In 2017, having realized how much business the gallery did through online previews before art fairs, the dealer David Zwirner decided to develop virtual viewing rooms.
Now, as art fairs are canceled, museums close and auction houses consider whether to call off their spring sales in response to the coronavirus, Mr. Zwirner seems prescient.
This week Art Basel will, for the first time, offer online viewing rooms to replace the Hong Kong fair that was canceled this month because of the pandemic. More than 230 dealers who planned to bring work to Asia will instead offer some 2,000 pieces through the virtual fair with an estimated value of $270 million, including 70 items over $1 million. And galleries throughout the United States are considering web-based works and curated online exhibitions.
The future has “arrived so much sooner,” Mr. Zwirner said. “If galleries are closed, how can we sell art? The online platform is something we have envisioned as an important part of what we do.”
“In a funny way, the art world is late to the party if you think about other retail experiences,” he added.
Many in the art world say an online viewing room cannot replace the firsthand experience of encountering a painting or a sculpture in person. But collectors have grown comfortable buying based on PDF images of artists they know from galleries they trust. Both galleries and auction houses have even made some significant sales based on images posted on Instagram. And when visiting a work of art becomes impossible, a digital substitute is better than not seeing the art at all.
Some point to the added value that online viewing rooms can provide, namely historical context through accompanying scholarly essays; the ability to reach collectors who can’t easily travel to galleries or art fairs; and leaving much less of a carbon footprint by eliminating shipping and flights to fairs.
Online art fairs could also foster a potential democratization by removing the intimidation factor of walking into a gallery or auction house and, perhaps most notably, by posting prices in an art market that is typically opaque.
“You do need to eventually see things physically,” said the artist Lisa Yuskavage. “However, dissemination is now digital and there is an upside to it. People don’t have to know you’re looking. You don’t have to buy art to look at the viewing rooms.”
Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel, said the quick pivot to online viewing rooms — which will be available to V.I.P.’s on Wednesday and to the public on Friday — was possible only because of the decision sometime ago to develop online viewing rooms to supplement the fair experience. “The infrastructure was in place,” Mr. Spiegler said.
Such virtual buying experiences may become increasingly necessary for the art market, given current restrictions on congregating. The Tefaf Maastricht fair closed early last week after an exhibitor tested positive for the coronavirus. Art Cologne, the world’s oldest art fair, has been postponed from April to November. Whether Frieze New York and Tefaf New York Spring will take place in May, as planned, or Art Basel Switzerland in June, has yet to be determined, but it seems unlikely if European dealers cannot enter this country.
After the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced its decision on Thursday to temporarily close, the rest of the art world fell like dominoes, with one major museum after another following suit, as well as just about every gallery — though some are shifting to appointment-only visitation.
Galleries are adjusting to this new reality. Not all of those in the Hong Kong fair have signed on for the online version (Mr. Spiegler said about 95 percent are participating). Some galleries are encouraging potential visitors “to visit and explore our exhibitions online,” as Van Doren Waxter said in a recent email announcing its temporary closure, “and our Richard Diebenkorn exhibition is accessible here.”
Jack Shainman gallery in Manhattan said in its announcement that “digital walk-throughs” of shows by the artists Becky Suss and Vibha Galhotra “are available upon request.”
Although Acquavella will have a viewing room in the online fair, this high-end gallery has been slow to get on the digital train. “We’ve definitely thought about it, but we have not taken the necessary steps to do it properly,” said Nick Acquavella, a partner. “We don’t want to close our minds to something new that could be potentially beneficial, but we also don’t have to be the tip of the spear.”
Artists might be expected to be less than enthusiastic about having their work purchased the way one would a sweater or shoes (though you can’t click and buy yet; those interested have to contact the gallery through email). But several said they are intrigued by this new frontier.
“They feel personal, they feel intimate,” said the artist Jeff Koons of online viewing rooms. “I love looking at images. I can be just as happy to look at an image of a Manet painting online. It’s really about the stimulation that a work has for you.
“Of course it’s great to see the original, but sometimes the lighting may not be as nice,” he added. “There are always pros and cons to everything, but the positive aspect of having these platforms is that it’s good for the dialogue of art.”
Pace, which first launched online viewing rooms privately last year, began offering them to the public on Monday, starting with one on the artist Sam Gilliam. The gallery will continue with a series of thematic online presentations — including others on ceramics and photographic artists — during its temporary closure.
Mr. Zwirner has presented 50 viewing rooms in the last three years, and says that online sales increased 400 percent in just the last year. The gallery’s viewing room for Art Basel Hong Kong — its largest to date, with a total value of more than $16 million — will debut a new work by Mr. Koons, along with art by Noah Davis, Marlene Dumas, Kerry James Marshall and Alice Neel.
And while online sales usually have a lower price point, last June, Zwirner’s Basel Online viewing room presented more than 20 works with a total value over $5.6 million, including new pieces from artists like Ms. Yuskavage and Jordan Wolfson and historical works by artists like Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. A pumpkin sculpture by Yayoi Kusama sold online for $1.8 million.
The Zwirner viewing rooms already include videos of artists working in their studios; its website also offers links to podcasts with artists.
These bells and whistles do not come cheap and are therefore less available to small and midsize galleries that already struggle to pay rent and afford art fairs. But they too are getting in on the act. The JTT gallery on the Lower East Side, for example, had planned to debut the paintings of Arca, a musician and performance artist, but instead is considering an online performance from her that people can view from the comfort of their homes.
Scott Ogden of Shrine Gallery, which shares space with Sargent’s Daughters gallery on the Lower East Side, said the coronavirus crisis had accelerated his exploration of an — albeit technologically modest — online store. “For us, it’s going to be Squarespace — the simple do-it-yourself solution,” he said, referring to the popular website builder. “I think we’re all going to have to figure it out rather quickly.”