This weekend, with lockdowns officially lifted, the London art scene is reawakening with the city’s inaugural Gallery Weekend. With more than 130 contemporary art galleries in participation — from established heavy-hitters like Gagosian to newcomers like Xxijra Hii — the event aims to reconnect the gallery community with an art-starved public through curated walks and public programs. It arrives after 18 months’ worth of COVID-necessitated digital shifts and adaptations, ensuring that while business is back for London’s galleries, it’s in no way back to normal.
In fact, change — and seismic change at that — was the theme that drove the June 3 online conversation between gallerists Sadie Coles of Sadie Coles HQ, Jeremy Epstein of Edel Assanti, and Bomi Odufunade of Goodman Gallery, all London Gallery Weekend participants. Moderated by The Art Newspaper’s Louisa Buck, the discussion assessed how the past year’s social and pandemic-driven forces have reoriented the practices and priorities of the city’s galleries, and crucially, how these transformations might endure. Despite the global art market sustaining a 22 percent drop in sales in 2020, the panelists expressed a collective optimism that the changes already set in motion bode well for the long-term. Here’s how they tackled the talk’s three central questions.
Post-pandemic, what will become of online viewing experiences?
From online viewing rooms (OVRs) to social media, the COVID era offered collectors new ways to view, research, and buy art. The knock-on effect? Buyers have become savvier about the work they’re purchasing, just as gallerists have become “more strategic about how [they’re] engaging with clients,” said Odufunade. These behavioral shifts mean that digital viewing options aren’t going anywhere; instead, the future, as they say, will be hybrid.
“We think of these things as binary, but the direction of travel is entanglement,” explained Epstein. “Your experience of art will be digital and physical.” He was talking about OVRs as much as advanced technologies such as VR, an emerging platform for arts organizations. “It’s coming,” noted Coles. “Once it starts to be really efficient and everybody has [a headset], we’ll all be doing it.”
Do art fairs still have viable roles in the gallery ecosystem?
2020 didn’t just see art fairs disappear off the art market’s calendars, but forced a rethinking of their viability and sustainability. While acknowledging that art fairs do perform key functions such as enabling new connections with clients, Coles recognizes that “some of the traditional things about art fairs aren’t fit for purpose anymore.”
In particular, the panelists agreed, these events do have a tendency to be exclusionary, shutting out newer galleries and art forms (read: NFTs). “It’s worth considering how the rules of an art fair are excluding some of those people,” said Coles. “There’s so much change going on in terms of digital art that there has to be a place for that in the art fair system.”
It’s why, noted Epstein, “young galleries don’t necessarily see art fairs as an essential part of the ecosystem; it’s a lottery for them.” Odufunade, whose Goodman Gallery is well-established, concurred. “We’re doing less [art fairs],” she said. “What we are doing more of are pop-ups. It’s more about reachability and engaging with people.” Such local and regional outreach — a focus of London Gallery Weekend itself — aren’t intended to replace the entire art fair model, but looking ahead, are likely to serve as complements to these international affairs.
So what about NFTs — do they have a future in galleries?
Quite simply: yes, if the work is compelling and of quality. Echoing a sentiment shared across the panel, Odufunade said, “NFTs have to come from the artist; we can’t decide what we’re going to do.”
More vital to the NFT conversation, said Epstein, is the newly formed pool of internet-native digital art collectors, ready to disrupt traditional art commerce. In addition to the digitization of the past year, he noted that 91 percent of bidders at Christie’s landmark Beeple auction were new to the art market, signaling an opportunity for galleries to expand their audience and in turn, assure their sustainability.
“The hierarchies that have defined the art world will probably cease to be as significant as we see more audiences coming from the digital space,” he said. And with this fragmentation, “there will be more space for different artists, curators, and galleries to exist.”