Digitalization and Art
In 2016, Nathalie Halgand became Vienna’s first young gallery founder in almost ten years. The opening of her gallery, located near the city’s Naschmarkt, has breathed fresh life into the local arts scene. An interview about the arts scene in the light of digitalization and social media.
The opening of your gallery helped to breathe fresh life into the Vienna arts scene. Do even thriving industries need a little shaking up from time to time?
Nathalie Halgand: Yes, definitely. It generated some good, important new momentum for the scene in general. Vienna is an incredibly exciting city for art, especially contemporary art. There are lots of institutions and project spaces, with some really bold initiatives and stellar exhibitions. The opening of my gallery also sparked a much-needed dialogue between newer and older galleries. We’ve had a really nice reception. And we have a lot of respect for them and everything they’ve done. Being a gallery owner is a really tough business.
What makes it so tough?
It involves a lot of hard, time-consuming work. The classic 24/7 job. Running a gallery is also very expensive. It takes a long time for a new artist to become established and for demand for their work to build up. Three or four years, sometimes even ten. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight. An added factor in Austria that makes the business even tougher is that we don’t have the kind of well-established collecting culture that exists in Germany, Britain or France. So Austrian gallery owners need to travel a lot and promote themselves at international events. That means going to a lot of art fairs, where the competition is very intense. If there’s an artist who attracts a lot of interest, you have to be very creative and determined to stand out from the pack.
How does it work exactly: do galleries approach artists? Or vice versa?
There’s an unspoken rule that galleries make the first move. It’s pretty much a no-go for artists to write to galleries. From my own experience, I know that doesn’t often work out very well. I get sent a lot of portfolios, but they often aren’t a good fit at all for the individual character of my gallery. Which gives the impression that the person hasn’t really done their research. I find that difficult, so I prefer getting recommendations from other artists or curators. They’re usually very critical and only heap praise on an artist if they’re really impressed by their work, so you can generally rely on their recommendations.
How important is the human factor when selecting an artist?
I consider it very important. It’s not just the art that matters, but also the person behind it. The chemistry has to be right. Otherwise, you can’t develop the necessary trust. There isn’t a culture of formal contracts in our industry, so in most cases you have to make do with an informal agreement.
Digitalization makes art palpable.
Turning from people to technology: has the digital revolution had an impact on the gallery landscape?
Yes, it has had a big impact. One clear example of that is the rise of Instagram. It caught on a little later in Austria than in the US, but many galleries now use it as a marketing tool that helps bring their rooms, exhibitions, and artists to life for potential visitors. And it works well, at least in the digital realm, where follower numbers are rising: people mainly use the Internet and social media to find out about artists and their works. However, purchases usually take place at the galleries themselves, i.e. in person, though online sales have risen a little in recent years.
So follower numbers on social media are rising. How about the numbers of people actually visiting galleries?
Unfortunately, there is a downward trend in visitor numbers. But I don’t think that’s due to the Internet or social media. Rather, I think it’s due to oversaturation in the industry. On top of exhibitions and a whole smorgasbord of different events, there’s an art fair somewhere in the world almost every single week. And they’re very popular. That means everyone is at the fairs, and almost nobody is coming to galleries any more. There have already been some new initiatives in response to this problem. For instance, I know someone in Zurich who has teamed up with two other gallery owners to rent a space together. They share an intern and a storage room, and change the works on display every two weeks. Dividing the workload between them means they have enough time to travel so that they can attend fairs and acquire new artists and potential buyers.
So the industry needs to change the way it operates?
Yes, or at least there are growing calls for it. More and more galleries are questioning whether having so many art fairs is really the best solution. It’s common to hear complaints about oversaturation. Instead of constantly having to travel back and forth, many gallery owners would rather have more time and calm to focus on projects and collaborations in their own galleries.
Does the modern art world still fit the traditional categories and structures?
I feel like everything’s become much more open, more widely dispersed. In the past, you had abstract expressionism based in New York, the Cubists in Paris. Nowadays, you no longer get those kinds of very narrow geographic concentrations, or traditional artistic centers or schools. It’s all become a bit looser. That may be linked to globalization. Of course, New York will never lose its reputation as the mecca of art, but there’s a lot happening in Asia now too, in China for instance. A huge market is emerging there. South Africa is also enjoying an upswing at the moment. There are always certain hypes and trends. Digital art, for example, was a big thing for a while, but not any more. Nothing can be precisely pinned down. Everything is changing, everything is in flux.
Analog versus digital: what do you think it adds to see art in real life rather than on a screen?
I think you have to experience art in the flesh. It looks very different on a screen. Only when you’re standing there in front of it can you appreciate all the details and feel its special aura. In an exhibition, a work is usually embedded in a context, but that’s often lacking when you look at an image online. And you have the opportunity to meet the artist or gallery owner, who can provide important information and insights.
Still, I believe modern technologies like augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence will come to play an increasing role in the sector. Some museums are already using them. Eventually the technology will be so good that physical space will no longer be as important as it is now.
Finally, a question about your personal artistic tastes. If you could pick a work of art by any artist to hang in your living room, who would you choose?
I don’t have to think long about that one: it would definitely be Agnes Bernice Martin! She lived to the age of 92 and kept painting right up to the end. I always find female artists fascinating, but I especially love Martin. I really admire how she managed to hold her own in a male-dominated field. Her works radiate such calm, there’s something so contemplative about them. Although there’s not much going on in her images, they exude this fascinating aura. They look pristinely perfect from a distance, but as you get closer you see pencil strokes and imperfections. I like that. She created timeless art. And somehow her works have a Zen effect on me. It’s a welcome contrast to the increasingly fast pace of our modern world.
Art consultant Nathalie Halgand (35) has a truly international upbringing that spanned three different worlds. Her love of art also comes from her family – her father and aunt were both painters. Her first encounters with the world of art thus came very early on, long before she came to pursue her career in the field. For a short while, after she chose to study business rather than art at university, it seemed she was destined to go down a different path, but it wasn’t long before she switched to art history instead. Toward the end of her studies, a great opportunity came up more or less by chance. While she was working on her dissertation, she got to know Nicholas Platzer who asked her whether she would be interested in running a project space with him. She agreed, and spent the next five years or so gaining her first valuable experiences of project management, communicating with artists and applying for grants. This experience of “learning by doing” set her in good stead for her work today as the owner of her own gallery and art consultant.