How will the art world redefine its use of space post-pandemic?

By Joanna Hirsch

September 25, 2020

How will the art world redefine its use of space post-pandemic?


As Covid-19 modifies consumer behaviour in all sectors of society, conversations in the art world have centred around the necessity of physical space – what will happen, institutionally and artistically, if space for art as we’ve come to know it is no longer available? The design of rooms, larger sequences of space, audience movement and more are all suddenly open topics of discussion.


Fears about how physical spaces will operate have been on the forefront of everyone’s minds since the pandemic began. Agile work environments, open plans, hot desking, social integration and other quality and performance improvements could now become things of the past, unfortunately moving the industry backwards in fostering healthy and productive work, gallery and collateral spaces. While opportunities for social and professional interaction in the art world have clearly been limited by Covid-19, the outlook is not as clear for evolution of the art world’s physical spaces.


Re-imagining the Landscape


At this time, many industry professionals are realising that work can in fact be completed at home instead of in the office. However, the art world is unique in that it’s an incredibly social industry reliant on social spaces. For participants in the industry, there is a clear need for belonging and participating offline. Take for example, those who attend auctions. Yes, many who attend are seeking out a specific art work they’d like to bid on, but for the most part, auctions are about the experience and the feelings of exclusivity synonymous with attending such an event in an intimate space. There is something enchanting about sitting next to others at auction in a high-intensity atmosphere, physically raising paddles as bids soar into the millions. Some are attracted to the competitive theatre of it all. Which makes me wonder, will these interactions and experiences ever be replicated online?


This past summer, a series of Global Hybrid Evening Sales of Impressionist, Modern, Post- War and Contemporary art took place amongst auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Philips. While all three auction houses produced new virtual platforms for the summer season, Sotheby’s Hybrid sale was particularly cinematic and well-designed. The  seemingly high-budget production included a series of collateral from pre-filmed introductory videos by the evening’s auctioneer, Oliver Barker, Senior Director and Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, along with rendered simulations of the space. A multi- camera set-up catered to online viewers across the globe. Collectively, the Hybrid sales raised $709.2 million, comfortably within the pre-sale estimates of $623.6 million to $738.8 million. This signaled a positive return to the auction market for international buyers. Although the ‘big three’ auction houses proved they are able to field bids from telephone, online, and in-room, with the added implementation of immersive catalogues and additional vehicles for bidding, will these factors be enough to compete with the thrill of offline auctions in the upcoming season?


How will the art world redefine its use of space post-pandemic? ArtTactic

Limitless audiences. Sotheby’s rendering of its new online auction platform.


Aside from auction sales, the importance of relationships and interactions is underscored by a plethora of offline industry events such as art fairs, gallery openings and previews. That being said, there is a strong global interconnectedness within the sector that has been building for many years online from gallery arms and auction houses’ e-commerce abilities with multi-city expansions, to fairs operating offices as global organisations – all of which increase the accessibility of art to span globally. David Tung, Director of Lisson Shanghai notes Covid-19 may mark a turning point in the way we think about traditional art market models. With technology, Lisson Gallery is able to “do a tour of up to 500 people at one time (theoretically this could be limitless) and work with galleries across four cities”. With the interest in digital models now increasing, from social media followings to welcoming new digital visitors, art world bodies through digital investment can now communicate and have access to a wider scope of audience. This accessibility is something that now the whole world can have access to, drawing old and new audiences in comparatively to the in-person sales model.


In my own research, I’ve recently started looking at digital space like filled real estate – where entities are holistically creating more content – from interviews, films, to virtual rooms. We’re no longer just looking at the artwork, but now… artist interviews, studios, personal spaces and new forms of content. This surge of alternative content creation is novel, as there was never a need for viewers to absorb this amount of online content pre-Covid-19. This new form of interaction provides viewers the opportunity to see things they otherwise might not have offline. For example, virtually visiting artist studios is a curated intimate experience that is readily available for immediate access and absorption by viewers. A lot of effort is placed into creating an experience as real as possible – in a way, online platforms are re-designing a whole new user experience for purchasing art online.


Approaching the design of future spaces should be thought of not as a back-step but rather an improvement. This could be promising for buyers as they begin to see the intimate and personal connections that can be fostered through digital realms. With virtual and physical worlds rapidly merging, the emergence of innovative platforms may be the reality moving forward.


Codes and Restrictions


While we wait for the return to the physical space – reminding ourselves of our favourite museums and galleries – it may be a while until new policies and architectural codes are implemented. The redesign of physical spaces may actually be optional for the time being. However, through the lens of an employer, in order for employees to come back they will have to provide a provision of safety that’s guaranteed. This may mean the restriction of spaces to prevent social movements, screens for social distancing measures – a luxury where deliberate spacing was once driven mostly by concept. Physical spaces from salesrooms, galleries, museums, and auction houses will need to rethink floor plans, and where objects are placed to minimise the risk of transmission – new protocols that are inherently part of the new workspace and art world behind the scenes.


However, as restrictions are loosened, we can’t imagine everyone will implement large changes in these spaces. For the time-being, we see numerous visitor protection guidance in place, from limited hours, to allotted time slots and ticketing, staggered entries, along with face mask provisions and occupancy restrictions to a quarter of full capacity. Other physical spaces have remained closed in efforts to support various cities’ efforts to contain Covid-19.


Post-Covid, we may be more likely to see an advent of museums and institutions merging the physical space with the virtual realm – exploring ways to creatively present work online during the pandemic. Virtually, institutions have the ability to drive in traffic numbers in the thousands – incomparable to its footfall counterpart. Walk-in traffic for galleries, museums and physical retailers have dropped off in recent months, transforming the behaviour of buyers and museum goers. Online-only shows and appointment visits seem to be the movement in the foreseeable future, limiting numbers for the general public. However MoMA is implementing ‘pay as you wish’ admissions opposed to its $25 ticket in hopes of encouraging footfall.


How will the art world redefine its use of space post-pandemic? ArtTactic

Codes and restrictions from the Interior Design, Reference + Specification Book.


The implementations of additional code and restrictions may further impact visitor numbers for the museums and galleries we love so much, but whether this will be enough to sustain the budget and operations levels and offset some of the financial damage due to Covid-related closures is uncertain.


The heightened need for art and personal spaces


A question I’ve been asking myself lately is ‘do we need to return to the physical space?’ What can employees and consumers do at the office or commercial spaces that they can’t do at home?


Indoor environments are a critical component of well-being, productivity, and safety – particularly the things we see every day. This experience has heightened the need of personal interests, hobbies and intimate spaces in the home particularly. Artcurial’s specialist in design and Art Deco, Sabrina Dolla, noted buyers’ appetites hadn’t appeared to diminish during lockdown but were sharpened.


Although the scope of physical spaces is large in the art world and my perspective just briefly covered some aspects, maneuvering through a global pandemic is new to all of us, and we are all learning how to best optimise our lives to fit this current reality. What will the lasting output from these last several months be on the industry? I often think about the next generation and what kind of climate they’re born into and this new sense of normalcy. It’s difficult designing a solution for something where we don’t know what’s going to happen, but it’s been uplifting to see the voices of artists and those in the artistic community continuing their practice. It’s about the little things in life that spark the most joy and supporting artists and those behind the scenes that make the art world turn.


Joanna Hirsch is Product Manager/Head of Content of AucArt, a London-based hybrid online auction house and gallery featuring international emerging artists. She manages website content, design & development, and communications. Joanna has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spatial Design from London College of Communication and a Master’s degree in Art Business with distinction from the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.