The New Innovators: David Zwirner Online Sales Director Elena Soboleva on Why the Distinction Between Online and Offline ‘Will Be a Relic’

"The future is hybrid," Soboleva says.

Elena Soboleva, 2019. Photo: Jason Schmidt, courtesy David Zwirner.

When Elena Soboleva joined David Zwirner in 2018 as the mega-gallery’s first online sales director, the plan was to treat the digital presence as if it were one of the spaces in the global stable of galleries.

“The digital space is a natural extension of the gallery’s storefront,” she told Artnet News at the time.

Certainly she had the bonafides for the job, with years of experiences serving as the head of special projects at Artsy as it became a pioneering force for presenting art in the digital sphere. Galleries were somewhat slower to build online infrastructure to reach new clients. Though Zwirner had launched an online viewing platform earlier that year, by the middle of 2018, the gallery said just three to five percent of all sales were conducted online.

Fast forward to March 2020—with the world shut down, all sales would have to be conducted remotely. In response, Soboleva spearheaded an effort to build out an impressive online sales strategy, assembling more than 30 cyberspace-only exhibitions and launching four ongoing series: Studio, Exceptional Works, Offsite, and Platform. The Studio series spotlighted new work by Zwirner artists, and so far the seven editions have brought in $17 million.

David Zwirner Online Sales Director Elena Soboleva with her iPad at the gallery's Art Basel booth back in 2019. Photo by Andrew Goldstein.

David Zwirner online sales director Elena Soboleva with her iPad at the gallery’s Art Basel booth back in 2019. Photo by Andrew Goldstein.

Artnet News recently selected Soboleva as one of its New Innovators, 51 emerging figures spurring drastic change within the hyper-dynamic art industry. The New Innovators list leads the Fall 2020 Artnet Intelligence Report.

After the list was compiled, Soboleva chatted with Artnet News’s Nate Freeman to expand beyond her blurb on the list, and go into broader detail about how Zwirner and other large intercontinental galleries will rely on its digital strategy as an integral part of the larger sales vision—both through the rest of the lockdown, however long it lasts, and beyond. Answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

By way of introduction, how would you describe your role at David Zwirner, and how is such a role innovating the way that a gallery is run?

I was brought into a role that David and I dreamed up together. This had not existed in the art world yet, but the gallery had a strong online program and it was exciting to be able to write a job description from scratch. To distill it down, my role is two-fold and very much tied to the ethos of us thinking of the digital space as akin to how we treat our physical locations. First, the planning and execution: to oversee the upcoming programming and work with the artist managers, and across all our teams to plan and build out the online exhibitions.

On the other hand, my job is also to oversee the sales strategy once the online projects are live. That means everything from overseeing the inquiry system to creating feedback loops and seeing what the audience is engaging with online across our own and third-party channels.

Take us through a typical day on the job. What do you need to get done on a daily basis and what challenges arise?

No day is typical since the cadence of our projects has increased so dramatically. The team is often concurrently working on six to 10 projects at the same time. This means that there are amazing folks leading each of these online exhibitions, alongside the artists and estates giving us feedback at every step of the way.

Since I have been in Europe with my husband for the last few months, my mornings are spent catching up on art news, reading and keeping up to date on the latest product and tech news across industries. It’s also what my team has started calling the “Maker’s Schedule” where there are a few undisturbed hours to work on longer term and creative projects. Then, once the New York team wakes up, it’s nonstop Zoom calls and I switch to the “Manager’s Schedule,” which often lasts late into that night.

Meetings start off as brainstorming sessions to envision how we tell the story of the work. Content is critical to this and so is design. In later meetings, there are a lot of rounds of reviews and testing.

Since lockdown, online sales now touch all facets of our shows so it’s a truly cross-team collaboration and the tech and marketing teams are equal partners in the success of everything we do.

David Zwirner Online’s "On Painting: Art Basel Online," March 20-25, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.

David Zwirner Online’s “On Painting: Art Basel Online,” March 20-25, 2020. Courtesy David Zwirner.

I want to hear a bit about what led you to the role. How did Artsy’s model of establishing an online art ecosystem inform the way that you approached the job at David Zwirner?

There was truly early-startup magic during my years at Artsy. Many people recall the legendary happy hours and sunset views from 401 Broadway. It was foundational for the industry in terms of bringing fairs and auctions online, getting galleries comfortable with showing available inventory and pricing, in addition to pioneering pricing accessibility and openness in the art world.

However, since it’s a marketplace, the critical piece I missed was the connection with the artists and any control over the inventory. At David Zwirner, what we are able to do is truly envision the space with and for our artists.

Artsy provided me with a front row seat to understand inquiry conversation behavior, how to create sales levers, and what kind of feedback and engagement metrics were most useful to measure.

