Five weeks ago, the word ‘unprecedented’ had become a synonym for COVID-19; the visual arts sector had ground to a complete halt in Aotearoa and beyond. Hundreds of livelihoods hung in the balance. There were four weeks to go until the opening of the Auckland Art Fair, an annual event that had sold $9 million of art the previous year - an amount that had been split between artists and gallerists.
Stephanie Post, Co-Director of the Auckland Art Fair, knew that she had to do something. “When you look at [that amount] in the scale of things, it shows that it’s not just about the fair. It’s about a whole sector of people, which made us think ‘what else can we do to support artists?’”
The solution - to move the Auckland Art Fair online - highlighted the idiosyncratic adaptability of the sector. No matter your status or experience, anyone can access the 30 galleries from New Zealand and Australia showcasing 15 works online, all available to view for free from the comfort of your computer.
“The experience of art online is hugely different from the real thing. At the same time when we can’t experience it in the flesh as it were, this is a good alternative and a way to celebrate the talent and diversity of art across our region,” says Post.
Bill Culbert, Crayfish, 1987 plastic containers cut in half, fluorescent tube 300 x 1320 x 75mm, Mossman Gallery
It was a decision that was met with positivity from gallerists as it presented them and their artists with new opportunities.
“It’s an opportunity to introduce the work of our artists to new audiences, to showcase new work and some wonderful older works. It’s good to be nestled firmly, albeit virtually, amongst the art community during a time of palpable physical distance,” says Danae Mossman, of MOSSMAN Gallery in Wellington.
"I’m really interested in accessibility in the arts and this is massive in terms of physical and financial accessibility.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Laree Payne, Director of Weasel Gallery in Hamilton. “It’s expanding the reach of the work that galleries and artists do. Although it’s short notice, it encourages those involved [in Auckland Art Fair] to think of innovative and diverse ways to show and communicate. It’s challenging to show and sell art through digital images - for example it’s hard to photograph the texture and finish of a work - but on the flipside, I’m really interested in accessibility in the arts and this is massive in terms of physical and financial accessibility.”
While John McCormack, Co-Director of Starkwhite in Auckland observes “it’s another opportunity to test the viability of virtual fairs.
“The first international art fair to take place exclusively online was a virtual failure. The international VIP (Viewing in Private) fair launched in January 2011 was hailed as a transformative and innovative sales platform, but didn’t live up to the hype and expectations,” he continues. “The second edition of the fair also bombed, leaving many feeling that the art world wanted the real thing, but it’s fair to say the VIP fair affirmed how important the internet had become to the way people encounter art - which brings us to the online edition of the Auckland Art Fair.
“There’s a lot of goodwill for the venture, and there’s a lot riding on it - for the organisers and for participating galleries and their artists.”
Laura Williams, Bathsheba, Susannah & Friends Cavort 2020 Acrylic on board 600mm x 800mm x 45mm, Weasel Gallery
Laura Williams is one of the artists who will feature at the Auckland Art Fair. Represented by Weasel Gallery, her hyperbolic, illustrative works have been exhibited in Australia and New York. “I’ve been working on my series Biblical Proportions since September last year and before [Auckland Art Fair] announced they were going online, I thought I had missed out; while it’s been transformed from what I envisaged, I’m really happy it's going to still occur and people are going to get the see the works.
"I thought it was going to be the art fair that didn’t happen - but it's the 2020 Lockdown COVID-19 Auckland Art Fair...the sector rallied and adapted really quickly.”
Over a four week period, the Auckland Art Fair has been tasked with the laborious but crucial task of uploading over 500 pieces of work onto their website. It’s not just about making the art accessible to view, a transparent purchasing process allows for prices and other information to be easily displayed.
Meg Porteous, 30 Denier, 2019 c-type handprint, framed image 508 x 406mm Edition 3 + 1AP, Mossman Gallery
“It’s a tough time for everyone and we need to work together as a sector - it’s not every man for himself. We are focused on supporting artists and galleries” says Post. “We’ve been hearing [during the Lockdown] that the arts are important - I think the arts are important all of the time but let’s make sure that those who make art available keep it available...We’ve been hearing ‘support your local cafe by buying a coffee’ - you can support artists in the same way.”
To champion this cause, Auckland Art Fair continues to partner with My Art, a not-for-profit that offers interest-free loans from $1,000 to $50,000 for art enthusiasts. Usually, they are paid off in monthly instalments over nine months, but in light of COVID-19, this has been extended to 12 months, making repayments around 25% less each month.
