Auckland Art Fair Goes Virtual As A Vital Alternative To The Real Thing

There’s no substitute for viewing art in real life but organisers of the Virtual Art Fair hope this online initiative will be a lifeline for artists during lockdown


Christian Thompson, 'Untitled (Blue Gum)' from the series Australian Graffiti, 2008. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents.

"Oh my god, we’ve cancelled the Auckland Art Fair.” Director Hayley White is reflecting on the moment she and co-director Stephanie Post made the difficult decision to pull the pin on the annual event that would see 43 galleries representing 150 artists descend upon The Cloud in Auckland’s Queen’s Wharf this week to present work to 10,000 visitors over five days.

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It’s a highlight of the art calendar for galleries, artists, collectors, students and art-lovers that last year generated more than $9 million in art sales.

In an email dated March 17, the week before New Zealand went into level 4 lockdown, the Art Fair informed interested parties of the inevitable decision to cancel due to Covid-19, noting “the strength of the gallery and artist lists due to exhibit in April makes this particularly disappointing”.

Sriwhana Spong, 'Instrument C (Claire)', 2017. Courtesy the artist and Michael Lett.

For the directors, the cancellation was devastating. “All this work we’d been doing just disappeared overnight,” says Hayley. For the artists and galleries involved, it’s a blow to their livelihoods. “That’s the most disappointing thing,” says Stephanie.

“There are 150 artists who had made work, galleries who’d pulled together presentations . . . All of that work, the planning that had gone into it and the expectation that they would sell some of it, just disappeared into a big popped bubble.”

In the days after the cancellation, Stephanie and Hayley busied themselves in their own bubbles, refunding tickets and booth money, while an idea began to take form. “We were a bit shell-shocked,” says Hayley. “But saw there was an opportunity to do something that could be helpful to galleries and artists.”

They announced their idea for the Virtual Art Fair a mere two weeks ago, and will take the experience online from Thursday, April 30 until Sunday, May 17.

Visitors will have the opportunity to browse the work of 35 participating galleries, nine from Australia, one each from the UK and Beijing and the remainder from New Zealand, with each gallery presenting 15 images from more than 175 artists.

Viewers can browse an artist’s CV or a blurb about their work, the title of the work, the medium and price details. “It’s basically connecting the gallery with people who are interested in their work,” says Hayley. And the entry fee? It’s free.

Séraphine Pick, 'Untitled (group hug)', 2016. Courtesy the artist and Mossman, Wellington.

“From our point of view, this Virtual Art Fair was an essential thing to do,” says Stephanie. “If the galleries were in for it, it had to be done.” Lockdown has seen a wave of art going online, with galleries and museum’s offering virtual tours, a welcome celebration of art during tough times.

But housing art online doesn’t always benefit artists themselves. “It’s not up to the internet to pay artists to entertain us,” says Stephanie. “The best way to support an artist is to buy a piece. Through the Virtual Art Fair, for those who possibly can, this is a great time to do it.”

Indeed, the online format offers a rare chance to view prices, which aren’t readily listed in galleries, something the organisers hope might encourage a new wave of collectors.

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“For people who don’t often buy art, it’s an amazing opportunity to look and see what this stuff costs,” says Stephanie. “It’s one of the first times you’ll see prices besides pretty much every piece of art and we’re hoping in some cases people will go, ‘Oh, I’d buy a piece for that’, because often people are too nervous to ask. There might be some good things that come out of it.”

The transition from a physical fair to a virtual version hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Of the 43 galleries originally showing at the Art Fair, eight aren’t participating. Some artists preparing special works hadn’t finished them yet; others weren’t able to take images of work stuck in studios away from their lockdown bubble.

Galleries have had to quickly adapt their plans to best suit the 15-image restriction and prepare a cohesive online offering.

Sally Smart, 'The Choreography of Cutting #2', 2017-2018. Courtesy the artist and Sarah Scout Presents.

