A Virtual Eye For Art

A Virtual Eye For Art

Photo: Philippe Fitte

Article first published in Forbes Monaco September/October 2020 issue.

Damien Simonelli, Director of Opera Gallery Monaco, discusses the future of art.

How is Covid-19 impacting the art world and how is contemporary art changing in the Covid-19 era?

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected all activity sectors and the art world hasn’t been spared. With bans on mass gathering, galleries, museums and art institutions were forced to close for a while and art fairs and exhibits were either cancelled or postponed. To counter balance these closures, the art world accelerated its adoption of technology and most actors of the sector have launched online viewing rooms. Some have gone even further and utilized current immersive technology. Even if they are now physically slowly reopening their doors to the public, technology is paramount as the attendance is still on the low end: people are understandably anxious and it is quite complicated to travel.

Despite these challenging and uncertain times, the art market, compared to other markets, has been relatively positive. There has been impressive results in the big auction houses’ sales, especially for the big names and I know that quite a few galleries have sold nice pieces online directly through their own portals or through art fair platforms. Art has often been a safe haven investment during times of crisis and I notice that this pandemic is no different: art is definitely considered a good alternative asset. This was reaffirmed in the auction results back in June 2020, where history was made, such as with the work on paper Untitled (Head), 1982 by Jean Michel Basquiat, which was sold for €13.1 million hammer price (€15.1 million with fees) at Sothebys New York, an absolute record for a paper by the artist. We can also look at the triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, 1981 by Francis Bacon, sold by the same auction house for €65.8 million hammer price (€75.2 million including buyer premium).

However, I think that young and emerging artists might face more difficulties to break through at the moment, as this crisis affects all levels of the economy and people are not ready to take a dive into uncertainty: they mostly want blue chip artists. It is also said that a lot of the smaller galleries might close, not being able to face these economically challenging circumstances.

As for the future, I believe that people need art and that history as shown that the art world does bounce back.

For more than ten years over the summer, Opera Gallery Monaco has prepared the Masters Show, under the High Patronage of Prince Albert. How it was organized this year? Which artworks and artists are featured in this annual show?

We are very grateful to HSH Prince Albert II for his support over the years and this year again. Our 2020 Masters Show has been an overall success. Sadly, we couldn’t host our traditional opening party for the obvious reasons. However, even if it is not as busy as it has been the previous years, we have had quite a few visitors and have sold some beautiful pieces. Of course, we respect all the recommended health measures and we do not let too many people come in at one time but, so far, all our visitors have been very understanding and respectful. I think everybody is happy to finally be able to enjoy art in person and not just on a screen.

For this show, we have been even more selective than the previous years in terms of quality for the artworks we are presenting. We have tried to only show very iconic and high standard works by some of the art world’s star names such as Manolo Valdés, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Pierre Soulages, Jean Dubuffet, Marc Chagall or Pablo Picasso, among others.

What is your opinion about digital and virtual solutions for art fairs and art galleries? Do you think it is effective for the interaction between buyers/ collectors and art galleries especially during the Covid-19 crisis?

I must say that I am quite impressed to see the speed with which the art market is adopting virtual and digital solutions to counteract the effects of this pandemic. If you had asked me my opinion on the matter a few years ago, I would have said that I didn’t believe people would buy art without seeing it in person. However, over the years I realized that a lot of people, notably in auction houses, buy art having only seen the pieces online or on paper catalogues. Today’s galleries’ viewing rooms are in general a more immersive way of showing art than the auction houses’ catalogues.

During this unprecedent crisis, we have had no choice but to find solutions to survive and technology has allowed us to continue to show the public beautiful art. I believe that even when we finally see the end of this crisis, galleries and other actors of the art market will continue to use these tools.

In a way, online viewing rooms make art more accessible to everyone and this is a positive thing. People are sometimes intimidated to enter galleries or museums. Opera Gallery has new collectors since we launched our online viewing rooms, who we would perhaps never have had without these digital solutions. Also, some people don’t always have the time to go to galleries or to art fairs and the new technologies have allowed them to explore what is available from the comfort of their living room.

Of course, nothing can replace the feeling one has when one sees an artwork for real or the human interaction art dealers have with their collectors when they meet in person but we are managing. We keep in contact by email, social media or by phone. We send videos of the art pieces our collectors might be interested in, we FaceTime...I think all the art galleries have become extremely creative to find new ways to show their art.

In the meantime, are you creating online viewing rooms or portals?

Yes, we are. We needed to continue to show art to our collectors and also to promote the artists that we represent. We have created a portal on our website (see link below) for virtual exhibitions accessible on the tab “Viewing Rooms.”

We already launched a solo show of Manolo Valdés’s works, another one called American Icons, showcasing works by some of the most famous American artists such as George Condo, Tom Wesselman or Alexander Calder, and even a Marc Chagall solo show with amazing and high quality paintings created by the French painter.

What is role of art in crisis? And do you think this period could potentially be fruitful for artists?

Humanity needs art, crisis or no crisis. Art moves us, it helps us to connect with our inner selves and with others. If there were no art, our lives would be static and sterile. Perhaps art can become even more important in a time of crisis as it can help us escape reality or on the contrary, face it.

It is often during the time of a crisis that artists have created masterpieces, take Guernica by Picasso, for example. Let’s wait and see what today’s artists have in store for us—I am an optimistic person and I believe that there is always good coming out of something bad.

We know that Opera Gallery takes a genuine role in giving back to the community. What are your commitments during coronavirus pandemic?

We really try our best to give back to the community, making donations to different causes. This year, again, we shared a percentage of the proceeds of our 2020 Masters Show with the association Mission Enfance, which provides assistance to children in distress throughout the world.