By Dr. Sonja Lechner, art historian and Managing Director of Kunstkonnex Artconsulting (www.kunstkonnex.com).
Hardly any other picture illustrates the paradigm shift the art market has undergone within a few weeks more significantly: Just over a month ago, the Ifema exhibition center in Madrid was filled with both protagonists and recipients of the international art scene – on the occasion of the „Arco" art fair, around 95,000 visitors gathered there from February 29 to March 1. Today, instead of contemporary art, the rooms house hospital beds from the emergency room that was hastily built there. The Tefaf in Maastricht, which in the first week of March opened its doors to 280 exhibitors from 22 countries and thousands of visitors before it closed early again due to the appearance of corona infections, will probably be the last fair for a long time to be accessible in the literal sense of the word, enabling visitors to view art directly: Following the cancellation of Frieze in New York and the postponement of Art Cologne to the same date as Cologne Fine Art and Design in November, this week Art Basel also announced that its fair will now take place in September in lieu of June. Art Basel Hong Kong had already reacted in good time and shifted the fair completely into virtual worlds: instead of showing art in Hong Kong's Convention Center, the collectors were now invited to viewing rooms. In line with the actual schedule, VIP card holders were given access to those rooms first, joined later by the rest of the art collectors. There, art was projected onto a photo of the wall of a fictitious booth, whose bench suggested that one could sit down and contemplate each work.
This format was more or less the starting signal for a new orientation of the art market: the shutdown in almost all countries currently makes neither exhibition openings nor gallery visits or museum tours possible, and is hitting hard the entire international cultural sector. In addition to the emergency aid measures for artists, freelancers and entrepreneurs, there are further calls for help such as the reintroduction of the reduced VAT rate on art in Germany. Additional financial protection will be necessary to prevent numerous insolvencies in the art market, protective umbrellas such as the approval of purchasing budgets for museums specifically dedicated to acquisitions from galleries, or support programs for art fairs, art weeks, gallery weekends and similar formats.
The Roman poet Ovid had already noted that "talent is often awakened by necessity," and indeed, the art market is taking new paths, all of which lead to the Internet. An unprecedented density of digitalization has gripped the actors of the genre. Not only galleries and artists are virtualizing their offerings, museums are also expanding what Google Arts & Culture published even before the pandemic: digital tours through the most important collections worldwide. The spectrum of offers ranges from filming closed exhibitions and recording opening speeches to artist interviews, archive highlights or studio insights. This type of presentation has its advantages: Not only are many images accompanied by information on the artist, work, or price, which lowers the inhibition threshold of those who never dare to ask, but filming close to the surface also enables access that many alarm systems or gallery owner otherwise prevent – immersion in details. Tripping color seems to flow towards the viewer, the eye can perceive painted formations or sculptural microcosms at close range.
"The idea of progress can be founded in the idea of a catastrophe": The citation of this quote by Walter Benjamin in the midst of the global crisis must not be misunderstood cynically in view of the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the pandemic. It must be understood as an appeal, as a call to reposition oneself, to enter new grounds, to initiate progress that implies a progression from familiar paths. While attempts to efficiently set up marketplaces that function independently only on the Internet, such as the "VIP Art Fair," have so far not been crowned with success, the art market will no longer be able to survive without virtual instruments in a future post Corona. It is to be hoped that all the virtual variants of making art experienceable will allow to bridge this state of emergency, and that all these efforts will be preserved in some form of additional offer afterwards, as a supplement to what will nevertheless remain indispensable: To be able to see art in the flesh, to experience and feel it with one's own eyes in situ. From an art historian's point of view, it would be desirable that the worldwide standstill will increase the longing of all art lovers to be able to view originals again, and that this longing will imply a different kind of appreciation. One able to initiate a paradigm shift whereby art is no longer predominantly valued as an object of investment and speculation, but rather as what it actually is – a constant expansion of our perception. "Art does not reproduce visibility, it makes visible", Paul Klee once apostrophized – right now, art is questioning our viewing habits, and is showing us new ways of seeing.