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Podcast: What Major Art Galleries Learned About Selling Online During the Pandemic

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Podcast What Major Art Galleries Learned About Selling Online During the Pandemic

In this episode, what big art galleries learned from selling art online during the pandemic, and is there anything new that the rest of us can use?

Full episode transcript

Hey everybody Keith Dotson here — welcome back to the fine art photography podcast.

Artnet recently published an article where they asked major art galleries what they’ve learned about selling art online during the pandemic. I read it to see if they’ve found any secrets that I can use.

For most independent artists like myself, selling art online has been a necessity and a priority for years. My own photography business wouldn’t exist without direct online sales. I have collectors, art buyers, and interior designers from all across the country finding me online.

I’ve expended a lot of time and money to make sure my website is top notch and ready to handle sales. In addition, I focus on extremely great customer service. I ship quickly. I use only the finest materials.

But, major art galleries have had a transition to make, thanks to the pandemic. While galleries have played at online sales, they never took it seriously until they had no choice. The perception has been that no one would spend the big money online — you know $10,000 dollars or up into the millions. In years leading up to the virus, a big emphasis in the art world has been traveling to glamorous, major art fairs, like Art Basel, held every year in Switzerland. To me it looked like going to a trade show for art — but it’s been a very big deal in cities like Basel, Miami, and Hong Kong — where art fairs became major attractions for the rich and the famous — and for others with the disposable income to travel for art.

For local galleries who couldn’t participate in big expensive art fairs, the trend translated into pop-up shows and similar one-off events.

With art fairs canceled and travel restricted, art fairs and even individual art galleries have instead switched to OVRs — online viewing rooms. These are specialized online websites designed to give gallery visitors a unique viewing experience, kinda like seeing a gallery exhibition, but not really. To see the exhibitions, you typically need to register, giving the gallery some data and analytics. After registering, you’ll get invitations to future OVRs.

According to the artnet article, OVRs were a success story during the pandemic, but gallerists are ready to resume normal in-person exhibitions because they see OVRs as popular simply because they were a novelty — and maybe the novelty is beginning to wear off.

I posted a podcast in September of 2020 where I described my experience visiting an online viewing room to see works by Harry Callahan. That exhibition was held by Jackson Fine Art, a terrific Atlanta-based gallery that specializes in photography. Check that episode out if you’re curious about my experience.

One aspect of online viewing rooms that collectors appreciated was price transparency. If you’ve been to gallery shows, you know that prices are not displayed — and gallerists can be coy about revealing prices. In many OVRs, prices are visible right next to a button you can click to “Enquire” about that piece. 

In addition to online viewing rooms, galleries have experienced success by using special gallery talks, or video presentations, to generate excitement and to build awareness and interest. I’ve watched a lot of these and I find them entertaining and valuable.

And some people interviewed by artnet said they are having good sales via Instagram. They said that online viewing rooms were great for client engagement, but some of them don’t have a well-designed user interface, while Instagram offers a clean and simple presentation, and the audience traffic on Instagram is already established.

As an independent artist, the main takeaway I got from this article is that special events — whether they be heavily hyped online viewing rooms, or special in-person events can spur sales. I need to think about that. As for Instagram, I occasionally get sales spurred by fans on there, but I don’t actually sell through the platform. Maybe I should look into it — 

An artist who has been able to combine special events and Instagram very successfully is New Orleans-based painter Ashley Longshore. She periodically announces the flash sale of new work on small canvases that she calls “smalls”. She hypes the release and focuses on the fact that they are limited in quantity and only available for a short time — and she always sells out every batch. Of course, she has a huge and avid fan base on Instagram — but watching how she works her crowd is a lesson in itself. She’s also an unrelenting self-promoter, and I don’t mean that as an insult.

Last year I recorded a podcast episode about performer Elton John, who is also a major collector of photography. He said he buys from major galleries, but he also buys direct from photographers online and in person. He said he often researches photographers on their websites.

What’s your take? Do you miss the in-person gallery experience?

Personally, I love seeing a beautiful photograph in person, and I’m ready to get back into galleries and museums. I enjoy playing a game trying to guess what paper surface prints are imaged on. Gallery people have to follow behind me with a cloth to wipe my nose prints off the glass.

Also, news that influential NYC-based photography gallery Metro Pictures will be closing

And now in related news — I had already completed and exported audio for this episode when I learned that Metro Pictures — an influential 40-year-old photography-based art gallery in New York — has announced that it’s closing its doors later this year. The gallery owners spent the weekend contacting artists to let them know. Metro is famous for representing Cindy Sherman and other notable photographer-artists.

Some reports seemed to be blaming the closure on the pandemic, but in interviews, the founders have made efforts to clarify that this closure is not because of the pandemic — but rather that they foresee the art world coming back in a different way after the pandemic — and that they basically are ready to retire and let others deal with reshaping how the art world will look in the post-pandemic future.

Anyways — That’s all I’ve got for this episode. Thanks for listening — I’ll include a link to the artnet article in the write-up.

I’ll talk to you again real soon.


Artnet: “After a Year of Being Forced to Sell Art Online, Gallerists Have Learned 5 Surprising Lessons—and It’s Clear There’s No Going Back”

Hosted by
Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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