Art Market

With Art Cologne Moving Online, German Galleries Shift Focus Again

Courtney Tenz
Nov 13, 2020 6:14PM

Installation view of RCM Galerie’s booth at Art Cologne 2019. Courtesy of Art Cologne.

Originally delayed due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in April, Art Cologne has once again had to postpone its physical edition. Instead of meeting in person at Koelnmesse next week, art lovers will be treated to extensive online content including talks with art experts, short films about the winners of the fair’s prize, and a virtual edition of the fair (the latter hosted, in full disclosure, on Artsy). The virtual events will seek to bridge the gap left by the cancellation of the physical fair until collectors, curators, and gallerists can meet here again in April 2021.

“The art trade thrives strongly on personal encounters, not only the encounters between the interested party and the art on display but also between the interested party and the gallery owner,” said Daniel Hug, Art Cologne’s director.

Installation view at Galerie Thomas, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas, Munich.


It’s because of those personal encounters that many gallerists from around Germany had hoped the world’s oldest art fair would be able to go ahead as planned despite restrictions limiting international travel. Along with Berlin Gallery Weekend, Art Cologne is one of the biggest events on the art market calendar in Germany; last year’s edition saw a slew of sales in the six-figure range. In 2019, Germany accounted for just 2% of value in the global art market, but 13% of art market value in the European Union (excluding the United Kingdom), according to Clare McAndrew’s “The Art Market 2020” report.

“People want to experience art for themselves, up close,” said Silke Thomas of Galerie Thomas in Munich. “When you have a Beckmann or a Kirchner oil painting, you want to be able to sit there with it, take it in. That’s not something you can get virtually.”

Installation view at Galerie Thomas, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Thomas, Munich.

Art Cologne’s organizers had put strict hygiene measures in place, including social distancing guidelines, protocols for exhibitors’ stands, and an app for monitoring visitor movement. But the decision to postpone came as a result of Germany’s federal government’s latest “lockdown light” regulations, restricting domestic travel and putting a stop to trade fairs.

“Naturally, the loss of Art Cologne this year is a big one. The opportunity to meet thousands of potential customers through the trade fair vanished from one day to the next,” said Thomas, whose father, Raimund Thomas, was one of the original gallerists to take part in Art Cologne when it launched in 1967.

She said that while the gallery had been looking forward to returning to Cologne for the fair, it wasn’t clear if people would have actually attended. “I think everyone had concerns that visitors would have stayed away.”

Christine Wang, installation view of “Coronavirus Memesat Galerie Nagel Draxler Köln, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Köln/München.

Exhibitors had already anticipated smaller numbers as a result of the ban on international travel to the EU for visitors from the United States and other countries. Still, Art Cologne had posted solid exhibitor registration numbers before the fair was officially put on hold late last month. The art market, however, was already in a bit of a flux as a result of the pandemic.

“A smaller fair in Antwerp was canceled. Art Basel mounted an online fair. Of course it isn’t the same as it once was. It likely won’t be for a while,” said Christian Nagel of Galerie Nagel-Draxler. “But the decline was not as steep as it was expected to be. Sales are adapting. We have good contacts with important, dedicated collectors. That matters.”

Christine Wang, installation view of “Coronavirus Memesat Galerie Nagel Draxler Köln, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Nagel Draxler, Berlin/Köln/München.

Outside of those collector’s circles, though, Nagel admitted the market is a bit more difficult to navigate at the moment. “We deal in avant-garde collections, not decorative pieces. I doubt the market will continue to be so highly speculative and overpriced.”

Although the German government has stepped in to offer economic support to businesses during these shutdowns, with a €16 million ($18.9 million) package of funds for galleries already made available, continuing to make sales is vital to staying relevant—and in business. “The state is doing incredible things,” said Nagel. “But you can’t live from that alone.”

Unlike during the previous shutdown in March, the new closures do not impact galleries. Considered retail spaces, they have been exempted from closing even as museums and trade fairs have had to shutter. This has allowed collectors to continue coming in to browse.

Installation view of Joseph Rodriguez’s “Taxi” Series and Sebastião Salgado’s “GOLD” at Galerie Bene Taschen, 2020. Courtesy of Galerie Bene Taschen, Cologne.

“There was a different feeling in March,” said Bene Taschen, who runs Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne. “The virus created this huge unknown. But people appear to have learned to live with it. And the market is still there. So what’s important now is to set up a stunning exhibition. Getting people directly into the gallery.”

Included in Taschen’s repertoire is the addition of virtual events that connect the artist with potential buyers. Earlier this year, he held a video conference with Paris-based photographer Sebastião Salgado, whose work capturing gold miners in Brazil is currently on view at the gallery. The result, Taschen said, is that the gallery is able to reach people where they are.

Among the visitors who’ve been able to visit the gallery, Taschen said he noticed a difference in the way they view the documentary photography in which his gallery specializes. “People are looking at these images through different eyes,” he said. “The subjects, the people in these pictures, are in the foreground. And you can see some people are viewing them from a different perspective today than they had done before.”

While mounting exhibitions to draw potential buyers to the gallery remains a key channel for transactions, dealers also said they’ve seen a pandemic-related drop in foot traffic that has slowed sales.

“We have over 500 square meters of floor space in our gallery,” Thomas said. “We have the space to welcome buyers while practicing social distancing. My goal is that they come here, look around, get a taste for the art they can buy. But the cancellation of Oktoberfest here in Munich was a huge loss. People simply aren’t traveling to the city right now. They aren’t dropping in as they had once done.”

Christian Nagel also remarked that the market has shifted for new artists looking to enter the fray as they miss out on the opportunity to present their work to the broader public typically drawn to major fairs like Art Cologne. “It hasn’t gotten easier to sell works by unknown artists,” Nagel said. “People are sticking to the names they know and trust.”

In that way, a return to the in-person fair could help to open the market back up. As Hug noted, these gatherings are essential not only for sales but also for the networking and exchange they bring. He concluded, “Fairs will continue to play an important role in the future.”

Explore the 2020 edition of Art Cologne on Artsy.

Courtney Tenz