Art fairs may be open to the public, at least after preview days are done, but they’re hardly the most inclusive of spaces. Admission fees are often hefty, even when factoring discounts for groups such as students, and once you’re in, the experience can sometimes be alienating: endless rows of white-box booths offering little to no information on the works on view. Those details are readily provided ahead of time to the event’s most coveted invitees, such as potential buyers and museum curators; for the rest, it can be intimidating to inquire about an artwork, much less ask for its price. By the time the fair opens up to the general public, even the friendliest of gallerists have been on their feet for long, stressful days, and might grumble at the thought of engaging in a lively dialogue with someone who isn’t buying.
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But at this fair, price requests are a thing of the past. Most of them, along with other basic details about the works on view, are posted for all to see. You can contact dealers immediately and directly. Oh, and there are no admission fees — anyone can attend. From home.
That very unconventional art fair is Frieze Viewing Room, the online edition of its annual New York show, which became one of countless casualties of the pandemic’s ravages on the cultural sector earlier this year. Only two weeks after a relatively par for the course Armory Week in the city and after dozens of visitors to TEFAF Maasricht tested positive for coronavirus, Frieze announced the cancellation of its event, two days before New York went on lockdown. The fair agreed to refund its exhibitors one hundred percent of their booth costs, a bold move, but galleries would still be left with a dent in projected profits from the missed sales opportunities.
That’s why Frieze mounted an entirely online fair, offering exhibitors its viewing room platform cost-free and encouraging a new dynamic for visitors characterized by information access, not opacity. Nearly all 200 exhibitors participated (only two did not, unable to show their work in digital format), and most chose to list prices. Works sold are listed as such, lifting the curtain on what-sold-what-didn’t enigmas and raising new ones: two works on paper by the highly sought-after Julia Rommel, both under $6,000, were still available as of this writing.
A new function allows users to filter artworks by categories such as medium, price bracket, and, perhaps controversially, gender: the options are “female,” “male,” “non-binary,” “transgender,” and “other.” And a desktop and mobile app with an augmented reality (AR) feature lets you try out works on walls at home, effectively bringing the fair you’re visiting from your couch to the wall above your couch. (Though it’s only for 2D artworks, not sculptures, and did not seem to be available for all of those works either.)
Frieze is not the only or the first art fair to go virtual. Art Basel Hong Kong’s online viewing rooms were also accessible to the public, and its exhibitors were encouraged to post pricing. In an industry known for its proprietary nature, where intel is a currency and sanguine post-fair reports of “robust” sales can seldom be corroborated, however, that level of transparency still feels progressive.
Hyperallergic spoke to Loring Randolph, Director of Frieze New York, about the thinking behind some of these un-fair-like features and why they have the potential to make a virtual space successful.
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Hyperallergic: Besides the online-only factor, what are the main differences between Frieze Viewing Room and previous editions of Frieze?
Loring Randolph: One of the biggest differences is market transparency and access to information. When you’re walking around a fair, a lot of the galleries don’t even post the artists’ names on the walls or the details of an artwork. That’s partly because they want an in-person conversation to happen: you have to go up to them and ask questions and they can get to know you a little bit. Without the face-to-face, in-person interaction, the reason we strongly encouraged galleries to post pricing in the online fair is because it’s one less barrier to entry for communication with a potentially interested collector. If the price isn’t there, they may not know that it’s either unaffordable for them or exactly what they want, and if there’s any delay in the communication with the gallery, that immediate want or desire to acquire something could go away.
In addition to that, which I think is the most important thing, we have a new app with an augmented reality (AR) feature that lets you superimpose the artwork to scale within the space of your own home.
H: This suggests that asking for a price in person at a fair is a way of beginning a conversation, but not listing it online might be a way of shutting out a conversation.
LR: I think the way we communicate online is just different from the way we communicate in person. There’s a different psychology and use value to having the pricing listed online. You know, people talk about the online space as a democratized space. If that’s true, and you have more ease of information and market transparency, I think you could argue that for new collectors especially, this provides one less barrier to a better understanding of how to begin collecting. People feel at ease about having all the information at hand. When they have to inquire about price and maybe be caught flat-footed about how much they thought a work cost, and then have to go back to the gallery and say “oh no, I’m sorry, I’m not interested because it’s too expensive” — that’s a barrier. That, in my mind, is straining conversations and it might even prevent people from acquiring. Whereas this was fun, it was more like the way people are used to looking at other things they might want to buy online, where there is transparency about pricing, like fashion … And I’m not comparing art to fashion, of course, but just the ease. We don’t have a “click to buy” feature — you still have to contact the gallery, they have to ask you questions about who you are and why you’re interested. But the difference is that now, when you begin that conversation, you already have more information at your fingertips than you would have otherwise.
H: Does Frieze take a cut of the sales that happen through its platform? For example, when you send an inquiry through a website like Artsy, they might take a commission.
