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Art is how we make sense of our world. It emboldens us with a new sense of understanding and empathy whilst raising questions about the future.

“Great work inherently challenges our perception of ourselves … [It] pushes you beyond your own personal experience and into the experience of the artist and their intent. It helps us grow as individuals," says Corrie Jackson, senior curator for Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), which returns as principal partner of this year's Masterpiece London Art Fair  (Masterpiece) for the ninth year.

In a sense, this year's Masterpiece captures that growth. It features works from antiquity to the present day, spanning cultural and social experiences across the globe, including a selection of works from the bank's collection.

There's a distinct undertone to this year's Masterpiece - it is the first in-person edition since 2019. Having moved to digital-only events during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year's art fair is taking place in a world that has been transformed digitally, socially and experientially – a world in which art is an inherently different experience.

The art world enters a new digital reality

Technology has shifted art experiences from galleries to the digital realm. The pre-pandemic momentum of technological disruption was supercharged by a predominantly virtual world. This saw historic auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's add new virtual experiences and start auctioning virtual art and collectibles, such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

“A lot of museums have shifted programming and engagement to digital platforms," says Jackson. Digital platforms, social media and new ways of experiencing art have made art more accessible and exposure more achievable for creators. "It's given us the ability to have conversations across the world in a really immediate way," says Jackson.

Taken together with the emergence of new tools like artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the growth of the metaverse, it raises the question: what is the role of art in the future?

people talking in gallery Masterpiece2019

The possibilities and choices ahead

Art has always been a tool for connecting with others and the world around us, says Jackson – especially when it exposes us to perspectives outside of our own. “[It] helps us understand the possibilities and choices that are ahead of us as individuals and as a society, and different ways that we might work through those challenges."

Some artists have taken to exploring those futurities. “It's the artist's role to push, experiment and challenge our experience of what we might assume as a status quo," explains Jackson. Technology offers an opportunity to push those limits.

Angela Palmer, a sculptor and installation artist whose work will be on display at Masterpiece, uses techniques from science and medicine to explore new visual terrains.

At the core of her work are scanning and mapping techniques that allow her to create new representations of the human body and animal form. “I'm interested in what lies hidden below and peeling back the layers," says Palmer. “Technology is essential. It's imperative. I could not produce the work that I have over the last 20 years without technology."

Palmer takes her ideas to scientists to contemplate how best to execute them using the latest technology. “Twenty years ago, it seemed strange," she says. But Palmer has noticed a change in sentiment as technology has taken on a more palpable presence in daily life in recent decades. “People were a little uncomfortable; they'd say 'But is this art or is it science?'" she explains. “Now I think the savvy collector is very comfortable with that marriage of science and art."

Palmer's work The Last Frontier, 2021 saw her collaborating with Harvard Medical School to create a sculpture of a brain in a meter-by-meter square at a resolution 1,000 times higher than any MRI had created before. “It allows people to see right through the brain in a transparent way … they're using their own brain to look at this brain and to try and understand it," says the artist. “I think it helps people contemplate and reflect on themselves and their own place in the world."

In the same way technology offers an opportunity to push the limits of art, it also changes the way we ask questions.

The gateway to creative thinking

For Patrick Hurst, a sculptor who works primarily with metals, technology, like 3D printing, has changed the way ideas are translated into works of art. “[Additive manufacturing] has almost democratised this digital way of working," says Hurst, whose work will also be on display during Masterpiece. He points out that anyone with a laptop and a 3D printer can inexpensively turn their ideas into physical objects. “I can finish my dinner, set something off to print, go to sleep, and wake up in the morning and I've got a new idea realised in 3D."

As the gap between ideas and physical interpretations shrinks, it makes room for new voices and new creators, especially emerging artists looking to explore new mediums. From Hurst's perspective, that's one of art's greatest roles in building the future – it's a gateway to creative thinking.

“If people diminish the value of art, then they diminish the value of creative thinking … if you diminish the value of those things, then you don't progress at all, because people don't see a solution," he says. “If you can value art in education, you can value creativity or creative thinking in all areas – and that will help anything, from health and well-being to business, to economics, to politics."

Both Jackson and Palmer share a similar sentiment. Art has always been a tool of social dialogue and education. “Art can help us look afresh at the world, and it can challenge our preconceptions," says Palmer. It can help create the emotional foundations for a brighter future. “Art pulls us back into shared conversations and gives us the tools for understanding each other – tools of empathy, awareness, reflection and connection that are essential," Jackson says. “It has an important role to play in our future, offering us moments to understand all possible futurities."

Find out more about the evolution of the art market.