Co-founded by Sonja and Glenn Hawkins, it is described as a “win-win for everyone” by Sonja. “We saw that there was a gap between people who love art and people who own art - it’s a fallacy of the art world that you have to be rich to own art - where there’s a will there’s a way!”
“Some people say it sounds too good to be true, but it isn't,” Sonja continues. “We’re here to support artists and the art community.”
Getting Your Hands on Good Art
With many of the galleries at the Auckland Art Fair using My Art, the process to apply for a loan is simple. “We do practice responsible lending so we ask people to do an application that we need to approve - because we don’t want to loan money that people cannot afford. Once they send off the online application and we send them a response within 24 hours.
“If they make the choice to buy the piece, they say to the gallery that they have a My Art loan approval. The collector then pays the gallery a 10% deposit. My Art is then sent a copy of the invoice from the gallery which we then pay. The collector then pays us off over 12 months via an automatic payment,” Sonja explains.
This model means that artists and galleries get paid automatically thus keeping the wheels of the sector turning, even in these uncertain times. “It’s rejuvenative,” says Sonja.
Her tips to potential buyers include “research your artists, but if the work really speaks to you, acting on impulse is not a bad thing.” She also recommends getting a pre-approved My Art loan, to avoid risking missing out on that perfect piece. “Apply for whatever you think is affordable. You might not see anything you want, but there is no commitment in simply applying - you don’t have to spend it.”
Séraphine Pick, Still life (red), 2020 oil on linen, Mossman Gallery
With a mixture of old and new technologies, partnerships and philosophies at the Auckland Art Fair, it would seem that COVID-19 is offering the sector an ample learning opportunity.
“The arts sector is highly resilient and nimble,” says Payne. “We’re arguably more fluid than other sectors...I think we’ve responded in a bold and confident way and we should be proud of that and know we can move and change more.”
“It’s a tough time for everyone and we need to work together as a sector - it’s not every man for himself."
“This year we will find out whether virtual fairs and online viewing platforms, coupled with tools to help collectors shop for art, will be an ongoing part of the future or simply a short-term solution to the current crisis. I have no answers – just questions at this point,” says McCormack.
“Will the visual experiences delivered through new digital platforms be as rich and meaningful as the ones that come via exhibitions, experienced first-hand in galleries? Will art buyers and collectors be willing to buy artworks without seeing them in the flesh?
“Is the art fair model that has been centre stage in the art world for so long at risk? Are there alternative models? If so, is the virtual fair with online viewing rooms the most likely prospect? Or are there other possibilities?
“It’s not a time for crystal ball gazing, but rather to think about how we reinvent our post-COVID art world.”
Art Finds a Way
Meg Porteous, Drive, 2019 c-type hand print, framed image 406 x 508mm Edition 3 + 1AP, Mossman Gallery
“We will learn that we have strong leadership in this country,” says Mossman. “That these sensible decisions will save lives. And no doubt we will come to see that we have a strong, resilient arts sector that will continue to work in spite of the conditions.”
Social media remains a vital tool for promoting artists during this time. “We’re fortunate to have digital platforms to share stories and artworks - and most people have these technologies available on their phones,” says Payne.
“After [the Auckland Art Fair] announced it was going online, I was able to shoot a video for my residency in New York talking about how lockdown is impacting me...I think that [lockdown] is an opportunity to inspire more art,” says Williams.
"We’ve been hearing ‘support your local cafe by buying a coffee’ - you can support artists in the same way.”
“In the time of COVID-19, it’s important for Starkwhite to not only think about the big picture and where to now, but also to focus on promoting the work of our artists to core clients – the art buyers and collectors who form a cornerstone of our business and who are also supporters of our artists,” says McCormack.
“We have a duty of care to do all we can to get our artists through this challenging time and we know that many of our clients are also willing to offer whatever support they can to artists - and continuing to acquire art, albeit on a more modest scale, will help to ensure that artists are still standing when the pandemic is over and the economic recovery is underway.”
For Post, she hopes that this response to COVID-19 encourages enthusiasts to come to the 2021 offering.“We would love for people to come to the ‘live’ fair next February as that is the best way to see art. But this allows people around the world to see the art on offer and hopefully encourage art enthusiasts to say ‘actually, I would like to see [the Auckland Art Fair] in real life.”
One thing is for sure - in times of crisis, artists will keep creating. “It’s very instinctive,” says Williams. “On social media, people have been posting work that people created during the Great Depression and World Wars and the Spanish Flu Pandemic...all of them demonstrate that we’ve got through these situations before and we will get back on track. We might need to change for a while, but art and artists and galleries have always adapted and survived.”
Written in partnership with My Art. The Virtual Art Fair is free to view and runs 30 April - 17 May 2020