For Galleries, Online Viewing Rooms Are About Storytelling and Sales

For Galleries, Online Viewing Rooms Are About Storytelling and Sales

In 2019, we’re well beyond the question of whether collectors are willing to purchase works they’ve only seen online. (Spoiler alert: They are!) The most exciting developments in the online viewing room space will doubtlessly come from galleries with the energy and resources to experiment with the form of what a virtual exhibition can be. Scott Indrisek explores how online viewing rooms function (via artsy.net)

David Zwirner Gallery is fond of framing its online viewing room as its seventh space, a virtual complement to brick-and-mortar locations in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong. And while some may think of such a digitally focused sales portal as just a fancy website, Elena Soboleva, director of online sales at David Zwirner (and a former staffer at Artsy), is quick to correct that misconception. The viewing room “lives on a website, but it’s a structure which has purpose, consistency, focus, and a whole team behind it,” she said.

“It’s not just putting JPEGs and quotes on a page,” she added. “For every project we do, there’s inventory, there are registrars moving things around, there’s photography. We get these artworks physically, we do everything that you would for a usual show—[it’s] just the end result doesn’t hang in a space, it lives in this online format.”

Much like a physical gallery, David Zwirner’s online viewing room serves multiple purposes. A primary goal is to tap into new networks of collectors. On that point, the venture seems to have been a resounding success since its launch in January 2017. According to the gallery, the 10 highest-priced works acquired through the online viewing room all went to collectors based in cities where David Zwirner does not have a physical space—places like Antwerp, San Francisco, Toronto, and Houston. And according to the gallery’s own data, roughly 47 percent of sales inquiries are from interested buyers who have no prior sales relationship with the gallery.

Online viewing room exhibitions at David Zwirner tend to fall into several distinct categories. There are shows that are timed to coincide with major art fairs like Frieze London or Art Basel in Miami Beach; the shorter duration of these sales, ideally, replicates the buy-now-or-miss-out buzz of the fair itself. “We’re able to do virtual, parallel presentations of works that are at a much higher price point,” Soboleva said, upending the idea that online viewing rooms are mostly appropriate for prints, drawings, or other comparatively affordable works. For a digital spotlight of Raoul De Keyser that launched in conjunction with Frieze London, prices reached as high as $300,000.

Then there are digital exhibitions that parallel single-artist shows happening at one of David Zwirner’s brick-and-mortar spaces. For instance, in tandem with a Raymond Pettibon exhibition in Paris, the online viewing room featured a series of 10 distinct ink-on-paper drawings of snow leopards, priced between $35,000 and $65,000. In January, David Zwirner will present work by Rose Wylie in its Hong Kong location, while the viewing room will offer unique, hand-painted prints by the British artist.

Finally, the viewing room allows a space for exploration and one-offs: a selection of Bruce Nauman  prints and artist’s books, for instance; or a spotlight on Franz West’s furniture pieces. This summer, David Zwirner dedicated its digital space to “People Who Work There,” a group show of art made by gallery staffers. The exhibition took place IRL, at cfcp gallery in Brooklyn, but came to life in a different way on David Zwirner’s website, where the works by employee-artists were given the same digital polish as those by market darlings like David Zwirner is not alone in chasing the potentials of the online viewing experience. Gagosian, which launched its own online viewing room in June 2018, has been notching impressive successes at the rarified end of the market. Director Sam Orlofsky nods to Artsy’s own influence on the mega-gallery’s initial conception of the project (Larry Gagosian is a founding investor in Artsy), as well as digital strategies employed by the major auction houses. But the gallery felt it could leverage its own strengths in the digital sphere (and its roughly 1.8 million followers across various social media platforms).

“Artsy is open to selling things at all price points, but we have so much more experience with consignments at the highest levels of the market,” Orlofsky said. “We wanted to see if we could make sales online at the $100,000–$1 million range, with any kind of meaningful frequency. And we have!”

Of particular note, Orlofsky said, was the sale of a 1988 Albert Oehlen abstraction this past March, which achieved its $6 million price (a record, at the time) “in less than two hours.” The Oehlen viewing room was augmented with analytics, pointing to the upward swing of the artist’s market, and a professionally produced video interview in which Orlofsky and Gagosian chief operating officer Andrew Fabricant dissected the painting’s appeal from both an aesthetic and economic perspective.

