Eight years isn't exactly an epoch in art history, but when it comes to one corner of the art market, it is an age. Back at the very beginning of 2012, the second and final VIP Art Fair drew to a close. This virtual, online-only version of the kind of fine-art event most of us still experience in real life, in the rows of booths at Frieze and Art Basel, didn't exactly set the art world, or the Internet alight. The technical service was glitchy; sales did not always meet exhibitors' expectations; and German-born, New York-based super-gallerist, David Zwirner, called the virtual fair, 'a waste of time.'

Yet since dismissing that wrong turn into the online sphere, Zwirner's gallery has gone on to launch its own, highly successful online viewing room. Furthermore, it now has plans to host the works offered by other New York galleries as well in a month-long online show, opening 3 April 2020, called Platform: New York.

The move follows Art Basel Hong Kong's decision to shutter its physical fair back in March and instead recreate the fair entirely online, with participating galleries hosting their own viewing rooms. Rather than baulk at the move, major galleries such as Zwirner, Gagosian and Pace generally praised the decision and managed to sell works by blue-chip artists such as Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas for seven-figure sums.

Has the new global climate-driven the art world to adopt a more accepting approach to viewing art digitally? Yes, in part. Yet in the months and years before the pandemic, many galleries were quietly developing somewhat effective online display spaces, showing not only works by emerging artists but also more expensive, investment works by established names.

'We have proven that collectors are now willing to buy and sell art online in the $100,000 to $2 million range with meaningful frequency,' the Gagosian gallery's director of publications, Alison McDonald—who also oversees the Gagosian's viewing rooms—said back in January. Last year her gallery sold a painting by German contemporary artist Albert Oehlen via its online viewing room for $6m.

In January of 2019, Zwirner disclosed that around a third of the gallery's clients bought works based solely on emailed images; meanwhile, David Kordansky and Pace have also opened up similar online spaces. Other players, such as France's Galerie Perrotin, have chosen to offer 'virtual visits,' or video walkthroughs, via its site.

For a sector that isn't known as being especially transparent, online viewing rooms bring a high degree of accessibility and openness to the business of collecting art. In exchange for a few contact details, many viewing rooms offer high-quality images of works, alongside extensive written material, and, in many cases, a straightforward 'Buy-It-Now' price.

If social distancing measures remain in place for the months to come, then Tali Zeloof, art patron director at Quintessentially, believes that this 'is definitely a period to innovate and explore new modes of digital engagement. Online private viewing rooms are certainly on the rise,' she goes on to say. 'It's a tough period as nothing beats the tangible experience of being in front of an artwork, and sharing that moment of wonder with someone else, but we all need to adjust to the current circumstances.' Maybe a few of us will find it a bit easier to snap up a masterpiece or two.


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