In lieu of Art Basel Hong Kong this week, canceled like so many other fairs this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Art Basel has launched online viewing rooms with over 231 participating galleries, accessible March 18—25.
One such presenter is David Zwirner—a pioneer in the trend of online viewing rooms. The gallery’s own platform debuted in 2017, and last June, it began to host digital presentations coinciding with major fairs like Art Basel, Frieze London, and Art Basel Miami Beach.
David Zwirner online will host “On Painting”—on its own site March 20, and Art Basel’s March 18—a viewing room of 16 works from artists like Jeff Koons, Noah Davis, Nate Lowman, Kerry James Marshall, Chris Ofili, and more. Whitewall caught up with Elena Soboleva, Director of Online Sales, to hear about the future of digital programming.
WHITEWALL: Can you share some of the highlights presented in “On Painting”?
ELENA SOBOLEVA: “On Painting” highlights gallery artists who explore the historical and conceptual dimensions of figurative painting. The highlights include a brand-new work by Jeff Koons, based Sandro Botticelli’s Renaissance painting Primavera, one of the most recognizable works in the Western canon, with one of Koons’s signature blue, glass gazing balls. Offering hope and rebirth, it will be part of an upcoming solo exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence—blocks from Botticelli’s original painting in the Uffizi Gallery.
We will also present new works by Mamma Andersson, Lucas Arruda, Chris Ofili, Josh Smith, Luc Tuymans, Lisa Yuskavage, and Liu Ye, which have never been seen before and we will be premiering online. The work by Liu Ye is part of his “Book Painting” series, begun in 2013, which depicts close-up views of books opened to reveal empty pages. The work is both meditative and in a universal vocabulary that transcends traditional Eastern and Western art-historical categories.
WW: David Zwirner has hosted online viewing rooms since 2017. How have online sales evolved via the viewing rooms since 2017?
ES: David Zwirner was the first commercial gallery to introduce an online viewing room, in 2017. In the years since, the online space has become a core element in our overall strategy. We have presented 54 viewing rooms, and we program the viewing room as we would program a physical gallery space, presenting curated exhibitions that range from historical shows that reveal a lesser-known element of an artist’s practice, to premieres of brand-new bodies of work by cutting-edge historical artists.
We have increased the frequency of our viewing rooms since the launch in 2017, and in 2019 presented 18 viewing rooms—the equivalent of two physical gallery spaces’ exhibition programming. We have also expanded the type of content and context that we are able to present around an online exhibition, using audio, video, archival and scholarly materials.
At this moment, with our physical locations closed temporarily due to the health crisis, the online viewing room is especially important, as it allows the gallery to continue to present cultural programming and connect with our global audience.
WW: What does an online viewing room offer that a gallery show or fair booth presentation cannot?
ES: The online viewing room is not only a vehicle for selling art, but a platform where we can provide content and context around works of art. Since the beginning, it was vital to us that David Zwirner Online replicate the two core elements of a gallery: a vehicle for selling art but, as importantly, a destination that offers free culture. So, in addition to enabling seamless collecting of highly desirable artworks, we present free, rich, and educational culture online via the context and content that we create around our viewing rooms, using digital tools like video and through our podcast, which presents compelling conversations that bring together exceptional artists and thinkers to discuss the creative process. In addition, an online viewing room offers complete transparency: we show the price and availability of all works, which removes the intimidation factor that some collectors or visitors may feel at an art fair or in a physical exhibition.
WW: Why is transparency so key on this kind of platform?
ES: There are two main factors why transparency is key. One is that modern consumers simply expect to have that information when they go online — whether for real estate, salaries or ethical sourcing. This is a trend that extends beyond the art world and is a part of how any responsible businesses build trust.
Additionally, it’s a critical way to educate those who are just starting to learn about artists, given that online is a place where 47% of our collectors are new to the gallery. Many times, new collectors can find pricing to be an opaque and off-putting process, so we see price transparency as a critical tool for starting conversations—as well as a way to make clear that the gallery welcomes both novice and experienced collectors, with works available online at price points that range from $2,000 to over $2 million.
WW: How have you been seeing collectors embrace online viewing rooms?
ES: Collectors have wholeheartedly embraced online viewing rooms. Our collectors range from museum trustees, who see the online viewing room as a direct way to access new work by artists they follow, to first-time collectors, who value the educational aspects and price transparency that the online viewing room offers. And—particularly rewarding!—many well-known artists have collected works by their peers from the online viewing room.
It has also been interesting to see the international reach of the online viewing room. Notably, the top 15 most expensive artworks sold online have all gone to collectors based in cities where the gallery does not have a physical gallery space, including Amsterdam, Brussels, Houston, Madrid, Miami, Munich, San Francisco, and Toronto.
WW: And artists?
ES: Perhaps the most rewarding part of the online viewing room has been working with artists to conceptualize projects and exhibitions for David Zwirner’s online viewing room. Artists have found that the online viewing room allows them to reach a broad, global audience, and that they are able to take advantage of narrative and storytelling tools that are not available offline.
WW: As fairs have been canceled or postponed this spring, do you anticipate increasing programming in the online viewing rooms?
ES: As the usual patterns of travel and gallery-going are disrupted, this moment highlights the unique strength and resilience of the online space as a platform for viewing art and learning about culture. Since our Viewing Rooms are constantly programmed, we already had a schedule of upcoming Viewing Rooms and will be continuing those as planned while accelerating our programming. In April we will present a viewing room of new drawings by Marcel Dzama, with more to be announced soon. We will also continue to use our online platform as a destination for cultural conversation, presenting podcasts, videos, and archival material for engaging with artists and their works.