Interview with Elena Soboleva at David Zwirner

Online sales, digital initiatives and collector engagement  
By Ian Tee

Elena Soboleva. Photograph by Gesi Schilling.

Elena Soboleva. Photograph by Gesi Schilling.

David Zwirner made news last August when they appointed Elena Soboleva as their Director of Online Sales, a newly-created position which reflected a focus on growing the business online. Prior to joining the gallery, Soboleva was an early employee and Lead Curator at Artsy where she oversaw the growth and scaling of collector initiatives. She also co-founded Gallery Insights, a data-driven, industry-leading newsletter that Artsy published for galleries.

A&M speaks to Soboleva on her role at David Zwirner, changes in the digital space and their impact on traditional marketplaces.

Can you share some of the strategies implemented and developments in the digital space since joining David Zwirner?
I joined the gallery in October 2018 as the Director of Online Sales, spearheading the gallery’s Viewing Rooms (curated online-only exhibitions with works available for sale), art fair previews, and online sales. As a gallery, David Zwirner is guided by an artist-first mindset, so our innovation and investment in online sales comes, first and foremost, from the goal of expanding the audience for the works that our artists create. We are also thinking about access, and how to engage both new and existing collectors in an increasingly online world.

In the time I’ve been with David Zwirner, we have established a dedicated team to support the online gallery space, as we would a physical gallery location. We have launched ten Viewing Rooms — ranging from works on paper from the 80s by Raymond Pettibon to prints by Lisa Yuskavage — and have developed ways to support and amplify our gallery exhibitions online. Storytelling around the artwork has also been a key focus, as has finding how to translate a curatorial perspective through features such as the Collector’s Focus series, which delves into the taste of a notable collector.

With regard to the industry, we are fortunate to be able to experiment and create the optimal collector experience from scratch. We aim to present 22 Viewing Rooms in 2019, a 30% growth over 2018.

From your experience at Artsy as well as in your current position, how have Asian collectors responded to buying art online? Are there limitations to the price as well as types of works sold?
Asia is a critical market for online art sales. It is poised to be especially engaged with the online art market in part because of the younger profile of the Asian collector compared to the American or European collectors, as well as the existing comfort with online transactions.

The Art Basel 2019 Art Market report revealed a much younger profile for Asian High Net Worth (HNW) collectors: 46% of the collectors surveyed in Singapore were millennial collectors, and millennials represented a share of 39% of the total in Hong Kong. Additionally, the report revealed that a staggering 93% of millennial high-net-worth collectors had bought from an online platform, compared to a majority of baby boomers who had not.

E-commerce adoption will also continue to be a leading indicator of art online. China is adapting to e-commerce quickly and expected to reach 35% of total retail sales by 2019, compared to only 10% in the United States of America in 2018. There is enormous opportunity in the region.

However, it would be too simplistic to say there is a single collector profile. I have seen esteemed museum trustees and first-time collectors who have never stepped foot in a gallery both come through the online storefront.

Robert Crumb, 'Untitled (School Notebook 1961 pg. 3/4', 1961. Image courtesy of the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner.

Robert Crumb, 'Untitled (School Notebook 1961 pg. 3/4', 1961. Image courtesy of the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner.

What impact do you foresee digital initiatives such as online Viewing Rooms have on the business, especially for traditional marketplaces such as art fairs and auctions?
Online Viewing Rooms will become a crucial part of the art-buying experience, as collectors naturally expect to be able to explore and transact online. As a gallery, Viewing Rooms will also allow for us to present more aspects of our program. David Zwirner has the privilege of representing over 60 artists and estates but can present only five physical exhibitions at any given time. The online Viewing Room allows for us to mount additional exhibitions that can reveal lesser-known aspects of an artist’s practice.

For galleries, art fairs, and auction houses of all sizes, online helps to transition selling from a purely event-based model (where sales primarily take place around a physical sale, fair, or exhibition) to a year-round commercial model. It also continues to serve as a crucial entry point for new collectors who may not have existing relationships with galleries or auction houses, or who want greater transparency to the process of art buying.

The auction world is further ahead in the digital space than gallery and fair counterparts. Last year, Sotheby’s reported selling more than a quarter of their lots via online. This number will continue to grow.

Fairs, meanwhile, see online as a way to stay relevant to their visitors year-round. Art Basel Hong Kong launched the Digital VIP card for the first time this iteration, which offers convenience to the visitor, but will also allow the fair to capture visitor and collector data.

With technology playing an increasing role in collector engagement and data analytics, what are the new skill sets required to adapt to this change in the art market? Conversely, what aspect(s) of the business do you think will remain central?
We believe that relationships will remain important, and we have specifically designed our online sales strategy to maintain that primacy. Each inquiry is passed along to a sales director, and each client — even if they were unknown to us before they inquired about a work in our Viewing Room — then enters the fold of collectors or potential collectors. It very quickly converts into a conversation — the online "doorway" just helps to encourage that first step over the threshold. Our goal is for this to be a seamless experience, regardless of whether a collector came to us “online” or in person. That said, data and segmentation can help us ensure that we are communicating with different collectors in the way that is most effective and useful for them.

In the near future, Augmented and Mixed Reality will have a profound impact on the way we see and experience the world around us. The digital and physical worlds will merge into the hybrid of our reality where everything that exists has a digital rendering in the ‘mirrorworld’. This is a very exciting space and will open many new frontiers in art, including allowing people to experience a work of art without physically “seeing” it in person.

However, experiencing art in person will never go away. I adamantly believe that while technology will bring us closer to the artists and their work, the physical nature of it will always be prized. I have worked in art and technology for the past decade and yet will be the first to trek out to the middle of Utah to see the Spiral Jetty or travel to Naoshima art island to experience the works within the serene setting over the Seto Sea. Online will allow more people to learn and discover art and decentralise the art market geographically.

Lastly, are there any upcoming projects you would like to share?
We will present a Viewing Room with Neo Rauch to coincide with the gallery show, which will open in Hong Kong during Art Basel. It will feature his vivid print works that have been an integral part of the artist’s practice and figurative explorations. The works will be curated for the online space and come directly from the Leipzig studio. We will also present a Collector Focus feature to coincide with JING Art fair in May, sharing the perspectives of a major Asian collector.