From art fair to art market platform


Established in 1970, Art Basel is the world's premier art fair, taking place three times a year in Hong Kong, Miami Beach and - of course - Basel itself.

Open to the general public, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year; but the real action takes place during the respective private views, with hundreds of high net worth collectors coming together to browse thousands of works by established and emergent artists from around the world.

Art Basel is not just an opportunity for the galleries themselves to reach new audiences and make new sales. Such is the stature of the fair itself that - as an artist - having your work exhibited there can have a significant impact on your international profile (and the value of your work overall). 

However, times are changing, and the art market is changing with it. With increasing numbers of artworks being sold "off JPEG" (ie. without having seen it in real life), much of the art market is migrating online - in spite of the eye-watering sums paid for such items. Art Basel's parent company, MCH Group, saw the opportunity to evolve their proposition into an online/offline art market platform - to, in their own words, "own the art ecosystem" - and invited Atelier, Leo Burnett's luxury & lifestyle specialists, to help them define and execute their digital product strategy accordingly. 

With a clear view on the endgame, we tackled the project in three core stages that would make the task more manageable, not just in terms of logistics at the coal-face, but also in terms of managing complex stakeholder requirements, and perceptions of the brand amongst gallery owners and the collectors themselves.

First, we got the basics right, overhauling an antiquated website, and ensuring that the CRM-layer (for both exhibiting galleries and various levels of VIP) was as elegant and efficient as possible.

Then we looked at how we could use technology to enhance the visitors' experience of the fair itself, by means of a native app. And only then did we move on to define a commerce layer that would enable Art Basel to connect the most prestigious private galleries with the most influential collectors to sell the best artworks in the world, 24/7/365. 


Over several months, we set about understanding the nuances not just of Art Basel, but the art market as a whole. We conducted stakeholder interviews all over the world, with MCH team members, gallery owners and assistants, art buyers and collectors. We generated personas that gave the wider project team a short-hand for describing the various different (and often competing) agendas across the art market. And we identified and prioritised user needs that should be delivered against at each stage of the process.


In the first instance, the website was reframed to allow visitors and VIPs to get a clear sense of who and what was being exhibited, and plan their attendance. A flexible CMS and front-end build enabled the Art Basel team to follow the ebb-and-flow of the year, generating excitement in the run up to a fair, signposting what's happening right now when the fair was actually on, or summarising the highlights shortly thereafter for those that couldn't make it.


When it came to the app, we conducted extensive interviews and ethnographic studies on the ground at Art Basel Miami Beach, to understand what existing behaviours could be leveraged and enhanced at the fair moving forward. Particular attention was paid to making it as easy, and enjoyable, as possible to browse the catalogue - to then draw up your shortlist of artworks and exhibitors to visit, making and recording notes as appropriate - and then, critically, navigate your way around the fair - which is immense, and an overwhelming experience at the best of times. 


We were also careful to honour some of the softer, more emotionally-driven needs and behaviours at the fair. For example, it is a context in which a great many of the visitors must be seen to be seen - with many different levels of VIP, and a great deal of social currency tied up with what level you might have been granted. Consequently, the look and feel of the app was designed to be responsive to your VIP status, with subtle design cues that could be used to convey your status to those about you. 


Ultimately, we developed a clear and coherent platform architecture that underpinned the entire venture, irrespective of channel or device; and a very clear roadmap for how to deliver on the ambition to "own the art ecosystem." This was informed not just by logistical considerations, in terms of practical, technological dependencies; but critically, by emotional and political considerations around how best to evolve the audience's mental model of the brand, from "art market fair" to "art market platform."  


This was one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever worked on - a business challenge that you could really sink your teeth into, an ambitious and highly collaborative client, and the most wonderful team of people around me, all of whom were operating at the top of their game. 

I would work with Ben again immediately. He brings simplicity and clarity to the most complex of challenges. He knows how to handle different opinions and, when it’s needed, to give direction - all while making sure you have a lot of fun along the way.
— Wanja Bont, Head of Digital, MCH Group (2013-16)