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What we learnt from art fairs in 2020 to help plan for the future

During 2020 the future looked bleak for art fairs. As we experienced across the cultural sector, mass cancellations, reduced visitor numbers, and ongoing economic uncertainty placed them in peril.

But as the fairs start to open back up – Frieze New York 2021 has already been and gone – it’s a great point to ask, what does the landscape look like now?

And what have we learned that might help museums and galleries – large and small – get back to business?

What were fairs like in 2020?

The Art Market 2021 An Art Basel & UBS Report found that ‘of 365 global art fairs planned for 2020, 61% were cancelled, 37% held live events, and the remaining 2% of fairs held a hybrid, alternative event.’

In the UK, there were a wide range of approaches. For example, the Goldsmith’s Fair could not open their doors, so crafted a luxurious online offering that opened with a video address from Prince Charles and included a stunning Fair Film.

And online festivals like Cockpit Arts’ 2020 Midsummer Festival paved the way for excellence in participatory online arts events, with a stellar lineup of maker-led sessions on Instagram and Zoom, both live and on-demand.

Turning to the major international fairs, Frieze cancelled their fairs in both New York and London and also ran an extensive programme of online events and viewing rooms. Thankfully, the 2021 New York fair was able to go ahead and ran 5-9 May. This event was smaller – there were around 100 fewer exhibitors at the fair – and visitors were tightly controlled, with timed tickets. However, a substantial and considered digital programme accompanied the fair, including an Online Viewing Room (OVR) with additional exhibitors.  Frieze led the way into a new era of hybrid events.

Art Basel cancelled all three fairs in 2020 and developed alternative digital events. Their first adapted their existing OVR format and gave the galleries for the cancelled Hong Kong fair an opportunity to show their works. This digital fair received over 250,000 visitors –  in comparison to the 2019 live event which attracted 88,000 visitors. Over the year, Art Basel’s OVRs pivoted back to their original goal to run ‘in parallel to the shows – rather than replacing the physical experience of an art fair – and will allow gallerists to showcase additional curated exhibitions of works not presented at the fair’. Events included virtual tours, talks, studio visits and performances. They also ran two standalone, thematic OVRs. Art Basel is running their first hybrid live/digital event in Hong Kong this May (19 – 23 May 2021),

So, what worked?

The Art Fund’s Looking Ahead Museum Sector Research May 2021 found that nearly 60% of the museums, galleries and other cultural organisations surveyed are now looking to develop online events. ‘The ‘museum’ is no longer a static site,’ they concluded, ‘but includes the digital and community arenas as equally valid spaces in which to operate.’

And although art fairs are high value, commercial beasts, there are some takeaways from their development that can be useful for the wider cultural sector – including not for profit organisations and those with more modest budgets.

OVRs were widely used by commercial galleries and were a high investment approach. The Art Basel & UBS Report found that ‘While some fairs did not offer OVRs at the time of their events in 2020, nearly all will offer online options or viewing rooms in 2021.’ but the key point here is options – OVRs were widely considered to be a great supplementary offer, but no replacement for the real thing. And some of the online options used by the fairs (and their exhibiting galleries) can readily be adapted for use in museums.

One of the successes from 2020 is the use of video conferencing. For example, the Artsy Gallery Insights 2021 Report found that ‘The top virtual sales tactic by far was video conferencing with collectors. More specifically, many galleries reported hosting private walkthroughs with clients via FaceTime or similar apps. Out of the galleries who used this technique, 16% called it “extremely successful,” having led to new sales.’

It’s now more important than ever for museums and galleries to make the most of their retail income, and video calling is a low-cost way to supplement existing sales channels. The real joy of using video, which could simply be by Zoom or WhatsApp, is that you don’t need to be selling online to add this to the mix. It’s perfect for smaller organisations as a partner to an email newsletter or social media and can offer buyers a fantastic level of service.

Indeed, Artsy also reported that ‘Though it was predictable that the industry saw a reduction in fair sales this year, the increase in sales made through social media was unexpected. The average gallery’s marketing budget for social media increased by 92% from 2019, and social media ranked third in the top sales channels—the rank formerly held by fairs.’

So mixing it up seems to be the key – embracing the additional features and flexibility that digital fair and events can offer and using them to support the real thing by enriching engagement, or creating new opportunities to deliver great customer service experiences.

What next?

As the major fairs reopen their doors, it will be fascinating to see how audiences re-engage, and how the habits of these buyers have changed for the long term.

The Art Basel & UBS Report found that ‘Just under half (48%) of the HNW collectors surveyed said they would be willing to go to an art fair in the first six months of 2021, although 64% would be ready to attend local events. The majority of collectors (68%) reported that they would be happy to attend any fair by the end of Q3 2021, and over 80% into Q4.’ And so, even these very highly engaged visitors may not be rushing back to the fun of the fair.

In addition, Artsy found that ‘offering art online also plays a role in the demographics of collectors—the share of buyers between 18 and 35 doubled in 2020; younger buyers prefer to buy online’ which may further fuel the growth of digital art fairs.

About the author – Rebecca Hardy Wombell

Rebecca Hardy Wombell is a freelance writer who works with a broad range of creative organisations, including artists, galleries, museums and design-led retailers.

Her writing aims to develop and delight audiences by putting her clients’ beautiful works to well-crafted words.

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