Digital revolution? How the pandemic is changing the art industry


Text by Rita Almeida
Header Photo by Joe Green

Like other businesses the art world is suffering from the current pandemic. But could the crisis be a new chance for the whole industry to transform into something even better?

Over the past few years, the art world has been distancing itself from the real world, excavating a deeper gap between the general public and artists and artworks as each year passes by. Art pop and minimalism were the last great movements to reach outside of the pocket dimension art has been cast to. Though the spectrum of COVID-19 has created a gateway for constellations and conversations in a world that is situated in a disorientation flux. 

News were flooded with reports of galleries and museums closing one after the other as governments around the world are trying to disperse group gatherings. Because of the current crisis, many art institutions and industry events had to cancel, postpone or alter their planned program for 2020. A lot of places such as the Museum of Modern Art even ended all the contracts with their freelance educators due to the financial fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an email from departments heads obtained by “Hyperallergic” which says: “It will be months if not years before we anticipate returning to budget and operation levels to require educator services.”

Digital platforms are taking over

The major concern would be survival of art as we know it, yet as the bored and art-deprived masses are itching to get back into certain spaces, the online tours seem to be gaining in popularity. This rising in consumption emphasized a debate that has been happening over the past years: about the value of the physical space of galleries for the art trade. The pandemic kind of turned misfortune into a blessing and accelerated the process of conversion. Many institutions have turned to the vast potential of the internet to keep things ticking – a long-overdue turn to the digital platforms has been initiated, databases have been updated, such as Guggenheim which released all its content online. Some events started having an online presence like the Visions Du Réel Film Festival, whose 51st edition will be held exclusively online, with the films accessible for free.

Unfortunately, up until now society still promoted money and class as a dictation of worth. For a common person entering a place where hierarchy and prestige are cultivated as a form to maintain a standard, one cannot help but feel oppression and the opposite of belonging. Behind a screen finally, we could fill in the gap. Online exhibitions offer the possibility to stay anonymous and free in the sense of alienation, while still be able to fully experience art. Those who could no longer afford a trip or a ticket to the renowned galleries, museums and art spaces, can from the comfort of their home experience art now. To go further, they can create a global dialogue and discourse. 

Hong Kong Art Basel was the first major institution adapting to the crisis and moving into cyberspace. The online viewing room was allegedly visited by 250,000 people. These kinds of digital spaces seem to be the keenest option for most institutions at this point, while galleries and art spaces all around the world are engaging with the online public more than ever. But what the strategy basically revolves around is an online art shop, a marketplace. 

Photo by Yi Liu on Unsplash

Eye on the prize

The capital is prioritized over the experience of art, as seen in hundreds of galleries which in a blink of an eye displayed new artworks with updated prices. The major artist institutions are desperately holding on to the capital, which is one of the biggest reasons why art lost its way into the public sphere. It does not allow most of us, who do not hold the one percent of richness in the world, to actually be involved – and it creates a sense of deeper alienation. The ones that still believe in the meaning of art beyond its commercial value are left with a mediocre experience of a medium extremely formable due to its timing and space organization. Cyberspace did become, now more clearly than ever, a medium capable of installation. 

Follow the work in progress

One of the best examples of appropriating cyberspace as a fluid medium would be 168H by the Dutch Eef Schoolmeesters. The small artistic residency project lives solely online through Facebook. This has been an ongoing experiment, way before the shadow of COVID-19 haunted our daily life. Since 2017, 168H has been a specifically designed space where invited artists could freely explore their work, while the social network offered a platform where the public could engage and follow the artists’ processes.

A newly resolute space for the internet, Witte Rook, which is a Dutch artistic residency as well, saw itself forced to cancel the final exhibition of its “AIR” due to the health crisis we have in hand. Most of the artists were sent home and had to adapt their final work to a digital platform all of a sudden – beautifully executed performances, artworks, etc. remain in a catalog on the residency website. The 6×6 Project is worth mentioning as well. It is an online platform dedicated to the dissemination and promotion of artists’ moving images. Founded in 2017, this project draws inspiration from the alternative art space movement of the ’70s in New York by utilizing the artists-selecting-artists model – a romantic and distant era where art still lived for the sake of itself.

