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Art and COVID-19: A New (Virtual) Reality?

Posted on 1 October 2020

Without doubt COVID-19 has meant tumultuous change for the global art market. Traditional sales patterns have been turned on their head. Alongside the closure of galleries and the cancellation or postponement of art fairs (tolling the death knell for many in-person purchases), has been an upsurge in online sales and the rise of a new form of artistic experience: virtual reality viewings. What exactly is going on and, crucially, what will happen next?

The impact of COVID-19

On 9 September, Art Basel and UBS published a comprehensive analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on the gallery sector, with the following headline findings (relating to the first six months of 2020):

  • Average fall of 36% in art gallery sales
  • Third of surveyed galleries downsized their workforce
  • Just under half of galleries expect sales to increase in 2021
  • Share of online sales rose from 10% of total sales last year to 37%
  • 59% of high net worth collectors felt the pandemic had increased their interest in collecting, 31% significantly so.

The survey affirms earlier reports of a change in normal sales patterns: according to ArtTactic’s Auction Review of the first half of 2020, auction sales across all formats nearly halved in the year to 10 July. At the same time, the total value of online sales increased by nearly 500%, with Sotheby’s growth in particular up 976% ($305.2m), coinciding with the rise of online viewing rooms. Art Basel has, for example, announced two such rooms this season, one for new art (23-26 September) and one for 20th century art (28-31 October), each with a maximum of 100 galleries. For the first time, it will charge galleries $5,500 each to participate.

Virtual reality: the new normal?

Alongside the growth in online sales is an increased focus on the form and aesthetics of the online experience. Virtual reality is taking hold as a means of not just creating but also viewing and selling art, allowing the audience to interact much more closely with works than via a photograph on a website. Viewers can, for example, "walk through" a gallery space and experience art in three dimensions. Earlier this year, Oliver Miro, son of London gallerist Victoria Miro, launched an "extended reality" platform called Vortic, which allows galleries to create digital versions of physical exhibitions. Hauser & Wirth has also launched a VR platform, HWVR, in conjunction with its in-house tech and research branch ArtLab. The enthusiasm is palpable. The interplay of art and technology has found a new outlet and even, perhaps, a new art form.

It seems hard to believe that the boom in online viewings and purchases, driven in large part by their ease, speed and efficiency, is a temporary shift, particularly given current interest in the next frontier of virtual reality. We expect the online art market, including the recently caught VR bug, will flourish well beyond the pandemic.

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