But online viewing rooms are not only for the biggest of global mega-galleries. Smaller operations like Monya Rowe Gallery and Silas Von Morisse Gallery have launched their own relatively modest operations that complement ongoing exhibitions. For Rowe, the goal was specifically to shine a spotlight on more accessible works on paper. “It also offers an economic alternative for someone who isn’t ready to commit to a painting,” she said. “The Viewing Room has little gems at lower prices than paintings.”

Newest to the online viewing room game is David Kordansky Gallery, which launched its version of a digital sales portal last month with a group show to raise funds for climate change charities. (Unlike some others, David Kordansky’s viewing room does not have public-facing prices, but users can request more info with the click of a button.)

“We still want to prioritize engaging and informing visitors, creating conversations, and building relationships,” said Kurt Mueller, director of institutional and media relations at David Kordansky. “There’s the same sense of urgency as the opening of any new exhibition or fair presentation: the anticipation, opportunity, and competition of a market. But the online viewing room is equally, if not more, about creating a moment of focus, developing a further context in which to appreciate and understand our artists’ work, hopefully in a new way.”

That echoed sentiments Soboleva relayed about how David Zwirner is leaning in to what the online context can do uniquely well. Beyond targeting buyers, the online viewing room provides a sleek, choreographed experience that she said artists themselves are increasingly responding to and engaging with. They “realize there’s this narrative quality,” she explained. “They can story-tell in a different way, to this bigger audience that wouldn’t necessarily see their show in one of our spaces.” The structure of a David Zwirner viewing room is gently pedantic, mingling lush, high-res details of artworks with historical context, videos, and punchy quotes from art-world professionals. In this way, the viewing room also serves a brand-building function, addressing an interested, aspirational audience that might not yet be ready to collect.

For Esther Schipper of Berlin, which launched its own online viewing room to coincide with this year’s Frieze London fair, the model was a natural evolution. The initiative is overseen by a trio of staffers: Tara K. Reddi, senior sales director; Amy Binding, image and press archivist; and Julia Séguier, who oversees the gallery’s research and editorial department.

“The gallery’s in-house research and content department has always produced further reading material focused on our artists, major works, and exhibitions,” the trio said via email. “Viewing rooms offer potential clients a more immersive and multimedia experience, so this is a consequential next step.” Thus far, viewing room shows have been hosted in parallel with fairs (including Frieze and West Bund Art & Design), as well as concurrent exhibitions at the Berlin space. The current viewing room allows visitors to inquire about a room-filling, spider-inspired work by Tomás Saraceno.

By 2019, we’re well beyond the hoary question of whether collectors are willing to purchase works they’ve only seen online. (Spoiler alert: They are!) The most exciting developments in the online viewing room space will doubtlessly come from galleries with the energy and resources to experiment with the form, innovating platforms that specifically take advantage of what a virtual exhibition can be.

During this year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach, David Zwirner showcased works online that operate “at unexpected and vastly different scales,” Soboleva said. That might mean a massive canvas—the sort of quirky curation that, in a gallery’s physical booth, “would be difficult to hang side by side…a strange juxtaposition.” Online, however, there’s a more captive audience, one whose attention can be guided and coaxed by savvy user experience. The ABMB online viewing room netted $1.5 million in sales; that total included big-ticket items like a $450,000 Oscar Murillo canvas.

And despite the flatness of the digital medium, it’s not just two-dimensional work that is moving online. Soboleva was pleasantly surprised that David Zwirner’s two biggest-ticket viewing room sales thus far—both made during 2019’s Art Basel fair in Basel—were sculptures: a 1991 pumpkin (for $1.8 million). Video currently provides a decent facsimile of the in-the-round experience of three-dimensional work; as virtual reality platforms become less clunky, it seems likely they’ll become an additional facet of the online viewing room experience.

“Online, we want to be bringing even more experimental and artist-driven projects, which I think is what you’re going to be seeing in the next year,” Soboleva added. Rather than simply being a pale echo of a gallery exhibition, the future of online viewing rooms likely involves exploiting where the digital space can be more robust than the old-fashioned experience of looking at art in person.