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Art disruption: is digital transformation a threat or an opportunity for contemporary art galleries?

Francesca Kaufmann and Stefano Rabolli Pansera on how contemporary art galleries are dealing with the advent of digital technology between challenges and new opportunities

Lockdowns and forced closures of museums and art galleries obliged people to discover new ways to experience art and culture. Digital technology served as a tool for guaranteeing the accessibility and fruition of private and public art collections. With regard to the contemporary art market, the impact of the pandemic crisis on art galleries was particularly tough due to the reliance on travels, events (such as art exhibitions and international fairs) and networking opportunities. Opinions on these issues tend to diverge depending on whether gallerists are favorable to the advent of digital technology or not. Stefano Rabolli Pansera, director of Hauser & Wirth, London, said that the gallery staff took a hands-on-approach to the challenges encountered in the first months of the pandemic crisis and he is satisfied with the results achieved. Francesca Kaufmann, co-owner and founder of Kaufmann Repetto gallery, based in Milan and New York, claimed that the lack of live experience and the impossibility to welcome the audience inside the gallery caused a deal of disappointment among the gallery staff. 

Due to the advent of digital technology and online purchases, sloppiness and lack of taste are taking over more and more. Online shopping prevents people from doing research and focusing on details (such as the artistic technique or the texture of the artworks); collectors tend to buy artists they already know and it is difficult for dealers to make new connections only through the Internet. The experience of Hauser & Wirth with digital transition was different: data shows that traffic to their website has doubled since lockdown and the 80% of audience to their online exhibitions are new visitors. Moreover Hauser & Wirth noted that the amount of time spent exploring online exhibitions and engaging with art is increasing. 

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Gorky drawing in a field beneath Crooked Run Farm. Ph Mougouch Fielding, Courtesy The Arshile Gorky Foundation and Hauser & Wirth

After the Italian government announced the national lockdown in March 2020 the gallery had to put their exhibitions online and find an alternative way to involve collectors and art lovers. Besides the implementation of virtual viewing rooms for showing the artworks to the public, Kaufmann Repetto focused on editorial contents and insights involving curators and critics in open discussions with the public to explain and investigate the work of the artists exhibited. At the beginning it was challenging for Hauser & Wirth to mobilize the gallery team to adapt to the situation, but the staff managed to find new ways to engage with the audience. Many of their artists were on board creating new art to show in online exhibitions, such as Rashid Johnson and George Condo. Thanks to their prompt response, since the spread of Covid-19 Hauser & Wirth has developed twenty-nine online exhibitions. Not all art lends itself to be shown online such as sculptures and largescale installations, Hauser & Wirth has discovered new means of work and giving context to artworks through online exhibitions and film. Digital storytelling has been part of Hauser & Wirth’s identity for many years as it creates emotional connection between the viewer and the artworks showcased by the gallery. Pansera stated that «Digital tools have played a role in the journey a collector makes to purchase a work for over a decade, and digital storytelling has long been an important strategy of ours». The outbreak of Covid-19 accelerated the digital strategies the gallery had in place prior to the pandemic crisis. The implementation of digital strategies allowed Hauser & Wirth to deepen their relationships with their collector base and individual clients, but also broaden and diversify their audiences, as Pansera remarked the importance of community and partnerships across their locations. The digital transformation reduced the gap between the art market and other industries in terms of digital presence and participation of the younger generations. 

