How the art market harnesses technology amid COVID-19
By Lily Lyu

Art Basel Hong Kong is one of the world's most important art fairs and it went online for the first time this year. That's because the one-site event was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Turning towards online exhibitions has become an important way for galleries to speak to collectors. David Tung from the Lisson Gallery told CGTN that their walk-through program that collaborates with five other Asian galleries has engaged an even wider audience than at a physical fair.

"Our online review was able to engage an audience of 2,000 in just three days. In a physical space, having that kind of engagement of that scale is impossible," said David. He also noticed increasing audience getting engaged with them online, some of them have never set foot in a museum before but now are learning about the artists, the art history and even how galleries operate.

It is not a new thing that art buyers are willing to spend big online for things that they have never seen in person. The Basel Art Market Report said that the online art market stood at 5.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2019, dipping two percent on the year. That was the first fall in five years. The market maintained a nine percent share of global sales by value.

The report also found that 48 percent of the high-net-worth collectors surveyed said they "always" or "often" purchased works through online platforms. Of those that had bought online, one quarter said that they had spent more than 100,000 U.S. dollars, while eight percent had spent over a million U.S. dollars. That was double the share of collectors that had spent at that level in 2018.

The main online buyer force is millennial collectors. People aged between 23 and 38 outspent every other generation. They acquired an average of three million U.S. dollars worth of art and collectible objects in the preceding two years.

So now, with the COVID-19 pandemic spreading across the world, is it possible to upend one of the world's most staid business models -- the fine art and antiques market?

"I think there's still a strong demand for viewing the work in person. It's also a very important part of art work itself. I think the futures come to understand how the ecosystems operate, how they complement each other." David's thoughts was echoed by Emily de Wolfe Pettit, director of Peking Art Associates. She thinks going forward, beyond the experience of viewing online, more AR or VR technologies may be implemented to create new experiences for the audience. But looking back, she thinks a return to the significance of craft will also be increasingly important.

China remained the third largest art market in the world last year, after the U.S. and the UK. It maintained a stable market share of 18 percent, down just one percent on the year. Many believe the importance of online sales is likely to increase in 2020. That's due to the spread of COVID-19 and the belief that China may play a bigger role in the market's rise.

"As China has been decisive in dealing with the disease and returns to normalcy faster, I think we can learn from each other," said Emily, "Maybe China can lead the way, not just in science but also in arts, through technology and tradition."

Virtual exhibits, online galleries, these are new business models still in their infancy. But thanks to more flexibility, lower operating costs and a much wider reach, they allow businesses to be less reliant on people coming to them. This unique period may be the time that businesses realize they need to learn how to properly harness the new technology.