However, in my last two years at the gallery I have witnessed a complete hockey-stick growth for digital. Before, online was an research-and-development project and, suddenly, it is critical to the gallery’s revenue stream and to serve our artists and collectors.

When you arrived at Zwirner, you said that the gallery’s internet presence would be akin to its “seventh gallery space.” What measures did you implement to ensure that the online exhibitions would be just as engaging as IRL ones?

It’s about the caliber of exhibitions and inventory we present online being in line with what we show in the physical spaces. It’s how we talk to our artists about this and feel confident to premiere new work by Kerry James Marshall or Jeff Koons in this space. That’s the strongest proof.

But there are many other measures, such as having dedicated resources across the team who work only on online exhibitions—such as editors, registrars, and sales assistants. Online is not siloed and the leadership and sales teams are constantly involved in the evolution and planning.

And then there are the really subtle things that iterate that message. For example, upon entering any David Zwirner location, there is vinyl for all our global shows and online is listed as a location. It’s shoulder to shoulder with how we present exhibitions in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong.

David Zwirner's Viewing Room as part of Frieze London 2020. Courtesy Frieze.

David Zwirner’s Viewing Room as part of Frieze London 2020. Courtesy Frieze.

The lockdown periods of March, April, and May meant that, suddenly, that “seventh gallery space” was the only gallery space—practically all shows had to be online. How did you have to adjust your strategy to fit this new reality? And how did clients who previously had little experience buying online adjust?

Collectors go where the great art is. If it’s convenient, that’s an added plus, but ultimately that’s the strategy.

In March, following the global lockdown, we turned our attention to ramping up our online-only exhibitions as it was the only space we had to present the work of our artists. Since March, we have done 30 online-only presentations and launched four new online series including our Studio, Exceptional Works, Offsite, and Platform series. The Studio series presents solo presentations of newly made work in the context of the artist’s space. In the seven Studio presentations we have debuted so far, each one sold out, totaling over $17 million. And that’s just one of our series.

While online offers the ideal portal for younger collectors, we also have many collectors who you would find on the Top 200 list buying work online. We now regularly have institutions going to look at art online. This spring we had numerous museum acquisitions from our online space.

Even now, with the galleries open, there is much more of a push for online exhibitions, due to the precautions still being taken with regard to the virus. How will the online sales continue to operate as we navigate through the pandemic?

When the lockdown happened, online was the only viable space and we were fortunate to have the technology and resources already in place. The art industry accelerated and what would have taken years, advanced in a few months, but that also made the landscape quite flat. Everyone went for something that worked, but now I think it will be a moment where each organization and gallery finds its own voice and we see greater experimentation.

This summer there were these memes that said an “Online Viewing Room is just a website” and, in fact, they are. But a gallery is just building. It’s not about the walls, it’s what you do with the structure. And the artists are uniquely able to push those boundaries, be it formal, narrative, or conceptual.

The reality is that online will continue to grow. Before the lockdown we saw the greatest sales in value, in areas where the gallery doesn’t have a physical location. This is not going to go away. People are also becoming more conscientious of sustainability of travel and shipping, and broader audiences want to engage with artwork, so digital will be more critical than ever.

If one looks outward, all luxury and high-end industries are embracing digital for the long term and finding much larger audiences. While the art world is cautious to take those leaps, the audiences are already there. We saw great success with the Artists For Biden sale on which had more than 100 works available to purchase directly via “Buy Now” and most were sold within the first hours of the preview day.

Elena Soboleva, 2019. Photo: Jason Schmidt, courtesy David Zwirner.

And once we are finally out of the woods on this—whether it’s a year, or two, or three—how will the experience of buying art online during this time forever alter the art-buying experience? Has it fully ushered in a new era—or would that era be coming regardless?

This year has strengthened and altered the way collectors consume, discover, and purchase artwork. The future is hybrid. The current distinction between online and offline will seem like a relic. We are all heading toward a profoundly integrated existence and our cultural output and consumption will be enmeshed between digital and physical realms. Art will always be a profoundly physical experience, but the structure around art discovery and buying will be much more seamless, immediate, and welcoming to a global audience.

I’m excited since this week we just launched our first fully live online exhibition Diana Thater, “Yes, there will be singing,” which the artist developed in response to the ways the current situation has left people isolated and disconnected. It embodies a telltale blend of poetry and technical innovation and presents a live video installation. The title refers to a poem by Bertolt Brecht, written after having fled Nazi Germany and weaves together nature and digital modalities. It’s immersive and complex, but optimistic about this moment. Much like the experience of communicating today, the work is both connecting and distancing, present and absent, confined and limitless.

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