As I’ve reported on art fairs over the past few years, I’ve become accustomed to a degree of caginess about pricing. Some gallerists decline to share dollar amounts or price ranges—sometimes they won’t even distribute checklists of artworks in their booths. So I was surprised to visit Art Basel in Hong Kong’s online viewing rooms
, which were open from March 18th to 25th in lieu of the yearly in-person fair (canceled
due to the COVID-19 pandemic), and find specific prices or ranges listed for each of the 2,000-plus artworks on offer. Several galleries have also created new virtual platforms over the past few weeks that list prices.
Digital initiatives and price transparency
go hand in hand, a number of industry professionals told me. Though overall online art sales declined by 2 percent from 2018 to 2019, according
to the report “The Art Market 2020” (coinciding with a slight drop in the overall market), galleries continue to put resources and new ideas into how they present themselves digitally. As more dealers have launched online viewing rooms, they’ve also become more open to publishing information that was once closely guarded. Ultimately, galleries embrace both strategies for related reasons: to reach a larger audience, and to make sales more seamless.
Art Basel global director Marc Spiegler is careful to note that COVID-19 isn’t solely responsible for galleries and fairs overhauling their digital strategies. As he sees it, these shifts sped up as the industry adapted to its new, online-only existence. He also noted that Art Basel didn’t force participating galleries to post their exact prices—some works had price ranges spanning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Sam Orlofsky, a director at Gagosian
, is cautious about predicting how digital efforts precipitated by COVID-19 will play out in the long run. Initially, he believed our socially distanced circumstances would accelerate the art world’s embrace of digital platforms and the coinciding price transparency. Now, he said, he’s less sure “because there’s a headwind in the market. People may be willing to test this out. But if the market is in such a stark state, they may wrongly conclude it’s a failed experiment. There may be a backdraft.”
Acquiring minds want to know
Spiegler and his team only decided to include pricing in their viewing rooms after careful consideration. To not do so, he said, “creates one more hitch in the process of acquisition” for interested buyers. He noted that collectors have always sought transparency, and they appreciated the new approach. While some dealers were initially hesitant, no one significantly pushed back.
Loring Randolph, artistic director of the Americas at Frieze Art Fair—which yesterday announced details of its online viewing rooms, running in place of its canceled New York edition
from May 6th to 15th—found similar receptivity among participating galleries: None pushed back against the fair’s recommendation to list prices. “Indicating the price makes it easier to engage an audience that is ready to buy,” said Randolph. Additionally, since collectors can filter artworks by price range, listing specific prices allows artworks to become easily searchable and viewed by more interested buyers.
Randolph said she understands the potential pitfalls of transparent pricing. Galleries may not want the public to know if an artist’s prices are staying flat or jumping significantly, which could indicate an unhealthy market and turn away would-be buyers. “Galleries are trying to protect their artists,” she said.
Spiegler said some galleries don’t put any information—not even wall labels—in their traditional fair booths, “because they’re trying to start a conversation” with fair attendees. This practice raises an interesting question: To whom does a lack of information look inviting? Some fairgoers, particularly those new to the scene, may feel intimidated—not encouraged to converse—if the most fundamental information is withheld. In any case, such person-to-person connection is impossible right now.