Online experiences: the art world responds to COVID-19


Viewers miss the social and immersive experiences of contemporary art

Dr Deborah Schultz, Reader in Art History, explores how the art world has responded to the challenges posed by the current crisis. 

This article is part of our new series, Regent's Review: thoughts, research and academic discussion on the rapidly unfolding pandemic.


  • The crisis has forced the art world to increase its engagement with online forms of communication.
  • Some activities that had become difficult to sustain will change sooner than previously anticipated. 
  • While the responses by artists and curators are appreciated, viewers miss the social and immersive experiences offered by contemporary art. 

Online experiences: the art world responds to COVID-19

In recent years, the size and number of art-related events taking place around the world have grown exponentially. Although Art Basel’s 2020 market report estimates a five percent decline in sales in the previous year to $64.1 billion, art fairs, -ennials (biennials, triennials, etc.) and blockbuster exhibitions are busier than ever. Last year, about a quarter of all art sales took place at fairs, with around a third of those deals sealed before or after the actual event. 

Blockbusters are also busier than ever before, with modernist and contemporary exhibitions the most frequented. Figures published in The Art Newspaper’s ‘Art’s most popular’ report in April bear this out, with 676,503 visitors to the (ticketed) Jean-Michel Basquiat/Egon Schiele show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and 598,818 visitors to Ai Weiwei: Root at the (free) Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, Rio de Janeiro, last autumn. In need of high visitor numbers to maintain funding streams, the role of major state-run institutions has come under discussion. Originally established to educate, they face pressure to respond to popular taste, putting on guaranteed crowd-pleasers but where the works on display are obscured by the high number of visitors. If you have been to Tate Modern recently, you will recognise what I am talking about. Olafur Eliasson: In real life was a great show but it was crowded throughout and sold out completely for the final few days; it was simply too popular. 

Thus, while the monetary value of the art industry has not increased in recent years, its symbolic value has grown significantly. For millennials, and many others, who lack both the financial resources and the space to collect, art fairs, -ennials and exhibitions offer rich and often immersive experiences there and then, rather than buying opportunities. In stunning spaces designed by ‘starchitects’, they are social occasions, where the stimulating art is supplemented by stimulating conversation, equally stimulating refreshments and Instagrammable moments. 

So, how is the art world responding when fairs and -ennials are cancelled and gallery doors are closed due to COVID-19? Is there a way of transferring the art experience online? 

Taking place annually in late March, Art Basel Hong Kong was the first major event affected by the virus. To replace face to face contact, galleries opened Online Viewing Rooms that could be easily accessed around the world. Since then, responses have been rich and varied. Restricted by the relatively small size of a flat screen, new dimensions are provided in opening up previously unseen domestic spaces. As soon as the lockdown began, Sadie Coles Gallery launched its ‘Answers from Isolation’ series. Now up to #27, artists, curators and gallery collaborators are sharing the books they are reading, their favourite podcasts and recipes for comfort food. Short films and photos from around the studio or home are included, together with reflections on the impact of the current conditions and thoughts on what might change afterwards.  The experience for the viewer is one of connectedness and the sense of a new openness. 

Enjoying the digital benefits of Zoom, Lisson Gallery has gone one step further with artist Ryan Gander offering live studio tours. Hauser and Wirth is fundraising by selling limited edition prints by Jenny Holzer on Earth Day for $1,000 each, with all the proceedings going to Art for Acres and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund from WHO. Although leading gallerists and collectors usually travel frequently, in recent years they have become highly conscious of making their contribution to climate change. This has led them to seek more sustainable means to transport works of art or to run events while balancing their own carbon footprint with carbon offset funds or by reducing the amount they travel. In February this year, before the coronavirus started having an impact in the UK, the Serpentine Gallery already began their initiative ‘Slow Programming’, with projects designed to last longer than usual, thereby cutting transport costs and challenging the expectation of shows changing every couple of months.  

While some artists are questioning what they can – or should – make at present, others are as productive as ever. George Condo’s Drawings for Distanced Figures sold out immediately in an online exhibition. Wolfgang Tillmans is leading Solidarity 2020, a fundraising campaign in which limited edition posters by himself and 50 other artists are available for £50 each. Meanwhile, Gagosian is using its website to spotlight one work a week, available for sale (at the usual prices) over a limited two-day period. With the internet offering far more than the average collector can digest, this approach reinforces the gallery’s brand as one of high quality and exclusivity. 

These are just a few examples of the very many varied and creative ways in which the art world is responding to the current crisis, seeking means of overcoming distancing and isolation. The social instincts of artists and curators to find ways of communicating have led to numerous new events being made accessible online. Nevertheless, although artists’ films can be watched from the comfort of an armchair at home, other works are more obviously disadvantaged, with the flat screen reducing everything to the same size, texture and format. Predictions are that viewers will flock to galleries when they reopen, seeking art and social engagement in their favourite spaces. Fears are that a high percentage of those galleries will not have survived, with the financial difference between the mega-galleries and the rest enabling the elite to grow, while the vulnerable go under. 

On a more positive note, the crisis has forced the industry to slow down and take stock. As Georgina Adam asked in a recent article in The Art Newspaper, ‘Post-pandemic, the art market might return to ‘normal’—but do we want it to?’ As in other industries, changes that had been broadly discussed are likely to come about sooner and more abruptly than anticipated. The near future may offer a reduced number of smaller but high-quality events with institutions focusing on permanent collections and ‘slower looking’, using digital tools to provide greater connectedness both locally and internationally. In the longer term, with Asia likely to recover first, the crisis may lead to a more sustained shift not only of geopolitics and global economics but also of key players and institutions in the art world. 

I am grateful to students on the BA (Hons) Liberal Studies ‘Curating’ module for some stimulating discussions in recent weeks.