Reports Indicate Art Basel’s Online Viewing Rooms Were a Mild Success

James Ardis
Published on
Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 billboard. Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images.
Art Basel Hong Kong 2018 billboard. Photo by Philip Fong/AFP via Getty Images.

On February 6th, 2020, Art Basel canceled its annual show in Hong Kong. It was not a decision made lightly by the fair’s leadership. “We are acutely aware of the important role that the fair plays within the region’s cultural scene,” said the organization’s global director, Marc Spiegler, to Artnet.

But by March 12th, the fair had mobilized 235 art galleries to take part in a fully-online event. Web visitors could navigate through each gallery’s offerings from anywhere in the world through the online viewing rooms from March 20th to the 25th. By Art Basel’s own estimates, more than 250,000 people visited these online viewing rooms to see work valued at a combined USD 270 million.

Many will see the online fair’s very existence as a success. While others, envisioning more events switching to a similar model, wonder how the experiment played out for Art Basel and each of the over 200 galleries involved. 

Fergus McCaffrey’s gallery in Art Basel’s online viewing room. Photo by Fergus McCaffrey.
Fergus McCaffrey’s gallery in Art Basel’s online viewing room. Photo by Fergus McCaffrey.

Some galleries were already reporting solid sales to Artnet on the fair’s opening day. Art dealer Iwan Wirth sold a piece by Josef Albers for USD 600,000 and another by Pipilotti Rist for $140,000, among others, on March 20th. This was across both the dealer’s own platform and Art Basel’s viewing room. But despite these impressive numbers, Wirth noted the event may not have succeeded at reaching a wider audience. “[A]re these new collectors? No, we know them, and they are seasoned collectors,” he told Artnet. 

Others reported similar splits in sales between their personal online platform and the Art Basel viewing rooms. David Zwirner, a New York art gallery, told The Art Newspaper they earned 50% more on their own platform than the Art Basel room as of March 20th. The gallery sold four pieces on their own platform, highlighted by a piece from Marlene Dumas for USD 2.6 million. Meanwhile, the top piece David Zwirner sold through the fair’s viewing rooms was a Liu Ye oil painting for $500,000.

The founder of 303 Gallery, Lisa Spellman, reported no sales from the Art Basel platform on day one. “As galleries globally have had to quickly adapt to make the digital realm our primary focus,” Spellman told The Art Newspaper, “finding new ways to virtually connect with collectors has become more important than ever.” The Art Newspaper’s coverage of the event implied more middle-tier galleries and dealers, especially those without their own online platform, struggled the most in the viewing rooms’ opening days.

Josephine by Tavares Strachan, provided by Marian Goodman in the Art Basel Online Viewing gallery.
Josephine by Tavares Strachan, provided by Marian Goodman in the Art Basel Online Viewing gallery.

At the start of the event, many reported having issues accessing the viewing rooms. Iwan Wirth told Artnet that his first notification that the system was live was complaints from his clients. But most users reported a better experience after the initial glitch. Auction Daily’s staff, for example, did not encounter problems throughout the event’s duration.

Most of the media surrounding Art Basel’s online viewing rooms was published on the event’s opening day. Auction Daily will keep readers up to date as more data becomes available. Art Basel recently postponed their next fair from June to September due to the current pandemic. The event is now scheduled to begin on September 17th in Basel, Switzerland.