigerator, 2010-2016. Photograph by Pablo Enriquez. Courtesy the artist and MoMA PS1.

What’s wrong with viewing rooms

As soon as the quarantine was announced, we all moved online; galleries and art fairs first and foremost, albeit with rather disappointing economic results. Selling luxury goods is hard even for fashion giants at the moment, let alone works of art, which until recently have been sold mainly at fairs, where one generally buys mainly because others are buying. Yet people thought that a digital view room, nothing more than the simulacrum of a wall on which to hang a picture, could somehow work. It’s a bit like pretending to open a can of tuna with a toothpick. As Lévy also reiterates in the interview mentioned above, from this point of view Art Basel Hong Kong was a failure, and the initiatives that followed in this wake cannot be said to have done much better.

We believe that the viewing rooms have been struggling for at least three reasons: 1) bad timing, given that the health situation was still serious in many countries; 2) a poor visual experience; 3) lack of information about the presented artworks and artists. Instead of a bare list, the presentation of artworks should build a narrative, telling a story about them and their context. What matters is knowledge and culture more than their pedestal, which costs very little online. As a collector, you should buy when you understand. As to the fair context in general, it is interesting to think about the reason why exhibitions are mentioned in the artists’ CVs, but not their participation to fairs.

Moreover, there is a strange feeling that your privacy is not respected when you are asked to log in to visit an online fair. Frieze NY even asks you for a phone number these days, which is quite a controversial in the era of surveillance capitalism. Imagine each visitor to a physical event being refused access because unwilling to share information about themselves.

The network is a medium, it is up to its users to fill it with good information. In the case of art, it should be information aimed at building or reinforcing the artist’s reputation and consensus around their work, their cultural relevance. The work should sell itself, or almost, when this reputation and consensus are large. If on the one hand talking about purchasing artworks at this time is likely to feel inappropriate, clumsy, and even counterproductive, on the other hand the cultural demand of the public is higher, as people are spending more time online rather than in their car, on a plane, or at a fair.

The Lost Museum, installation view, Bode museum, Berlin.

Waiting for museums

It is hard to say when museums will return to normality. We do not know how the pandemic will affect them, but it will certainly reduce the reception capacity of those institutions. In Italy, for example, large museums are trying to extend the loans of current exhibitions. This is the case of the show dedicated to Raphael at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome, or the one on Mantegna at the Palazzo Madama in Turin. The Uffizi Galleries are preparing to use an algorithm to manage the flow of people inside the museum. Everyone insists that limiting the number of visitors in the museum galleries will offer an exceptional opportunity to see the works in quiet solitude. None of the exhibitions scheduled for autumn has so far been cancelled, but questions are being asked about their sustainability. Big exhibitions could eventually last longer, have less expensive set-ups, saving on some of the offered services.

The online world became a necessary condition for institutions, including ancient art museums, before the lockdown. Though many had wrongly underestimated this fundamental strategic aspect, regardless of the virus. It is no longer the paper catalogue by itself that makes for culture. The success of a “scientific” text depends on its availability and the consensus that is created around it. The printing cost is no longer required to boost its stature, now more than before. If in doubt about this point, we invite you to see The Met website, which also represents a standard for contemporary art museums, especially in terms of numbers.

Why is the moment of emerging galleries

The current crisis of art fairs has created an unrepeatable opportunity for smaller galleries, which however must be able to seize it. It should be easier for them to adapt to the new economic scenario, as they are more agile structures and, in general, can take advantage of fewer costs. Furthermore, the temporary absence of physical fairs should make the hierarchy that the fair imposes – large in the center, small in the margins – less explicit and stringent. Online competition to gain public attention seems more democratic. In this context, creativity, intelligence and knowledge are more effective than large capitals. No master existed before someone took the trouble to study and exhibit it (Longhi, 1951).

Of course, traffic on a website or social media page can be bought, and so can be a list of email addresses to which you send your viewing room or pdf. However, it is clear to everyone that in the art world more than elsewhere, the number of followers or likes counts as much as their quality. The metric to measure interest is the time spent on a webpage. A few seconds are not enough. The art business remains the realm of the one-to-one marketing strategy, not of indiscriminate leafleting. It goes without saying that good content is necessary yet not sufficient for good results, and good content here is called culture.

May 9, 2020