One on One

David Zwirner Gallery

5 Mins read

In 2017 David Zwirner became the first art gallery to launch an online viewing room, since when the digital space has become a firm part of the gallery’s DNA. Elena Soboleva, director of online sales, talks to Canvas about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the art sector and the opportunities and challenges posed by a
virtual world.

What impact has the pandemic had on the gallery in terms of its physical presence and how you present, curate and sell art?

ES: When the worldwid e lockdown happened, our six brick-and-mortar locations closed. As a result, the online space – our ‘seventh gallery’ – was the only space that could remain open to our global audience. We were fortunate enough to be extremely well prepared and had a team, processes and structure already in place. The art industry adoption of life online has accelerated at enormous speed and we’ve seen what would have normally taken years to implement take place in jus t a few months. Due to this transformation, there has been a great amount of creativity and innovation as the art world’s focus has pivoted to online.

We have scaled up our digital programming; in 2019 we presented 18 online viewing rooms, while this year we are on course for 41. The team feels like a start-up, with the sense of expansive energy and rapid growth. We strive to tell a story in each feature, while also ensuring that the online space is shoulder to shoulder with our physical locations in terms of the caliber and curatorial rigor that our exhibitions are known for. How have you supported your artists and collectors through the crisis? We’ve expanded our existing channels of support and allocated additional time and energy to d evelop them further. Since March, we have launched four new series within our online exhibition programme, namely Studio, Exceptional Works, Offsite and Platform. The Studio series presents solo presentations of newly made work in the context of the artist t’s space. In the eight Studio presentations we have debuted so far, each one sold out , totaling over USD 20 million in sales.

The Exceptional Works series is an invitation-only viewing room for our active collectors, which focuses on canonical works of historic art that have a significant provenance. We debuted the series with Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square painting from the collection of the f ounders of Black Mountain College, and have continued to highlight works from Ruth Asawa and Sam Gilliam through this private format. Will the switch from the physical to the virtual have a permanent impact on how galleries engage with artists and audiences? First, I’d say that the digital space needs to be seen for the o pportunities it offers, and n ot the limitations it exposes when compared to the physical. Ultimately, the truest experience of art is meant to be however the artist envisioned it – which is s till mostly in person. That said, free from the restraints of having to replicate the physical space, the digital realm offers entirely new ones: the collapse of geography, scale and temporal elements, the nonlinear structure of exploration, and, most importantly, the ability to offer context and narrative.

The online space should be approached in a framework that takes advantage of these possibilities even more. Before the pandemic, we saw the greatest sales in value in regions where the gallery doesn’t have a physical location. Th is is going to continue to grow as collectors become more conscious of the sustainability of travel and shipping, and broader audiences want to engage with artwork – so digital will be more critical than ever. Which particular types of work and media work better online? While there are some common beliefs about which art does well online (brig hotly colored, two-dimensional works), we have found that it’s possible to show a broad range if one is willing to challenge oneself.

We have discovered that sculpture does very well online, through showing scale and process through video – which has helped overcome a long-held dogma that three-dimensional works do not translate to the web. Ultimately it comes down to what kind of story you are able to tell, and if it is compelling and authentic to the artist. People don’t want marketing materials, they want to feel the artists’ own vision. Have galleries had to work closely together because of the pandemic? The most inspiring response to the pandemic has certainly been the sense of cooperation, community support, and strength in coming together at such a challenging moment.

That was especially manifested for us in Platform, a series of projects that enabled us to invite 37 global galleries to share in the tools and expertise we had developed. As soon as the lockdown started, it was clear when speaking to our peers at other galleries that we all shared the same concerns – mainly that sales would be impaired without the inperson visits, meetings and openings that we all usually rely on and enjoy. David Zwirner has been fortunate and able to move our exhibitions and presentations online quickly, since we already had a digital space built out. We realised that something we could concretely offer our friends at other galleries was the digital infrastructure that we already have in place – and hav e had in place f or three years. Has the pandemic changed the art world forever, and if so, how? The year 2020 will definitely change the art-collecting ecosystem.

While I am clearly a strong believer in the capability of selling art and expressing the artist’s vision online, I recognise the sensory quality of seeing art in person – the future will be a hybrid, fully integrated experience that breaks down the divisions between online and offline modalities. We have already embraced an amalgamated approach that merges our physical and digital spaces and think of the two informing one another and building a seamless experience for the collector. More artists will venture into virtual worlds and create works for this format, as people spend an increasing amount of time in these parallel realms. It will be a natural extension of their practice and we will see curators and museums emerge in this context as well.

The fashion world, music industry and live events are already experimenting with these interactive environments. Ultimately, the power of museums, galleries and the physical object of art will be stronger than ever. As the rest of the world moves further into a virtual frontier, we will crave the sensory, material presence of artworks – something that the digital world cannot replicate. Art will always be a profoundly physical experience, but the structure around art discovery and buying will be much more immediate and welcoming to a global and millennial audience accustomed to seamless online service.

Amit Varadrajan is a staff writer at Canvas, covering news, politics, and culture

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