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Art appreciation industry in the COVID-19 world. Fine Art, Modern Art, Exhibitions, Virtual Reality, Auction Houses – how are they coping in the digital world

The world has not been the same since the end of 2019. We entered 2020 as we entered the global pandemic due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, the situation is still unresolved fully and we are forced to be accustomed to the new ways of life.

Art, galleries, exhibitions, artists, art admirers and many more have been affected as well. However, we live in the 21st century and we are surrounded by the digital world. As the series of lockdowns began, the use of our phones and technologies in general has risen for most people in the world, be it making more phone calls or going to the theatre using your laptop. So the question is, how has the art viewing industry adapted to such conditions, now that the gallery spaces and auction houses are also temporarily closed? How can we still admire the greatest works of art without leaving our home?

The National Gallery is an art museum in the heart of London, in Trafalgar square. It is well known and admired by locals and tourists. The museum was founded in 1824, it now houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings. In 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic the National

Gallery experienced a drop of 50% from before the pandemic, however it still ranked 8th on the list of most visited art museums in the world.

Photos of the National Gallery outside and inside

National Gallery has over 1 million followers on Facebook, with posts coming out nearly every day. They have a great response and share rate from their audience. Important to note, they also have their shop linked to the page, where you can buy prints, bags, books, journals and many more, all in the desired style or era of art. On Instagram, National Gallery has 1,8 million followers. Their account here is also very advanced, has a clear visual identity and range of interesting posts, stories and IGTVs. Their YouTube channel is also very clearly structured with educational and informative videos which are not longer than 30 minutes and are edited exceptionally well. Here, they have 125K subscribers, with 2-6 videos coming out each month. On Twitter, National Gallery takes its almost 1 million followers on a ‘Journey through the story of European art, masterpiece by masterpiece’. Therefore, The National Gallery was already actively online, even before the pandemic started, so it played in their favour when they had to close temporarily.

Printscreens from social media accounts

So what resources does the viewer have to be closer to art in  lockdown?

On online platforms National Gallery provides a link to their statement about the COVID-19 situation on the website and a list of ways how their audience can still enjoy the Gallery online. We can enjoy beautiful visuals, talks and lectures all across different platforms, but ‘Sensing the Unseen: At Home’ really stole the spotlight with its experimental online experience in the world of Gossaert’s painting.

Printscreen from the website

In ‘Sensing the Unseen’ you can explore and zoom into six scenes from Gossaert’s ‘The Adoration of Kings’ to ‘see the paintings intricate detail and immerse yourself into the world of interactive sound’. As we go through each scene, they are accompanied by music and sounds, as well as the original poetry by Theresa Lola. This really is a journey through an iconic painting which you can enjoy from home.

This is the first exhibition at the Gallery which is part of the new innovative programme which provides the visitors with new kinds of Gallery experiences using digital technologies. There is an article and a video about the ideation and making process on the National Gallery’s website.

(Printscreens from the experience, viewed on computer)

The audience were at the centre of the design process. The ideas were tested on over seventy target audiences, this gave a really good understanding of what they liked or did not like.

‘We designed for a specific audience… so we could create the best experience for everyone’

The team wanted to target the demographic which is underrepresented in the Gallery’s audience: 18-34 year olds. The team worked in intensive blocks of time (sprints) starting in National Gallery X, and then taking place remotely using Zoom and other online tools. They admit that working remotely due to lockdown ‘was a new kind of challenge but one everyone embraced’.

Speaking in figures about the process, over 70 target visitors engaged in eight rounds (sprints) of user research and prototype testing, the team generated around 50 ideas, 11 storyboard concept prototypes tested in early sprints and 35 different digital prototypes developed and tested. This proves that digitalising something requires a lot of research in order to make it successful.

Tate is probably one of the most well known and popular institutions nowadays that houses four art galleries – Tate Britain, Tate Liverpool, Tate St Ives and Tate Modern. It is very new compared to The National Gallery, as it was founded in 2000. This institution is popular not just amongst UK’s admirers of art but by the whole world and is favoured by tourists. Like for many organisations around the globe, Tate has experienced losses and struggled through the pandemic. As they write in their Covid-19 statement, Tate has been hit hard. Now, when the institution is closed what are the online alternatives available for a viewer?

(Tate Britain)

Even before the need to go online was unavoidable, Tate was well developed in the digital world, and that is not a surprise, as they put themselves forward as an innovative and contemporary institution. They have a larger following on social media than National Gallery, which shows that their target audience is younger and closer to digital technologies.

(Printscreens from social media accounts)

Apart from well developed and organised social media, Tate has created online rooms for several exhibitions and displays on their website. One that I found the most interesting and the one that can be suitable for a larger audience is displayed in Tate Britain and is called ‘Walk through British Art’.

It offers an exploration of artworks from 1545 to the present day. The 13 online accessible rooms provide a chronological display of Britain’s greatest artists. The display here is arranged by decade, this clear structure and composition is not just historical,  but can also be educational and useful. For example, if you wanted to take your kid through historical highlights in art with the very best examples, this would be a great source to do so.

