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How Online Exhibits Are Changing the Art World

In response to the global lockdown, art is going digital—here’s where to find the best virtual viewing rooms, and how they can help to curate your collection

Galleries and art fairs worldwide may have shut their brick-and-mortar establishments for the time being but, thanks to the rise of online exhibits, a  wealth of paintings, sculptures, and installations is available to enjoy right from your laptop screen.

While these virtual spaces feel futuristic, the art they showcase still functions in the same way it has for millennia—as a much-needed respite from reality. “This is a time when people are seeking solace,” explains Andria Hickey, senior director and lead curator at Pace, a contemporary gallery with headquarters in New York and galleries in locations including London, Geneva, and Seoul. “And art has the power to bring comfort.”

Street art in Barcelona, Spain
In downtown Barcelona the street art paints a picture of how Coronavirus is affecting the art world. Online spaces offer a welcome refuge for both art lovers and artists themselves. Image: Alamy

One of the first online exhibits was set up in February, when Art Basel chose to cancel its Hong Kong show. Instead it headed online to present more than 2,000 works, with an estimated value of $270 million.

Some in the art world are skeptical of a such a virtual viewing room, pointing out that it’s unlikely to replicate the experience of seeing art in person. However, there are benefits—as artist Jeff Koons said of these spaces, “they feel personal, they feel intimate.”

The gallery at Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy
Like many art institutions around the world, Fondazione Prada in Milan, Italy, has temporarily shut its doors, instead expanding its virtual presence with online exhibits. Image: Roberto Marossi

Christie’s auction house has embraced online exhibits for a number of years. In fact, in 2019, 64 percent of its global clients bought or bid­­ online. “Virtual viewings can give you greater access to art, removing restrictions imposed by physical geography,” says Nicky Eaton, Christie’s Head of Communications. “Seeing an object online ‘in the round’ also allows you to examine it in minute detail.”

Online viewing rooms bring artworks and their stories directly to you—Samanthe Rubell

Online artworks also come with added value, thanks to the articles, videos, and even podcasts that accompany them. “Technology has an incredible capacity for bringing information directly to you,” says Samanthe Rubell, senior director at Pace. She believes this can aid in curating a collection, as “it allows you to develop an eye and visual fluency through exploration. While circumnavigating the world is one way to do this, online viewing rooms bring artworks and their stories directly to you.”

A view of Art Basel's Online Exhibition
Art Basel Hong Kong's online exhibits—such as Illumination by artist Ai Weiwei—feel very much as though you're inhabiting a private gallery space.

In the case of Art Basel Hong Kong, moving exhibits online provided the chance to see any artwork at all. Something Koons agrees with: “The positive aspect of having these platforms is that it’s good for the dialogue of art.”

That dialogue has since become a global conversation, with the world’s most prestigious museums, galleries, and auction houses fully embracing this virtual reality. For now, it’s changing the way the art world works—and offering a dose of well-curated escapism along the way.

5 Virtual Viewings Currently on Offer

The telepresence robot view an artwork in Hastings Contemporary gallery
By using the telepresence robot developed by Double Robotics, Hastings Contemporary has opened up its gallery space virtually—helping to overcome the barriers of isolation. Image: Will Barrett

Hastings Contemporary, in East Sussex, England, is at the forefront of remote art experiences. The gallery has partnered with a robotics company to offer tours that feel as though you’re walking through its exhibition space. Conducted by a two-wheeled videoconferencing machine, an operator and up to five people can explore the gallery at a time, enjoying both its artwork and the view of the English Channel via their laptop screens.

Dubai’s Alserkal Art Week is sadly one of many that has been canceled. However, thanks to a collective effort by the galleries in the city’s cultural quarter, it’s been transformed into an immersive art experience. Through interactive 360-degree-view technology, the offerings of 17 galleries are available to enjoy from the comfort of your own home, along with custom video content and interviews.

During its temporary gallery closures, Pace will showcase a roster of topical online exhibits. Double by Elizabeth Murray features in A Swiftly Tilting Planet, a group presentation on the theme of stillness.

At Pace you’ll find a program of digital exhibitions carefully compiled by the gallery’s dealers and curators. As well as digital versions of the exhibitions on show at its London and New York Locations, by artists including James Turrell, Arlene Shechet, and Julian Schnabel, there are never-before-seen works. New exhibitions will be released regularly—but you’ll need to act quickly, as they’ll only be available to view for two weeks.

Christie’s auction house has shifted the focus from scheduled sales to Private and Online sales. “We recognize that art and objects are an important source of enjoyment for many, so our goal is to ensure our doors remain open from a digital standpoint,” explains Matthew Rubinger, Deputy Chief Marketing Officer. Thanks to its impressive online exhibits, you can learn more about a favorite collecting category, see a work of art in a virtual viewing room, or bid on an item through the online sales platform.

The Porcelain Room at Fondazione Prada
A virtual tour of The Porcelain Room at Fondazione Prada takes visitors beyond the gallery experience, with videos and interviews that offer an in-depth look at the historical significance of Chinese-exported porcelain.

In Italy, Milan’s Fondazione Prada is opening up its archives and presenting virtual exhibition experiences on its website and social media channels. Highlights include The Porcelain Room, which explores the history of Chinese-exported porcelain through new interviews and videos. It’s an online space that encourage intimate engagement with the exhibitions and the creative minds behind them.

Banner Image: Alamy