Another digital-related issue addressed by Kaufmann is how galleries deal with digital technology based on their size and positioning in the art market. Kaufmann claimed that from an economic perspective, the digital revolution might be a threat to small and young galleries with limited monetary resources to invest in digital technology. Small galleries often represent young emerging artists and the lack of time and small efforts devoted by collectors to research of new art might exacerbate the gap between them and the so-called ‘mega galleries’. Pansera affirms that the investment in talent acquisition and digital tools should be contextualized against the costs of mounting in real life exhibitions, being very expensive. The digital revolution could play a key role in the growth process of small and emerging galleries. Last year, Hauser & Wirth also partnered with June Art Fair in order to give emerging galleries a platform to showcase their artists and raise awareness around their businesses. Another aspect that must be taken into account is the participation of galleries in international art fairs in the digital era and the opinions of the galleries interviewed diverge. While Hauser & Wirth, before Covid hit, had already reduced the number of fairs they would attend in 2020 (partly due to environmental issues), art fairs have always been part of Kaufmann Repetto gallery’s activity. Kaufmann claimed that despite the low participation costs and the discrete results in terms of sales, the overall experience of digital art fairs in 2020 was disappointing and frustrating. «Only few people reached out to us through the fairs’ platforms. We did not discover any new collector and we doubt that collectors discovered us» Kaufmann said. Most of their artworks sold at fairs were purchased by loyal customers and collectors who already knew the artists represented by Kaufmann Repetto gallery. For Hauser & Wirth digital art fairs have been an opportunity to rethink their participation methods and find new ways to create buzz around the events. During Art Basel Miami Beach, they offered augmented reality tools which allowed users to visualize the artworks inside their homes through their mobile phones. Kaufmann argued that even collectors complained about the poor online experience offered by art fairs. This is partly due to the comparisons made by collectors between art fairs’ digital platforms and those of auction houses, which provide a more comfortable and comprehensive online shopping experience. 

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Vent’anni – Twenty Years, 2020, installation view, kaufmann repetto, Milan, Courtesy of the artists and kaufmann repetto Milano / New York Ph Andrea Rossetti

Pansera claimed that digital fairs, which are just beginning to evolve and have much room for improvement, have given more transparency to the art market which is popular among collectors. To express the frustration felt by a good part of the art world, Kaufmann recalled how Untitled Art Fair, based in San Francisco and Miami Beach, had been working on a digital 3D art fair for a long time before the outbreak of Covid-19. Their idea was to innovate the art fair sector offering galleries a thorough 3D online experience at a relatively high price, but when they unveiled their project several other fairs had already implemented online selling platforms and provided art galleries with less expensive virtual booths. Despite the downside of digitization – related to the lack of networking opportunities and the impossibility to enjoy art in real life – Kaufmann acknowledged that digital revolution will have a positive impact on the industry’s carbon footprint. Due to the international trips and the movement and packaging of artworks, the art market is damaging the environment. The implementation of digital exhibitions and online sales might make the art galleries’ business more sustainable from an environmental point of view. Environmental issues are also a core element of Hauser & Wirth’s project ‘ArtLab’, initiated in 2019 as the gallery’s technology innovator and hub. Through the development of a virtual reality tool, the gallery implemented online projects and exhibitions in a more efficient and sustainable way, starting with the exhibition ‘Beside itself’ set in the gallery of the future, Hauser & Wirth Menorca. This technology allows Hauser & Wirth to develop high-quality exhibitions without the restrictions of travel, shipping and museum loans. Both Kaufmann and Pansera agree that the evolution of the art market is only at its initial stage. In Kaufmann’s words: «Covid-19 is more similar to an industrial revolution than a war, as many people say. The art market is evolving and we have to keep up». Kaufmann says that in the future the art market will be driven by youth, whose creative and innovative ideas will revolutionize the way art is produced and sold. Artists will create artworks designed for online platforms, while digital platforms and tools will become more affordable for art galleries and dealers thanks to the spread of new technologies such as 3D, augmented and virtual reality. Pansera affirms that in the future galleries will take a hybrid approach with digital and physical experiences. Hauser & Wirth decided to continue their online programming even after the reopening of their exhibition spaces. Both Kaufmann and Pansera hope that art galleries and museums will reopen their doors to collectors and art enthusiasts, as there is great appetite for intimate encounters with art in real life and people are not ready to abandon live artistic experiences.

IMAGE GALLERY

The outbreak of Covid-19 accelerated the digital transition of the art market. Contemporary art galleries had to find new ways to showcase their artworks and engage with collectors and art enthusiasts. The galleries interviewed about the industry’s future, Hauser & Wirth and Kaufmann Repetto, have taken different approaches in respect of digital tools. Hauser & Wirth, despite the initial difficulties, was able to implement successful digital strategies which allowed them to broaden their audience and is favorable to the advent of digital technologies. On the other hand, Kaufmann Repetto struggled to find a balance between the desire for real life artistic experiences and the necessity to deal with the numerous changes the art market is now facing. 

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