As an online platform, Tate’s website is very advanced. It does take time to get used to, but when the user understands the functionality of the platform, there is a lot of interesting, exciting and unique information that can be found.

So how does the ‘Walk through British Art’ work online?

This is a free display at Tate Britain, so it is accessible for everyone with a device and internet connection. Firstly, we are welcomed with an introductory and an about page, where we get the general information regarding the display. When we scroll down we come to the ‘13 Rooms in Walk Through British Art’. As we start our journey from the first room, we look closer into each time period.

(Printscreen from Tate’s website)

When we have entered the room, we are given a description about the period and significant turning points in art which took place. We can then explore the works which are clearly labelled and each have a description and short analysis of their own. The viewer is able to go through all the rooms like this and explore the works and artists which fascinate them. Moreover, at the bottom of each time period room, Tate ‘recommends’ more articles, exhibitions, analysis and research regarding themes that you choose to look at. There is also a page with all of the works on display together for easier navigation. As well as visual sources, Tate provides an audio tour for the display, where artists, curators, writers and historians talk about key artworks in Tate Britain and in the rooms of this display. This makes this display even more advanced and informative.

(Printscreen from room 1930-40)

This selection of 401 works is very well organised in this digital display.

(Printscreen from the website)

It is important to note that this source is suitable for an audience with zero knowledge and understanding in art, as well as people who are familiar with the field and wish to find out more and explore deeper. It can also act as a great guide to British art history as a whole, and is a must read and see for any admirers of art.

‘The Walk Through British Art’ was first opened in person in 2013, as part of Tate Britain’s reopening. One of the most interesting reviews from this premier was published in the Guardian by Laura Cumming. As everyone classed this event as a triumph, the Guardian’s critic found ‘the new display congested and frustrating’.  Interestingly, she notes that ‘these galleries (like Tate Britain) are not configured for contemporary media as they might have been’, so surely using digital platforms and online tools would have helped with that problem in the past. The problem that Cummings highlights here is that ‘you can’t see all the art on display’. That was the case in real life exhibition, in the online display all the works are visible and are given the same amount of space and importance – here, being online played in favour for Tate and for the works shown on display.

(Photo from Tate)

Both National Gallery and Tate are well established institutions. In terms of presenting art online, they use quite well-known techniques which have been used before. The advantage of that is that it is very straight-forward for the viewer to use and navigate. The algorithms shown are something that we use daily – click and view.

On this note, let’s now look at a contemporary solution for displaying art – Virtual Reality (VR). One might think that this is something like Google Maps where you can almost literally walk through a space. But these technologies are much more advanced in visual aspects and navigation. It is as close to reality as possible, so you get the absolute feeling of being in the gallery or art space. It can be compared to being in a video game and moving around the space with your computer control buttons or arrow keys.


(Photo from Europe’s first large-scale show on Virtual Reality)


(Diagram from Statista)

The diagram above shows that the VR sector is growing economically as well, and I am sure the pandemic and the rise in the use of technologies during the pandemic will play its part in it too. From 2019 to 2020 the increase of the market size was over 78%. Virtual Reality is becoming closer to us everyday, so surely it would be smart to use such resources to display art as well. Below I am going to share two interesting art VR platforms.

V21artspace is a 3D Artspace platform, where there are virtual exhibitions, museums and cultural spaces. Company was founded in 2017, based in the UK, and has an office in New York. Compared to the National Gallery or Tate, this company is less well-known and does not have much history as of yet. This, however, is the brilliance of them, as they have taken a sphere in digital art which is still relatively fresh and new for the viewer. It can be argued that VR is one of the greatest solutions for being able to see and admire art during the pandemic situation.


(Screenprint from the website’s introductory page)

This new artspace with an innovative outlook uses a mixture of laser scanning technology and multimedia. They provide the closest thing to being in the desired space without having to physically be there. Isn’t that the future?

‘Capturing real time Arts, Culture, Museums & Heritage, Exhibitions, Galleries, Spaces & Objects to produce interactive 3D Virtual Tours & Immersive VR Experiences. The Closest Thing To Being There’

Their website is bold and catchy with its rich yellow background colour, it is also very straight-forward to use, the platform and visual branding are very minimalistic. The VR experience provided splits into two sections: Virtual Exhibitions and Virtual Museum & Cultural Spaces.

Compared to National Gallery and Tate, here, you can find unusual, provoking, innovative exhibitions and collections which do not fit into an exact style or theme.

I would also like to look at a company which is not based in the UK, for interest sake, and see how VR is developed and used. The platform discussed below also contrasts with VR21 in style, although still set in the minimalist tone.

VR-All-Art is a platform based in Switzerland that allows you to see VR exhibitions from artists and art spaces all around the world. It varies from gallery exhibitions to private collections. Here, you can create your own VR art exhibitions. In the explore section of the website there are four sections – Artists, Galleries, Museums and Collectors. It is also important to note that artists, galleries and owners of artworks are able to sell through this platform as well.


