Unsurprisingly, exhibitions have shifted online, opening them up to global audiences. ‘The cost per user can be much lower when your audience is unlimited,’ says David Eccles, the director of Numiko, a digital agency that’s helped a number of museums move online. ‘For example, The Wallace Collection is providing live tours with its director as a paid-for Zoom event.’
Meanwhile, others are treating content as a source of passive income. For example, the Museum of Art & Photography in Bengaluru is building a library of downloadable, educational content.
Still, museums and galleries are struggling to fill the financial gaps. When London’s National Gallery moved one of its tours online, it had to slash prices by 60%. A survey of regular art visitors found that just a small minority would be willing to pay the same price for an online exhibition as an offline one, while only 12% had paid for arts and culture online at all.
A reframed experience
While physical museums grapple to move online, digital-first museums are reframing the art experience altogether. They exist entirely virtually, as do their art collections, exhibitions and events. While digital museums did exist pre-Covid, they’ve been spurred on by the rise of virtual tourism and the recent boom in digital art sales.
In Zurich, Alex Kälin runs an online museum called Natural Habitat. ‘You only need some server space, a domain name or a social media account to start,’ he says. ‘But any museum still needs good curators, coders and preservationists. That’s where the hard part starts: when you need money to pay staff or commission pieces.’
Here are more new business models to watch in the space.
• Museum shop fronts. Shops are usually relegated to corners of physical museums but, for Fierce Nice, an online gallery of Irish artists, online sales are vital. ‘The visitor-to-sale conversion rate for the online art-and-craft industry is around 2% to 5%,’ says founder Ruan Shiels. ‘But the biggest cost in running an online gallery is time rather than money, from promotion to customer service and shipping items.’
• Consultancy. ‘As the digital art market blew up, the Museum of Contemporary Digital Art started to offer "curatorial advisory" for £50 per hour to galleries and private collectors,’ Alex says.
• NFT collections. NFTs – or non-fungible tokens – are one-of-a-kind digital assets traded using cryptocurrency. And they are taking the art industry by storm by opening it up to emerging digital artists. Collectors of digital art are displaying their wares online in their own 'museum' collections. Costa-Rica based BlockEureka showcases Latin American digital art. And artist Beeple’s record-breaking $69.3 million digital artwork is also getting its own virtual museum.