“I would say that, what we’ve really learned – or what’s been reinforced – during this time, is the comforting power of art,” comments Dasha Zhukova, the Co-founder of Garage Museum of Contemporary Art in Moscow. “Before all this happened, I might have thought that was a little cliché, but I have found some of the shows staged online by galleries and museums around the world thought-provoking and engaging in completely new ways”.

She is discussing the transformation that has taken place across the art world since the outbreak of COVID-19 – a pandemic which has challenged the way in which everyone from artists to museum directors approach their work. The result, she says, has been a “reinvention” of public programming which sets a “roadmap for the future and ways in which institutions can move forward”.

“Cultural institutions around the world are facing difficult times, but this is also an opportunity to reconsider strategies and transform modes of operation,” Zhukova continues. “The museum model really hasn’t changed since the 1800s; COVID-19 has become a catalyst for us to reconceive its role in society”. She looks forward to a near future in which the art world and cultural institutions work together to connect with artists, local residents and a global audience. Philanthropists, she believes, will have a critical role to play, supporting the development of creative solutions that will help to drive long-term success.

Beyond institutions, how has an unprecedented moment in history shaped the activity of galleries and collectors? While he acknowledges the importance of seeing art in-person, Marc Spiegler, Global Director of Art Basel, believes it is a “great moment” for collectors, with high-quality digital content providing remarkable access to art and artists. He references a gallery in Art Basel’s Online Viewing Rooms that created “an artist video for every one of the fifteen works presented in their booth”. Rarely, he continues, would you find a physical display where artists were so present and available.

The transition to online platforms has also enhanced transparency: “A lot of collectors have enjoyed the immediacy of [Art Basel’s] Online Viewing Rooms,” continues Spiegler. “There’s a price or a price range on every piece, and they feel like gallerists are more accessible”. While he anticipates that many browsing Art Basel’s Online Viewing Rooms are established collectors, there are signs that new buyers are emerging: Mike Steib, Director of Artsy, reveals that “fifty per cent” of the platform’s recent transactions represented new users. Artsy has also seen an increase in consignments – a trend Steib attributes to collectors having time to think about “the evolution of their collection”.

Central to the discussion are artists – without which fairs, galleries and institutions would not exist. “I think there are those for whom it’s very difficult, and those who see it as a moment of creation,” says Spiegler. Though Steib acknowledges COVID-19 will have significantly impacted many artists’ income, Spiegler is aware of some for whom it has proved regenerative: “I know a lot of artists have welcomed this moment as a time when they’re not sprinting around to exhibitions or running around doing site visits - when they don’t have so many social obligations, and can focus on their work”.

So is the art world evolving towards digital-first experiences? Zhukova admits there are benefits: “What I’ve really enjoyed about online formats is the ability to provide so much information for a single artwork – from biographical information, to photographs of what the artist’s contemporaries were making at the time. You just can’t do that with a real-world show”. Spiegler agrees that digital platforms can have fewer limitations: galleries can put “ten, huge-scale installations” in their online booth at Art Basel “because scale is not an issue”. While the future might remain uncertain, Zhukova believes online initiatives will continue to have a role to play: “the digital space democratizes art by breaking down the geographical and socio-economic barriers that exist in the physical world, so I am hopeful that the future has a lot more of that in store”.

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