(Screenprint from the website’s introductory page)

For closer analysis I am going to choose the ‘Collectors’ section and a selection from a private collection called ‘The Anatomy of Consciousness’. If you are fascinated by the human mind and symbolism in art, this VR exhibition is for you. The theme of the collection is close to what is going on in the world now, we are faced with ourselves and our consciousness more than ever, as the pandemic and lockdowns continue taking over normal ways of life. Therefore, in this collection, one can find pieces to which they can emotionally or materialistically relate and explore.

In this exhibition we are presented with the collection of works from 5 Serbian artists. It is a virtual space, where each artist has a section of space with a biography and description of concepts shown. The navigation is very straight forward, when in a space, it can be compared to being in a video game. Each space is cleverly arranged to keep the viewers attention, be it the curation of the art work or the quality of the picture itself. As it is a highly psychological collection, it is important to keep all the pieces as engaging and clear for interpretation as possible, so the viewer can get the full experience of the artwork even through a digital screen. The quality of image in the VR world assures that can be achieved. For closer analysis all of the works are shown and listed on the collection’s website page.

Printscreens from the experience:

Another advantage this platform has is that as you go through the virtual gallery space, you can find a piece that you like and maybe even purchase it if it is for sale. On this note, let’s move on to another important sector in the art world – auctions. How has this industry been dealing with adapting to the digital world?

Phillips is probably one of the most well-known auction houses with locations in the greatest world capitals.

I would like to highlight that Philips does a weekly auction. They claim to be introducing ‘the next generation auction experience’ where the selling and buying is ‘unbound by the traditional auction calendar. Phillips’ Gallery One auctions run Thursday to Thursday each week, with lots opening and closing at 12pm EST. This is a very smart way to sell art as weekly, there is possibility to sell new pieces. Moreover, it gives variety and a lot of choice to the buyer, as each week there is a new auction and new pieces on display. The way this platform functions is very contemporary, as you do not even need to leave your home to bid or upload a consignment, and all of that is less restricted by time frames.


(Printscreens from the website’s weekly auction page)

Philips also claims to be the only international auction house to focus exclusively on the defining movements of the 20th and 21st century. They have salerooms all over the world, as well as online clients who come with collections from different countries. It is amazing how you can find a piece of art which you truly desire and Phillips arranges this connection, similarly you can find a buyer for a piece in your collection, and the client base is big enough for that. So if anything, being online helped Phillips in its interconnective business.

(Photos from ArtCritique and Phillips Press)

In 2020 Philips achieved the highest auction total in company history for 20th Century and Contemporary Art, with a combined $162.4 million for Day and Evening Sale, this was shared in their 2020 Review. This proves that even with challenges that 2020 held, Phillips did great.

Wilson55 (Peter Wilson Fine Art Auctioneers rebranded) auctions in contrast, focus on fine art and classical pieces. Even the website is done in a more luxurious and classy style. Founded in 1955, this auction house runs on 3  online platforms in the UK and internationally.

(Printscreen from the website’s introductory page)

Wilson55 hold their auctions online in a live regime – could be compared to VR. The whole process of placing bids and the auction itself happens pretty much in the same manner, however the attendees enjoy this from home. This is different from Phillips’ weekly auctions as the bids are placed live online. The online live bidding is free to enter and the auctions are scheduled in the calendar on the website.

So, in the auction sector of art, be it contemporary or fine art, companies had to adapt to selling and organising auctions online. Each platform has done it slightly differently from the other, in order to fit the needs of their consumer.

(Painting from Wilson55’s Twitter)

Art was, is and always will be ‘in fashion’. The question is, however, now that we are living alongside the digital world, how does the art appreciation industry fit in? Leading social media, websites and online platforms has helped galleries, artists and auction houses to stay present now that they are temporarily closed. The great force behind the future of art online I would say is Virtual Reality. This concept provides the closest feeling of being in the space and admiring the work. Admirers from all over the world can take part in events and exhibitions without the constraints of time or space. Moreover the field of VR and AR is evolving very fast and is more accessible to people each day. So in 5 years, for example, just having artworks with definitions on a website might not be enough to attract a larger audience online. And companies that provide the best online experience for appreciating art will be the headliners.

Nonetheless, the best way to enjoy exhibitions, art spaces or auctions is of course in real life. Soon, we will hopefully be back to lives without closed doors. Commercial galleries will be permitted to open from 12th of April, Boris Johnson has also announced that museums and libraries across England can reopen from 17th of May. These are exciting news and I am sure that many will be eager to enjoy live exhibitions and shows after such a long period of not being able to do so. After the initial excitement, art spaces and companies will have to have something interesting to offer in their live spaces, as now that we have so many resources to appreciate art online without having to leave home, it is tempting to just do so. I am sure all sides are interested in creating something exciting and innovative and we, admirers of art, are thrilled to see what they have in hold for us.

Alina Yakushova

Alina Yakushova


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