Online Art Fairs: Long-Term Evolution or Temporary Adaptation?

Art fairs now constitute a major component of the global art market. In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic forced such events to occur online or risk even larger economic losses. I consider this development in regard to the historical evolution of the art fair and the intrinsic value of art.


This article features snapshots from Frieze Art Fair London, 2019 [author’s own].

For me, the term ‘art fair’ is accompanied by a vivid mental image: thousands of people in a large marquee, conversational buzz, hundreds of booths in labyrinthine form, networking opportunities, and most importantly, a plethora of art.

The glitzy technologies and Instagrammable-nature of these events are strikingly modern. However, art fairs have a much longer historical precedent. In 2014, Christian Morgner argued that the modern art fair is the product of a historical ‘evolution’ stemming back to ancient religious festivals.[1] However, this so-called evolution took a dramatic turn in 2020: the pandemic forced them online. In this context, the concept of an ‘evolution’ requires revision.

Today, art fairs are widely understood as temporary venues wherein commercial galleries rent booths to display artwork for sale. The art often carries large (non-visible) price tags, contributing to their reputation as ‘shopping malls for the super-rich’.[2] Approximately three hundred art fairs occur globally on an annual basis, each typically lasting between five and ten days. In 2019, global art fair sales were estimated at $16.6 billion.[3] Art fairs are undoubtedly big business in the art market.

The coronavirus pandemic sent a shockwave through the art fair industry: from 2019 to 2020 transactions made by dealers as a result of such events dropped from 42% to 13% of total sales.[4] The intimate social nature of art fairs made in-person events almost inconceivable. The shift in platform can be illustrated by Frieze Art Fair. Founded by Frieze magazine, the contemporary art fair occurs annually in London, New York, and Los Angeles. For Frieze London 2020, just one in-person event could take place (1-54’s Contemporary African Art Fair) which had only a 250-person capacity at any one time, compared to the attendance roster of 125,000 people the previous year.[5] Frieze – like many other art fairs – had to adapt and subsequently launched Frieze Los Angeles online in July 2021.

However, by moving online art fairs have lost a foundational essence rooted in their history. The construction and elaboration of ‘networks’ was a significant aspect of their evolution, according to Morgner. Visitors, imbued with a sense of mission, arrive from afar to gather in a buzzing central hub. Under one roof, art can be compared at quick ease; an opportunity to demonstrate and develop artistic literacy. The intrinsically social value of art is sacrificed by the necessity to adapt.

Rather than being an occasion or a story, art becomes an asset marketed online for consumption. The online fairs resonate with the quick digestion of digital images whereby data is processed at rapid speed. In this way, they begin to represent a super-powered form of e-commerce (without, thankfully, the time-limited online shopping cart). Traditionally, galleries have sought to avoid price tags attached to artworks due to the explicitly reductive display of value. In online art rooms, however, prices accompany most of the works on show, offering the visitor an immediate concept of monetary value.

The Russian Formalist critic, Viktor Shklovsky, described in 1917 how ‘Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.’[6] However, looking at artwork online loses this in-person intimacy since the relationship between the viewer and the artwork is mediated by a screen. Dimensions are flattened, textures are lost, and the je ne sais quoi of certain pieces with their potential to influence emotions is dissipated. Value as the result of personal contact is dwarfed by the commercial nature of the enterprise visible in a catalogue-style format.

Online art fairs do have some merits. For one, they reduce the overhead costs for galleries to exhibit their works; a factor that is especially beneficial for mid-range galleries struggling with cashflow issues. Since the most prestigious fairs often require large overhead costs at immediate notice, with reduced fees emerging galleries may find it easier to grasp the opportunity to exhibit.[7] Moreover, one of the major discontents cited by gallerists today is the fact that they spend the year preparing for and travelling to art fairs around the world.[8] In 2019, dealers attended an average of four fairs.[9] A shift to online art fairs may therefore alleviate some of these discontents, leading to a healthier work-life balance and higher job satisfaction for art dealers.

The other major benefit of online art fairs is that they are more democratic. Online viewing rooms typically offer early access to ‘VIPs’ (Art Basel) or members (Frieze). However, a couple of days later they are made publicly available. Expensive ticket prices and geographical barriers to entry are forestalled. One of the key challenges faced by dealers over the past three years has been finding new buyers.[10] Given the fact that in 2019/20, 57% of online sales made by dealers were to new buyers, online art fairs may offer new opportunities in this regard.[11] It could be, perhaps, that this new demographic of buyers prefer convenience over the self-conscious and socially intense in-person art fair. Of course, this would be at the expense of a notion of artistic value rooted in ceremony: one of the intrinsic foundational organisational structures identified by Morgner.

It is time for the concept of an art fair ‘evolution’ to be revised. Despite the best efforts of various art fairs – a quarter of all transactions in the art market occurred online last year – people continue to prefer in-person purchases.[12] They are rituals which create anticipation, excitement, and ultimately an opportunity to bring art alive through discussion. If art truly does have value aside from its monetary worth, online art fairs will at most be ancillary to the in-person events: a temporary adaptation rather than a long-term organic evolution.


[1] See Christian Morgner, ‘The Evolution of the Art Fair’, Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 39, No. 3(2014), 318-336.

[2] R. Scholl, ‘Debate: Art Fairs Are About Money Not Art’, Saatchi Online Magazine April 16 (2010) [https://archive.ph/20130104193151/http://magazine.saatchionline.com/articles/debate-art-fairs-are-about-money-not-art, accessed 31/07/2021].

[3] Dr Clare McAndrew, ‘The Art Market 2020’, An Art Basel & UBS Report, 20.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lanre Bakare, ‘Frieze fair goes virtual as art crowd stays home due to Covid’, theguardian.com 7 October 2020 [https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2020/oct/07/frieze-fair-goes-virtual-as-art-crowd-stays-home-due-to-covid, accessed 31/07/2021].

[6] Viktor Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique’ (1917).

[7] Edward Winkleman, Selling Contemporary Art: How to Navigate the Evolving Market (Allworth Press, 2017), 121.

[8] Ibid., 116.

[9] Dr Clare McAndrew, ‘The Art Market 2020’, An Art Basel & UBS Report, 20.

[10] Ibid., 74.

[11] Ibid., 21.

[12] Ibid.