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  • May 14, 2020

Are Galleries Making Sales via Online Platforms?

Screenshot of the virtual “booth” of Tim Melville Gallery (Auckland) at the online

Due to Covid-19, art fairs and galleries have had to devise new strategies to rescue sales. Following Art Basel, the first to take its fair online in March after the Hong Kong edition was canceled, others including Auckland Art Fair and Art Fair Tokyo (AFT) have rushed to create virtual showrooms to replace their canceled events. Taipei Dangdai teamed up with online sales platform Ocula on a new venture called Taipei Connections. Here’s a look at how these platforms are doing. 

The online version of Auckland Art Fair (April 30–May 17) features all 35 of the original participants, mainly hailing from New Zealand and Australia with two galleries from further afield: M+P | Art (West Oxfordshire / London) and SPURS Gallery (Beijing). With a clean interface built onto the fair’s website, the platform generated more than 608,000 views at time of writing. Each “booth” contains a grid of 15 thumbnail images.

Auckland gallerist Tim Melville reflected that the thumbnails had to be “powerful and punchy.” He displayed works by Indigenous Australian artists including Nonggirrnga Marawili’s red-and-black compositions of pigments on paper, which sold on the VIP night at NZD 3,600 (USD 2,200) each. 

Anna Jackson, director of Gow Langsford (Auckland), complimented how quickly the fair was put together but stressed the necessity of seeing the works in person. She said to AAP, “Almost all the collectors have either viewed the works in our gallery (following current mandated Covid-19 protocols) or have been emailed additional images, videos, and details.” She also mentioned that some collectors felt that the site is “somewhat laborious” in its navigation. Jackson disclosed that works have sold well, mostly to local buyers. The gallery placed John Pule’s canvas of a seaside sunset, Same time, same coast (2019), for NZD 26,500 (USD 16,000) and Judy Millar’s abstract, untitled oil-on-paper for NZD 7,000 (USD 4,250). 

Starkwhite (Auckland) was “pleasantly surprised at the level of interest, engagement and subsequently sales generated” in their first online fair, and reported that artworks that would have sold well before Covid-19 have done well. Aside from some European and American collectors, the gallery sold primarily to local clients. Works such as Fiona Pardington’s Inseparable Huia (2016), depicting the extinct bird, was sold for NZD 50,000 (USD 30,000), and Jonny Niesche’s print of colorful frames on fabric, Dries AF (2019), found takers at NZD 9,000 (USD 5,380). 

KATO AI, Blue Wall-Not interested in you-,

Art Fair Tokyo (AFT) (March 24–May 31), Japan’s largest domestic art fair, was retitled as “AFT Art Hunting” and runs on the platform Art Scenes operated by Todoroki Inc. Conceptualized as “a limited edition online gallery mall,” the site only shows 24 thumbnails of galleries on the main page despite featuring 101 participants, and viewers have to continuously click “more” to reveal the remaining list. The website attracted more than 340,000 visitors within the first month.

While most of the galleries have not finalized sales, some talked to AAP about their experiences at the online fair. Sachiko Iwase, director of nca | nichido contemporary art (Tokyo)—part of the century-old Galerie Nichido (Tokyo / Nagoya / Taipei)—said that the platform “offers a valid yet accessible-to-all alternative to the actual art fair,” but it is “difficult to reach new clients or potential buyers,” who usually want to physically experience the space to familiarize themselves with the gallery. Compared to its modern gallery which presented a solo booth of oil paintings by Chuta Kimura, the contemporary branch highlighted Kazuya Sakamoto’s green-and-blue paintings of moving aquatic plants, Pulse (2019)

Sueo Mizuma, executive director of Mizuma Art Gallery (Tokyo / Singapore / New York), said the gallery similarly values showcasing the works physically. For AFT Art Hunting, Mizuma presented emerging artist Kato Ai’s Blue Wall (2015– ) series of paintings of anime girls. Tomio Koyama (Tokyo) presented highlights including Kishio Suga’s wooden frame on red canvas, Discrepancies in Cause of Site (2019), priced at JPY 4,840,000 (USD 45,000), and Midori Sato’s oil paintings of bouquets, each at JPY 352,000 (USD 3,300). 

ERWIN WURM, Untitled (with fruits) (One Minute Forever), 2019, acrylic, plaster, 92 × 67 × 45 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York / Hong Kong / Seoul.

One of the few fairs to take place as planned this year in January, Taipei Dangdai, in collaboration with Ocula, launched Taipei Connections (May 2–10) with 84 galleries, approximately 85 percent of its exhibitors. Viewers could enter the platform through the fair’s site. As Tomio Koyama, who participated with a thematic presentation, reflected to AAP, the platform “has an exceptional network within the Chinese-speaking communities.” Most of the audience hails from Taiwan, with viewers from Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, mainland China, Singapore, and other areas of Southeast Asia as well.  

With a focus on connecting with the community, organizers curated a well-received live-streaming program on art-market topics and artist studio visits. Shasha Tittmann, director of Lehmann Maupin in Hong Kong, stressed the significance of contextualization for Taiwanese collectors. The gallery received positive responses to Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures series (1997– ). Wurm’s exhibition at Taipei Fine Arts Museum garnered attention from local collectors, and an online conversation between Wurm and Jérôme Sans was watched by more than 1,600 viewers on the Facebook Live Channel. Tittmann added that the platform can serve as a conversation starter: “If we can build more context ahead of (or during) our artists’ museum shows in Taiwan, then we have confidence that collectors will get to revisit the works in person with a new lens.” 

Asia Art Center (Taipei / Beijing / Shanghai) shared similar insights, saying it witnessed an increase in visitors to Chuang Che’s retrospective currently on view at its Taipei space after the launch of Taipei Connections. Abstract works by Indonesian pioneer Fadjar Sidik received the most inquiries from both private and institutional collectors, especially the early oil-on-canvas Space Dynamic in Yellow (1978), which will be displayed at an upcoming show at the Center’s Taipei space.

With the launch of online platforms, small and midsized fairs have now taken up the task of promoting galleries to not only their domestic audiences but also to potential buyers around the world. However, all three virtual fairs extended their end dates to attract more attention and to allow galleries more time to close their deals, suggesting that perhaps online views do not translate so easily, or so quickly, into online sales.

Pamela Wong is ArtAsiaPacific’s assistant editor. 

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