First virtual New York art fair brings low energy but solid prices

Art Daily
Published on
 “Distanced Figures 3” by George Condo was a perfect match for an art fair forced online by the coronavirus. George Condo/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Hauser & Wirth.
by Robin Pogrebin
“Distanced Figures 3” by George Condo was a perfect match for an art fair forced online by the coronavirus. George Condo/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; via Hauser & Wirth.
by Robin Pogrebin

NEW YORK(NYT NEWS SERVICE).- There were no air kisses. No celebrity sightings. No Champagne flutes in the VIP lounge — in fact, no VIP lounge at all.

But Frieze New York, the city’s first test of whether a virtual art gathering forced by the pandemic could survive online, wound down Friday with surprisingly strong results, suggesting that the schmooze-centric art market may never be the same.

Reported sales from the fair were solid, compared with those of last year, when the event took place under a large white tent on Randalls Island — at least for mega galleries, defying conventional wisdom that online prices can’t match those in person. Dealers said that George Condo’s “Distanced Figures 3,” for example, sold for $2 million at Hauser & Wirth; El Anatsui’s “Metas III,” for $1.5 million at Acquavella; and Alice Neel’s “Veronica,” for $550,000 at David Zwirner.

“We were very surprised by how successful we were,” said Marc Payot, a co-president of Hauser & Wirth. “We have to focus on other creative ways of connecting with our audiences and this pushes the online part of our business forward.”

At the same time, the online experience lacked an essential human element, others say — the energy of collectors, dealers, curators and art advisers communing and kibitzing in one space. “You lose the essence of what an art fair is about,” said the collector Richard Chang. “It’s an event.”

While visitors often spend a whole day or more moving from booth to booth at a fair — greeting one another as much as looking at the art — the online format made it more challenging to sustain interest. “After you start looking through for 20 minutes, are you bored?” said Samantha Glaser-Weiss, the senior director and partner of Kohn Gallery in Los Angeles. “It’s one thing if you’re going through a fair, it’s another thing if you’re sitting at your computer.”

And there was room for improvement, namely in the renderings of the works of art hanging next to a chair for scale. “Every time we put images on the wall they’re way too high or they look tiny,” said Miguel Abreu, who said his Lower East Side gallery had sold R. H. Quaytman’s painting on wood “Optima, Chapter 3” for $100,000 and two photographic works by Eileen Quinlan for $32,000 and $24,000 respectively. “I don’t think they’ve perfected the three-dimensional representation yet.”

Frieze already had an online component in the works to supplement the live fair, which enabled the quick pivot to a virtual-only experience required by the coronavirus outbreak. “We hoped it would be an extra tool for galleries to use,” said Victoria Siddall, the global director of Frieze Fairs, who refunded dealers’ fees for this year. “It’s an experiment in terms of trying to recreate a fair online.”

The website offered a new way to experience an art fair — almost all of the prices were posted online (a few galleries stuck to “upon request”); buyers could narrow their searches by price point (e.g. $10,000-$20,000), region (like Africa, Asia or Europe), artist gender (female or transgender, for example) and medium (like collage, textile or photography).

If interested, buyers could click on the “inquire” button to be connected to the dealers themselves. Reggie Van Lee, a collector, said that the fair “should add a live element — a communication channel or chat function — to enhance the user experience,” and that it felt static, “had no life to it and provoked no feeling of urgency to acquire any works.”

Others noted it was an improvement on no fair at all. “Better than giving in to this insane situation and cancel and do nothing,” said the former Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, a prominent collector.

James Cope of the And Now gallery in Dallas, which reported selling all but one of its eight paintings by Michelle Rawlings in the range of $5,000-$7,000, said the online fair had given him “much greater reach than I would have otherwise.”

Other dealers pointed to positive features of the online format, namely the transparency of posting prices and avoiding the steep costs of outfitting a booth, transporting artwork and paying for hotel rooms.

“We don’t have to travel or ship; there is a lower carbon footprint,” said Ales Ortuzar of Ortuzar Projects in Lower Manhattan, which said it had sold a painting by Dorothy Iannone for $150,000 and three paintings by the poet-artist David Robilliard for $45,000 each. “A larger part of our business will be online.”

Some dealers leaned into the improvisational nature of the moment and the untested format. Hauser & Wirth, for example, presented works that had all been made during the pandemic.

The gallery’s “booth” included video of the artists themselves, a personal perspective that would not have been possible in a typical art fair. There was Jakub Julian Ziolkowski’s wooden easel and messy table of mixed paint. There was Luchita Hurtado smiling in a smock dress in front of her untitled oil on canvas, and Henry Taylor’s studio, with his painting — “Man, I’m So Full Of Doubt, But I Must Hustle Forward, As My Daughter Jade Would Say” — propped on two milk crates. There was Takesada Matsutani, talking about how he used the idea of “dropping ink on cotton” to make the circles in his installation, “Coral.”

“The whole spirit of the presentation was to allow ourselves to be more casual,” Payot said.

Hauser & Wirth tried this approach in April with Rashid Johnson’s current online show, which includes a video of a quarantined Johnson talking about his “Anxious Red Drawings” while his young son plays the piano.

Similarly, Gagosian featured a video of the curator John Elderfield talking about Cecily Brown’s 2001 painting “Figures in a Landscape 1,” in the gallery’s online viewing room timed to Frieze Week. In a remarkable testament to the potential of online sales, the gallery said the painting had sold for $5.5 million.

“It’s going to become a bigger slice of the pie,” Larry Gagosian said of the online format, predicting that “this kind of crash course that we’ve all been on will benefit all of our businesses going forward.”

The online fair also paradoxically allowed for a more direct experience with a dealer. If you clicked on the “inquire” button in the Axel Vervoordt Gallery’s virtual viewing room, you might well have received a FaceTime call back from Boris Vervoordt himself in Antwerp, the founder of the gallery named after his father.

Vervoordt then would have probably walked you through his home in a former coffee roasting factory, where he had hung the works on paper by the Korean artist Chung Chang-Sup that he featured in his virtual booth.

“It’s the most civilized way to hold an art fair ever,” Vervoordt said. “You’re home. There’s a nice thing about the slowness of it. You create an intimacy you never get at a fair. It’s very calm in that way.”

Vervoordt said he liked taking interested buyers on FaceTime through the artwork in his home. He can talk about details like the dye of the linen; he can zoom in on brush strokes. “This is hanging next to my window in proper natural light,” he said, showing one of the canvases. “It’s almost a better viewing experience than being crowded at an art fair under electric lights.”

This type of personal experience would almost never have taken place at an actual fair, where collectors, curators and the curious swarm the aisles and gallerists barely have time for a bathroom break.

Eric Firestone, who sold Charles Duback’s 1960 oil on canvas “Black and White (Anne Waterhouse)” on opening day for $200,000, said he appreciated the data feedback, which told him which works got the most views and how long they were viewed. He also said the price transparency was a welcome development. “It’s very intimidating sometimes for the viewer to ask what a painting price is,” he said. “It helps level the playing field to say, ‘This is what we’re asking.’”

However serviceable the online approach is, many gallerists said it ultimately cannot replace the in-person experience of a fair — the connections that get made among attendees, the discovery of a work of art that jumps off the wall, the energy in the room.

“Nothing beats it in the flesh,” said Robert Travers, the director of Piano Nobile, a London gallery. “The physicality — the moment you walk into a room and you see something. It’s all those little intuitive feelings that come together through your synapses, that make you say, ‘Yes, that excites me.’”