Andrew Thomas, director of Michael Lett gallery, which represents artists such as Imogen Taylor, Michael Parekowhai, Julian Dashper and Kate Newby, says he’s had to rethink the gallery’s presentation for the Virtual Fair. “We were going to present works in a shared booth with Fine Arts, Sydney.

It was to be a collaborative presentation that included artists from both galleries’ programmes.” He’s narrowed down the presentation from six to 10 artists to just one, in order for it to translate well online.

“There are new works that we were looking forward to sharing in a public way, but we’ll find other opportunities for those. It’s a big bump in the road but all is not lost.”

The gallery will focus on the work of 2020 Walters Prize nominee Sriwhana Spong, a Balinese New Zealand artist based in London, and explore 15 years of her practice.

“The work she presented at the Edinburgh Art Festival, for which she is nominated, opened at the Auckland Art Gallery not long before it had to close. We haven’t had the chance to make an exhibition with her in the gallery. It felt like a good opportunity to present her work to the audience here in New Zealand,” says Andrew.

Mossman gallery’s Danae Mossman was looking forward to presenting Auckland-based artist Meg Porteous and Anoushka Akel’s new work together.

Meg Porteous, 'Uber picture', 2019, courtesy the artist and Mossman, Wellington.

“They had spent time in each other’s studios warming up to the co-habitation so it was a palpable sense of excitement between the artists to see their work side by side.” Mossman was also to present a suite of new works by Séraphine Pick for the first time.

For the Virtual Fair, Mossman will show new work by Nicola Farquhar, Meg Porteous, and Séraphine Pick, and some special pieces by Anoushka Akel and Bill Culbert. “The Virtual Art Fair seems like a good way to connect the arts community with their audience at a time of uncertainty.

The virtual space is certainly no substitute for seeing the real thing but people are still curious and if you know an artist’s practice well you can read their work online more easily,” says Danae.

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Kate Barber and Vikki McInnes of Melbourne gallery Sarah Scout Presents were “devastated” to hear of the cancellation of the Art Fair. “We know how much work goes into the planning and delivery each year, and how much the participating galleries and their artists commit to these projects, so we really felt for the organisers and understand only too well the financial and personal costs of cancelling or postponing an event.”

They were due to present a new body of work from one of Australia’s pre-eminent contemporary artists, Christian Thompson, which they’ll now show in 2021. They’ve pivoted to some of his earlier works, in particular several works from his iconic series Australian Graffiti (2010), as well as work from celebrated Australian artists Bryan Spier and Sally Smart.

Auckland Art Fair 2019. Photo / Supplied

Although the Virtual Art Fair will undoubtedly lead to much-needed art sales, it isn’t a replacement for the real thing. Nor should it be. There’s an electric energy at the fair when it brings galleries, artists and art lovers together under one roof to mix, mingle, view and talk about art.

Artists are there to answer questions, there are panel discussions, the wine flows and art is hung just so. This human interaction with art is a key factor in many galleries’ hesitance to adapt to online sales platforms.

“The art world thrives on social connections and interactions,” says Andrew. “Most artworks are made with the intention of being seen in person and this physical connection between the artwork, architectural space and the viewer is key to the experience. Browsing for art shouldn’t feel the same as browsing for what to watch on Netflix, or order on Uber Eats. But it’s 2020 and of course there is a place for it. It’s a matter of the industry and the audience collectively deciding what feels appropriate.”

The organisers are well aware of this dichotomy. “We’re calling it ‘business as best we can’, rather than ‘business as usual’, and realistically it’s never going to replace the real thing,” says Hayley. It is hoped, however, that this free virtual art fair will galvanise a community of art supporters to view, celebrate, discuss, and potentially purchase some beautiful art, while we wait patiently for the chance to do it all in real life.

• The Virtual Fair opens online for VIP guests today, before opening to the public tomorrow, April 30 until Sunday, May 17. Access to the Virtual Fair is free online at Artfair.co.nz.

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