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BRAFA © Fabrice Debatty
BRAFA © Fabrice Debatty

How design and art fairs adapt to a global pandemic

On 10 January 2020 Art Net News ran a story that began ‘the roaring ’20s are upon us, and there are enough art fairs on the calendar to keep everyone prosperous.’ For a while, this upbeat prediction proved correct. January and February saw gallerists, collectors, dealers and event organisers crisscrossing the globe from BRAFA in Brussels to Frieze in Los Angeles, via Art Geneve, NOMAD St Moritz and Collect in London. But by the time the doors of Somerset House closed on Collect on 1st March, Covid-19 had torn the art fair calendar apart and scattered it to the winds.

First came the postponements, with Spring fairs such as TEFAF New York and Art Basel, Switzerland moving to autumn. Then, as the pandemic tightened its grip, the postponements turned into cancellations. When, on 26 March, Masterpiece London announced “in light of the evolving Covid-19 pandemic …. we have decided to cancel this year’s edition,” it felt like game over. But adversity is the mother of invention and, before long, many fair organisers were finding digital ways to support their exhibitors and keep their shows on the road. Virtual became the new reality.

We wanted to create a platform where fairgoers could interact with true museum quality masterpieces – TEFAF Chairman Hidde van Seggelen

Many of the major fairs opted to replicate their physical form as closely as possible. Art Basel Hong Kong, Masterpiece London, Frieze London, Frieze New York, Intersect Aspen and Intersect Chicago (the digital iteration of SOFA), all launched online viewing rooms that enabled collectors to browse the works that would have been at the show and make direct contact with the participating galleries. With virtual talk programmes and, in Masterpiece’s case, the option to book private views with experts from different fields, these events did their best not only to enable galleries and collectors to connect, but also to emulate their vital social aspects.

Other fairs took slightly different approaches. TEFAF, The European Fine Art Fair, invited every dealer signed up to its last three fairs – Maastricht (which opened in a physical form on 7 March only to close early after an exhibitor tested positive for Covid-19) and New York Spring and Fall – to showcase a single highlight piece. Three hundred galleries signed up for TEFAF Online, which ran 1-4 November. “We wanted to create a platform where fairgoers could interact with true museum-quality masterpieces,” explains Chairman Hidde van Seggelen. “The carefully considered format of one highlight per gallery ensured the highest quality.”

BRAFA art fair
While BRAFA 2020 was able to take place as normal, the 2021 edition will take the fair to dealers and galleries © Fabrice Debatty

The travelling art fair NOMAD also restricted participating galleries to one piece each for its virtual Cannes edition. As the show’s founders Nicolas Bellavance-Lecompte and Giorgio Pace explain, “it was important to us that the digital edition conveyed the same identity as NOMAD’s physical showcases and allowed visitors to relate to the location, it’s context, architecture and atmosphere. With its extravagant organic architecture and interesting history, Palais Bulles was the ideal location and we invited 50 world-leading galleries to present one object related to and inspired by its mood and style.”

Magazine cover Salon Art + Design 2020
Magazine cover Salon Art + Design 2020

Salon Art + Design, which would have held its ninth iteration in New York this month bucked the hi-tech trend, re-engineering the 2020 fair as a luxurious print magazine titled ‘Salon, The Intersection of Art + Design’. “We took the attitude, ‘what’s old is new’”, says Jill Bokor, Executive Director of both the fair and the magazine. “This year, every fair held online viewing rooms and we frankly thought that fatigue was setting in.” The content is designed to replicate the experience of a visit to the fair and is largely image driven, but there are also articles looking to the future of collecting in a post-pandemic world.  Produced in conjunction with Cultureshock Media, known for putting together Sotheby’s, The Tate and V&A magazines, it will be sent to over 30,000 of the fair’s VIPs and collectors, as well as top designers and architects. There will be a digital version too, complete with QR codes connecting readers with the galleries. 

So did all this ingenuity work? Web traffic was certainly healthy. 250,000 visitors explored the online viewing rooms at Art Basel, Hong Kong, compared with around 88,000 visitors to the 2019 physical fair; Intersect Aspen attracted over 100,000 page views in its first three days; Nomad Cannes clocked up 15,000 visitors and 1,800 new followers, while TEFAF Online welcomed more than 30,000 art lovers and collectors. Sales were strong at TEFAF, too. Highlights included a 1st century BC ‘Bust of a Young Herakles’ and Vilhelm Hammershøi’s 1913 painting, ‘Interior with a Woman Standing’, which fetched $5m.

While I think we’ve all learned to adapt this year, nothing beats the experience of being able to see a piece in person – Jennifer Roberts, CEO of Design Miami

The shift to online supercharged digital innovations around global connectivity which will no doubt stay with us post-pandemic. More importantly, however, it ensured the vital engagement between galleries, dealers and collectors continued. But for all its 24-hour-visit-from-home convenience, it seems this experiment with digital living has really served to remind us how much we need to engage with the real world. “While I think we’ve all learned to adapt this year, nothing beats the experience of being able to see a piece in person,” says Jennifer Roberts, CEO of Design Miami. “The social aspect of like-minded people coming together at fairs to exchange ideas, socialise and expand their knowledge and network can’t be overlooked.”

The Moore Building where the Design Miami art fair was held
The historic Moore Building in Miami’s Design District hosted a physical exhibition during Design Miami 2020

The next few months will therefore see fairs experimenting with hybrid formats, combining virtual offerings with Covid-19-secure live events. Design Miami, which concluded on 6 December, tested this offering with a vastly expanded online presence via Design Miami/Shop where visitors could both view and buy, alongside an actual exhibition in the city’s historic Moore Building.

Meanwhile, in a clever inversion of the usual fair concept, January’s BRAFA art fair has decided to bring their event to the people. Titled ‘BRAFA in the galleries’, each exhibitor has been invited to show the artworks and objects they selected for BRAFA 2021 in their own gallery or home over the fair period, 27-31 January. “Our fair is a gathering of collectors,” says BRAFA Chairman Harold t’Kint de Roodenbeke, “so we had to think how we could adapt that concept to this new world. The only way was to say ‘come to us’.”

Long term, fair organisers are looking forward to returning to their pre-pandemic formats. Websites will be better – tech teams have learned that best practice is to focus on the art and facilitate easy connectivity for galleries and collectors – and be used to bolster the physical offerings but, as t’Kint de Roodenbeke says, “buying art is not like buying a car. It’s something emotional. You must meet it personally.”

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