Frieze fair goes virtual as art crowd stays home due to Covid | Frieze art fair

Emilee Geist

London’s art world usually comes alive in the first week of October as the international art fair crowd arrives in the capital for Frieze week. Last year, 125,000 visitors attended Frieze and Frieze Masters. But in 2020 the parties aren’t happening; the jet-setters are – for the most part – […]

London’s art world usually comes alive in the first week of October as the international art fair crowd arrives in the capital for Frieze week. Last year, 125,000 visitors attended Frieze and Frieze Masters. But in 2020 the parties aren’t happening; the jet-setters are – for the most part – staying away and there will be no Frieze tent.

“We need to think outside of the tent,” said Eva Langret, Frieze London’s artistic director who takes charge this year. Langret has said she feels like a jilted bride as her inaugural Frieze has become a largely virtual affair because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Only one physical event will take place: 1-54’s Contemporary African Art Fair at Somerset House, which will have 28 gallery displays and can host 250 people at any one time.

“I think small is beautiful,” said Touria El Glaoui, the founding director of 1-54. “Having social-distancing measures and being smaller means it’s not too scary for visitors.”

El Glaoui said she had seen growing demand for tickets to the 1-54 event and believed a pent-up London art world was keen to get out and see art in person. “There’s strong enthusiasm for events and people want to see the art physically rather than just doing it online. I think people missed it.”

Safety and art fairs came into sharp focus in late March after several attendees tested positive for Covid-19 at Tefaf’s Maastricht fair. According to the Art Newspaper, at least 25 positive cases emerged among exhibitors and visitors to the fair. By July, all the major fairs had been cancelled, including all three editions of Art Basel.

The idea of being with people in a busy tent, having loud, close and sometimes inebriated conversations about buying art during a global pandemic, has clearly lost its appeal for many. There are other Frieze week events, such as Damien Hirst’s new show at Newport Street Gallery and Nathaniel Mary Quinn at Gagosian, but attendees must book in advance and obey social distancing.

A gallery worker poses with artwork entitled ‘Hymn’, from 1999 by British artist Damien Hirst at the Newport Street Gallery.
A gallery worker poses with artwork entitled ‘Hymn’, from 1999 by British artist Damien Hirst at the Newport Street Gallery. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Galleries, such as Hauser & Wirth, have decided to move online. They’ve created an online viewing room, using video game technology to recreate a Frieze booth. You can zoom in on a Mark Bradford and click on a George Condo – it’s a big step for a gallery that before lockdown had not hosted an online show.

One of the gallery’s partners, Neil Wenman, said Hauser & Wirth would use the virtual space, which has had 1.2 million visitors since it launched, to plan physical exhibitions in the future and reduce its carbon emissions.

The New Normal by George Condo. Hauser & Wirth’s online viewing room allows you to zoom in on artists’ work.
The New Normal by George Condo. Hauser & Wirth’s online viewing room allows you to zoom in on artists’ work. Photograph: Thomas Barratt/George Condo / Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

He said: “Rather than the artist making a small model but then just to be on the safe side sending 12 paintings all the way to Hong Kong, we could build the exhibitions virtually for the artists with them.”

The shift to virtual galleries and auctions has had a huge impact on the art market. A recent report from the economist Dr Clare McAndrew for UBS and Art Basel found a 36% dip in global gallery sales in the first half of 2020. Another study from ArtTactic found auction sales dropped by just under 50% during the same period.

That dearth of physical events has left the industry “rudderless” and in a state of “cardiac arrest”, according to some. The Italian art collector Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo said virtual fairs could only work in the short term and that physical events were crucial. “We need to be there in the booth or in the room to see the art and be in the real time presence of others, to share our experience of art,” she said.

Victoria Siddall, the global director of Frieze’s fairs, said galleries had embraced technology during the pandemic but needed physical fairs to return. She said: “The general feeling I get from galleries is they are looking forward to be able to get back to art fairs, partly just because it’s such an important part of their business.”

Fairs are still a huge part of the art market with sales in 2018 reaching an estimated $16.5bn (£12.8bn), according to the annual Art Basel and UBS global art market report released last year. The same report found that the online art market reached a new high of $6bn, and during the first quarter of this year, online-only auction sales at three of the major auction houses – Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips – totalled $370bn, a five-fold increase on 2019.

Langret said this year was a chance for the art fair crowd to take stock, reevaluate and do things differently. “Galleries have a booking system and then when they do an opening it’s not a private event in the evening any more it’s all day long, and you need to book a slot,” she said.

“It doesn’t mean that you can’t be around, it’s just a different way of being around.”

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