Despite online sales representing a robust alternative to the art fair circuit, few galleries are yet willing to invest in enhancing the viewing experience.

The pandemic didn’t arrive at a good time for any industry, but it was particularly disruptive to the global art fair circuit. In response, one of the calendar’s first major events, Art Basel Hong Kong, was forced to rush forward the development of its online viewing room (OVR) project as replacement. The results were decidedly underwhelming. As we wrote at the time, ‘clicking through to a page of thumbnails that simply link to hi-res artwork images doesn’t feel like an event.’ While pretty much every other sector has long been investing in its digital retail infrastructure, art-world sales have remained a largely analogue affair. That Art Basel was one of the few to already have a digital sales format in development pre-pandemic, and for it to be so dispiriting an art-viewing experience, tells its own story.

Nevertheless, the OVR has since become the go-to format for replacing in-person art buying, even though, as art market editor of The Art Newspaper Melanie Gerlis argues, ‘they have not been universally loved by exhibitors or visitors.’ The OVR presents a complicated mix of challenges, from forcing the curation and presentation of work in a variety of media through one channel, to the UX design required to navigate exhibits in anything like an efficient, let alone meaningful, manner. ‘It has turned out to be something of a chore to look through dozens of art works on hundreds of microsites,’ Gerlis continues, ‘and it is a much more limited and soulless experience than walking around an art fair in real life (which some already found a little tedious).’

Despite this, art buyers have largely embraced digital forms of purchase. A new report by UBS & Art Basel shows that galleries’ internal online sales have risen from 7 per cent in 2019 to 29 per cent in the first half of 2020, while third-party online sales have grown from 3 per cent to 8 per cent. As expected, local and overseas fair sales numbers have each plummeted to single percentage points, where last year they represented 46 per cent of total sales. The majority of galleries (66 per cent) felt online sales would remain strong through the end 2021.

The range of tactics used to drive online conversions included producing specialized content for digital platforms (72 per cent) and further developing a social media presence (69 per cent). Over half reported using OVRs to a greater degree than the previous year, though many also admitted that the line between what represented an OVR and pre-existing forms of product presentation wasn’t always clear.

What was clear was that the huge shift to digital prompted by lockdown didn’t translate into greater experimentation with immersive media for most gallery operators: 56 per cent have never used VR and 72 per cent have never used AR. Respondents suggested that these technologies currently did little to enhance the viewer experience, though we’d suggest picking up a copy of our current magazine (Frame 136) for an alternative perspective. For examples of those who are thinking a little more broadly about how best to present creative works in digital space, read our breakdown of this year’s most ambitious online graduate shows.

Hero image: Surprisingly This Rather Works by artist Manuel Rossner is the first exhibition to take place in König Galerie’s virtual space, König Digital.