Highlights from the 8th Barcelona Symposium: an Interview with Elena Soboleva, Director of Online Sales at David Zwirner

In this newly-created position, Elena leads the programming, curation, and strategy for the gallery’s digital sales channels, which include over 20 online exhibitions a year in addition to 25 art-fair previews.
by Mara Sartore
January 28, 2020
Mara Sartore
Elena Soboleva

You are Director of Online Sales at David Zwirner, a newly-created position – what exactly does your role involve?

David Zwirner was the first major gallery to start an online viewing room, in January 2017. They brought me on about a year and a half ago to lead the online sales, which includes the viewing room but which extends to other initiatives including exhibitions that we bring online as well as parallel fair booths. With that we structure our online sales team in such a way that we look at this as our seventh gallery space. I think that is an important distinction and important highlight as to how we approach this, so in that sense what we do is we programme it and curate it like we would one of our gallery spaces such as London and Hong Kong.

I can explain further, in the sense we view online sales not as one off or event driven but really as an ongoing series of programmes and we do about 20 online viewing rooms per year so its inline with a very active exhibition space. With that, what we do is that we really work with our artists, we start the process by getting the research done, getting the artists involved, understanding what artists and estates are really keen to show and what part of their practice is not represented in a physical gallery. We are still a brick and mortar gallery so the online space is an extension of that. Through that we are able to offer artists more ways to bring their work to a wider audience and obviously have a bigger global reach.

What are the advantages both for the gallery and the artist to have worked online in the Viewing Rooms?

For the artists they know that first and foremost David Zwirner is a brick and mortar gallery so online is no way trying to replace that but we have six locations right now (three in New York, one in London, one in Hong Kong and one in Paris – the seventh is online) while we serve a lot of our clients that way and can reach a broad audience, our artists really enjoy the global reach that online can give.

Have you seen an increase in views and engagement with the website since the founding of the online viewing room?

Yes, while we don’t quote numbers there is a lot of engagement that we see from our audience and it is growing at a very fast pace and what we are seeing on the sales side out of the 15 highest valuable works sold online, all are going to cities where we don’t have galleries, cities like Antwerp, Toronto, San Francisco, Houston, Tokyo so these are places while we can sometimes reach our collectors via art fairs and obviously we have strong collector bases there, but because we don’t have galleries this online exhibition space becomes something that they go to, so that is the collector’s side. For the artists what is exciting about online is that really lets them reveal the process and a lot of our artists take the challenge to what they can do online better in some ways to what they can bring to the physical space. We have a lot of artists that are passionate about printmaking and they are able to show their process online, while other artists are able to show the process of the creation of the artwork. As an example, Oscar Murillo, who was one of the Turner prize recipients, did a series of works that were specifically intended to go into the online space, the works were based on drawings that are done on an airplane. The context of these works is that he is on an airplane and he is making these abstractions with a ballpoint pen and suddenly the size and the scale of what you are looking at makes a lot of sense when you see much more of the context imagery once you see that they are done in this environment because he is actually drawing topographies and really interested in exploring the idea of a borderless states and being in between. All of these contexts and additional editorial information and storytelling is uniquely positioned to be able to be told online as opposed to walking into the gallery and just reading the press release.

So it’s like showing the backstage of the creative process?

Exactly both conceptually, as well as sometimes the actual physical process, so that is unique to online this video, narrative and storytelling quality. So when are artists approach online many of them to engage with that aspect.

So you are selling physical works online, not only digital or video?

It’s a really broad range, so we have sold Donald Judd and Kusama’s sculptures, and prints by Neo Rauch, monotypes by Josh Smith, we’ve sold paintings…. so it really runs a broad gamut of what we bring, however, what is driving it is working with our artists and estates, because of course we represent some estates, and really trying to figure out how we can curate these exhibitions in a way that makes sense and highlight some asset of the practice that would be impactful.

This talking galleries edition is about new young collectors, I was wondering whether the majority of these online buyers – are they actually young?

What we’ve seen is that there is no single demographic, you will find collectors that are starting out collecting and buying their first piece, you will also find collector names that you would recognise from the top 200 collector list. The collectors really range and of course, it is really dependant on inventory as well, while for some of our editions and some of the pieces that are more affordable, we are seeing a lot of new collectors come in and for a lot of the works that are more significant, as I mentioned before, going to a lot of established collectors but potentially in places where we don’t have a physical space.