LR: No, we don’t take a cut and we don’t get involved. The emails go right to the galleries and they have to then respond to the interested buyers. They can also track a lot of their conversations through the backend, so they can go back and look through everybody who’s inquired and make sure they’ve responded. But we don’t communicate on behalf of the collector or the gallery. That’s between those two parties.
H: I’ve also noticed that, at least past the VIP opening, the fair website is publicly accessible and free. In physical editions of the fair, there are entrance fees, right?
LR: The online fair is completely free. It’s free to the galleries, it’s free to the users, it’s free to anyone who wants to log on. I believe we usually charge around $50 for general admission at the New York fair. We have different pricing tiers and we tend to let museum groups and students in and accommodate as many people as we can, but yes, general admission has a cost.
H: Galleries aren’t even paying a fraction of the booth fee?
LR: No. The reality is, we were responding to a crisis. We need our galleries to function, we need them to be around in the next six months. We need them to survive. We didn’t know how badly the art market would be affected or how it would be unfolding in real time. And we’ve done this in order to help support the galleries and the artists that are our core constituents.
H: Galleries are infamous for being private about prices. How did you get them on board with price transparency? Did you get any pushback?
LR: You know, we didn’t, and I think that’s because galleries are leading on these trends. Galleries that opened their own viewing rooms long before we launched ours were posting pricing on them. They were already used to disclosing prices for that purpose. It was only on some of the secondary market works that prices weren’t listed. But most primary market works have prices.
I think the reason why the galleries don’t post secondary prices is because there’s contractual agreements between them and the sellers, and that information does not necessarily need to be publicly disclosed. People have different motivations for selling things, and you don’t need to air how much money you want for something to the whole world, and I think that that’s fair. These are private agreements and they remain private.
H: Another feature of the platform is a searchable function that allows users to filter artists by gender, among other categories. What made you think to add that?
LR: Everything provides context for art-making: where you’re from, how you grew up, how you identify — all these are relevant to artists’ practices. And there are certain people who focus their collections around those factors. If you’re someone who is interested in looking at all of the artists identifying as non-binary, this allows y0u to see them and their works side by side. In the same way that if you wanted to look at all-male artists whose works are over $500,000, you can sort by that category. [Laughs.]
Every feature is something that can be segmented. I know people say “we don’t talk about the male artists as male artists,” but I think we do, now, at least I do. We had so many amazing presentations of women artists this year because it was the 100th year of the ratification of women’s suffrage in the US, and I felt that it was cool to be able to search for works by women. But if it’s not interesting to you, then you don’t have to do it.
H: And the online experience allows you to focus in a way that the physical fair doesn’t because things are more dispersed.
LR: Right, we don’t have artworks or exhibitors organized in that way at the physical fair. Most people just go and look and discover, and then they dive into the background history and biography later. But if you’re someone who has a pre-conceived idea of what it is that you want, now you can search for it.
H: Do you have plans to continue doing a digital platform along with an in-person fair, beyond the pandemic?
LR: It was always planned to function like that. We didn’t come up with this because New York’s fair was canceled, we’ve been building the viewing room for a long time and it was always set to be another arm of the business that was going to sit alongside our events, where galleries could show other projects. It just so happened that when Frieze NY was canceled, we had already built this online platform for galleries to use, specifically for auxiliary presentations — like the works in galleries’ closets at the fair, for instance, or a body of work that you couldn’t ship from the artist’s studio but you wanted to showcase. It wasn’t supposed to be a way of recreating your art fair booth online. But when the fair was canceled, we had to change our way of thinking about it and galleries did, too. That’s when we decided to transfer the whole fair to this platform.
H: Do you think you’ll continue to encourage price transparency?
LR: We don’t want to tell galleries how to mess with their aesthetic in their booths, in terms of putting up labels on the walls. A lot of artists are very specific about how they want their work seen and experienced and they don’t want a wall label right next to it. I do think the galleries are already being more transparent about pricing — a lot of the times they have price lists on their tables at their booths. And they’re pretty forthcoming about disclosing pricing if asked. We’re not going to regulate anything in that regard, but if it continues to trend, and the galleries are selling well when they disclose pricing…they’ll do it more and more.
H: When Artnet’s Price Database was launched in the 1990s, offering a public record of auction sales, it made prices for secondary market works suddenly visible. Do you think Frieze’s online viewing room has the potential to catalyze a similar shift in the primary market?
LR: We’re not thinking on those grandiose terms at this moment. We’re just focusing on having it function, not crash, having it be easy for collectors to use and benefit the galleries. As we move forward we’re going to expand upon the functionalities and, certainly, that’s an amazing potential. But everything we do at Frieze comes back to the same question: how do we support the galleries and the gallery system? If they are really pushing for something like this to work, then I think we would happily try to realize it.