Aside from museums and gallery spaces, do-it-yourself online art exhibitions have been cropping up around the world. The beauty of them is especially the global characteristic: They are accessible to everyone and can connect everyone to create an international dialogue. Little galleries, small residencies and artists all around the world have been struggling to adapt and see this opportunity as a blessing. Since finally, audiences are willing to listen and demanding to have something to listen to, the 99% of the art world left, overshadowed due to lack of capital investment or lack of representation, are rolling up their sleeves ready to make some noise.

The world is on pause

This might also reveal a shifting moment for rethinking art in itself. Aesthetically we are on the verge of quick contemplative content. Grounded inside our houses, artists pause, the world pauses but still aches for a quick opportunity of escaping. Instagram stories of merely one minute, Snapchats and Tik Tok videos become means to an end because they create the art of pause and add to the mix of content ready to be consumed. 

Add social media to how we were raised. Just as we were taught to cross the street running before the light turns red or to move along in the train station. But now we have time. The recently created art has been exactly showcasing this – a quick view into an artist’s work in progress. Short performances and photos that disappear in someone’s Instagram feed reveal eternity in a moment but they are ephemeral as a reflection of contemporary society that is put on hold. Like a boom of ephemerality and intangibility – but these are merely thoughts. This is more palpable when it comes to the Klosterruine Youtube channel and its series “Times in Crisis” where several artists have been invited to keep track of their time, as most of the people are doing on social media. It insists on the repetition of the enclosed everyday life. 

Fighting for art in tough times

To cite Theodor W. Adorno once more, as we could all observe in the past years, where Mark Rothko’s have been selling at astronomical prices at Tiffany’s auctions, art has become a deeply rooted capitalist instrument, an asset class for the super-rich. Here we hold an opportunity for another major shift. The Hong Kong Art Basel is a great example of what needs to be changed because it keeps asserting that all art cares about is money, power and status.

But, fortunately, some institutions such as Sobey Art Foundation and the National Gallery of Canada are trying to support artists equally in the time of crisis, by dividing this year’s Sobey Art Award equally among the 25 longlisted artists. Or there is NOT CANCELLED, a platform that continues to support artists with their online salon during these challenging times. Other institutions are also making the best out of this situation, just like a small artistic project called 4C’s from Portugal, which posts accessible, poetic and educative exhibitions about emerging Portuguese artists every week. Still releasing content, still fighting for art in these tough times.

But tough times are the perfect moment to give art back – to a non-profit organization in São Paulo, to the artist who had to give up on art school because he or she couldn’t afford it. It is the perfect time to finally see why the freelance art critic who juggles multiple jobs to pay rent keeps going, why someone opens a gallery in Lebanon in the middle of a civil war, or why, even despite the loss of the oh so adored profit, the Berlin Film Festival will exhibit at Berlinische Galerie its films for free. A time where artists who left their career unattended because they had to raise children can finally put content online. Artists who now lost their job as a barkeeper are trying their best to keep positive and are still, despite everything, producing. The perfect time where young curators who could never afford to go to Documenta or an Art Basel can now start their own projects, without needing the approval of space.

Giving art back 

As artsy Instagram stories kind of scream “#BuyArt”, I scream along “yeah” – but buy it from dealers who had to close their gallery in Lisbon because they are drowning in debt or from the small to mid-gallerists in Marseille who have been bending backward to make ends meet. It is a favorable time where the richness can start to be split equally so that the Sackler Family can stop making profit out of interns below minimum wage and the filmmaker who doesn’t live in a great city center can now buy a new camera.

It is time to show why we keep going even if we keep being eaten alive by sharks with profit eyes. It is the perfect time to take art off its pedestal, stop pretending it is a thing merely of higher classes when most of us come from exactly the same background as the common person. It is time to hear the pain of those who have been fighting to recognize art as essentially communal. It is time to give art back to the public. It is time to give it back to reality.