So from the point of view of price range, you have sold online both significant pieces with a hefty price tag as well as those that are more affordable?

Absolutely and that is something that we have done quite differently if you look at reports like Artsy, they tend to find that the online sweet spot is about 10k, we have a significantly higher average, again we represent a full range but we have consistently sold works with a six or seven-figure range online, ranging from 2k to 2 million online.

As you have six physical galleries, at least for big art fairs, online sales have always been seen as a threat to big art fairs to physical presence and footfall at art fairs and in the galleries. The artworld is suspicious of this, believing that the physical presence of the work is of paramount importance. Do you think that people buying significant artworks online have already seen the piece physically and just buy online to conclude the acquisition or is this media so potentially powerful that people might feel comfortable to buy online without having seen the piece in person?

I do believe that collectors who are comfortable buying at a higher price range are generally those who already have familiarity with the artist and have seen the works at art fairs or museums and probably know what they are looking for. Whether the piece needs to be seen in person, we have been discussing the importance of this within the industry and what we have seen, because we have a strong brand and because there is obviously the online representation with video components and the ability to see not just one jpeg but really a rich view, the scale, the context is not necessary. However, I should also clarify that if you do buy from David Zwirmer online it is not e-commerce. So when you are inquiring you are put in direct contact with one of our directors, so it is not a click to buy, it is a click to inquire, when you inquire you are immediately put in touch with one of our amazing sales team members, and that is to benefit of the client as we are obviously still at a scale where we can do that, having two online exhibitions a month or so when put in touch with those people you can really get a fuller context, our salespeople are art historian and very knowledgable about the artists, so you really get to benefit from that knowledge and the kind of dialogue any other collector would have. Then if you choose to see the piece physically or buy it online, that is entire unto the collector but it is not a click to buy process.

Just to add that, about 45% of the inquiries coming through online are new collectors so it is a channel for us, regardless of age, to meet new people.

What about digital art and augmented reality?

Some of our artists are certainly exploring this space. While we have not done any digital art projects online so far, I think that there is a lot of opportunity there, for example, artists Diana Thater and Jordan Wolfson are engaging with a lot of new media and so when we’re able to have online exhibitions with those artists I am very excited to see what they would come up with.

Tell us about an exhibition in the viewing room to date, that was a success and one in the future you are looking forward to…

One that recently stood out to me was a presentation online during Miami Basel, what was really unique about this in a lot of ways, was trying to mimic bring a show into the physical space, we used the strength of the online space, the kind of limitless opportunities that physical space does not. Let me explain here because online doesn’t create a hierarchy of size or media. It is unique in the way that you can present a very small work and a very large work side by side without having one disappear and become less significant, so we created a show called “Playing with Scale”, that really highlighted that, where we would put small works, like a Josh Smith painting next to a vast Toba Khedoori work or large Wolfgang Tillmans photograph, in a curatorial juxtaposition that you wouldn’t usually see in a gallery setting and often the works couldn’t be taken to the fair because either they would just be too big or they would disappear in the booth and here it was really a strength of the online that we could get viewers to pay attention to them in the equal measure. As for something that is coming up, we have a project with James Welling, that’s going to be timed around the ADAA, which is the fair in New York and he is going to have a solo booth presentation at the ADAA but we’re taking that and creating a hybrid model where we are extending it online and its all going to be about his incredible colour photographs and his psychedelic use of colour, he’s been exploring this for decades and really pioneering this and continues to push the boundaries of understanding colour in photography and really opening up the layers and realms of possibilities there.

Do you see a democratisation of art with this online viewing room? Those who don’t have the time or means to go to Miami for example…

Absolutely, for example working families who cannot travel, it is a perfect place for them. Another aspect to mention is the price transparency, on all our online viewing rooms we show the pricing, which of course is very democratizing as it enables people to see if they can actually afford a lot of the works that we have, and then as well it allows a lot of collectors who are newer to start to educated because I think there is a lot of opaqueness in the market and people still don’t understand how art is priced and so even at this point they are just starting to look and not ready to buy, for them it is a really valuable insight and they really appreciate that kind of transparency, I feel that in great part that, is a step in educational way of a collector.  The Rose Wylie show is up online now, so check it out!

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