Online VIP Art Fair disappoints: Is damage fatal?

CONTEMPORARY ART COLLECTORS DEALERS ART MARKET INTERNET

The days that followed the 2011 VIP Art Fair were marked with disappointment and confusion as the site failed to hold up to the overwhelming numbers that logged on. The pre-event publicity promised a ground-breaking fair but did it live up to this promise? Art Radar guest writer Pippa Dennis reflects on her experience…

VIP Art Fair is the world's first all-online art fair. Image from vipartfair.com.

VIP Art Fair is the world's first all-online art fair. Image from vipartfair.com.

What was promised?

Founded by the James Cohan Gallery and directed by Noah Horowitz and Stephanie Schumann, VIP Art Fair featured 138 galleries from 80 different countries. Participating galleries ranged from the blue-chips such as Gagosian, Pace and White Cube to more emerging spaces like Pilar Corrias and Limoncello. Beginning at 8 am New York time on January 22 and finishing on Sunday January 30 2011, it was a uniquely expansive event and one that you could attend in your pyjamas.

Dealers paid between USD5,000 to 20,000 to rent a booth and included work that ranged in price from USD5,000 to over a million. Visitors browsed the digital galleries in a user-friendly way through an online interface designed to mimic visiting an actual art fair and standing in a physical gallery. There was even a silhouetted human figure besides each artwork giving viewers a sense of the size of each piece.

Fair Director Noah Horowitz was keen to point out that the website technology is “very very simple, really anybody can use it,” from the younger buyers that the fair was keen to attract to well-seasoned connoisseurs. Principally, this meant that the visitor could scroll through the work of the gallery and then interact with representatives through the chat window at the top of the page.

A screenshot of Gargosian Gallery's virtual booth at VIP Art Fair. Image from bloomberg.com.

A screenshot of Gargosian Gallery's virtual booth at VIP Art Fair. Image from bloomberg.com.

“The idea is outstanding and just needs to be tested to see how people react,” London-based collector Amir Shariat, chief executive of Auctor Capital Partners Ltd., told Bloomberg News. He received more than 100 emailed invitations from VIP exhibitors. “It will make contemporary art accessible to a much broader public.”

This comment was echoed by Jane Cohan on TNW,

There are collectors the world over who want easier access to the galleries and opening up this marketplace to the Internet allows them that access. Not everyone can travel to the fairs and yet they don’t want to miss out. Collectors don’t have to disrupt their schedules as much anymore now that there is VIP Art Fair.

Truly global, more affordable

With the shift in buying power moving from West to East, and as more buyers emerge from Asia, Russia, Latin America and the Middle East, the need to quickly reach these markets has never been greater. Galleries are always looking to reach the younger generation of buyers who are starting to explore the art market whilst maintaining exclusivity for their established clients. Will this new digital art venture do for art what Net a Porter has done for fashion?

Nicollette Eason of Pace/MacGill Gallery was impressed by the Fair’s ability to embrace new markets. “The reach is more global than anything we have participated in before. For example, we don’t typically see an influx of Chinese collectors at art fairs in the States but we have forged relationships with a couple of Chinese collectors during this fair.”

Hai Bo, "The Northern Series", 2005, at Pace/MacGill.

Hai Bo, "The Northern Series", 2005, at Pace/MacGill.

A virtual fair provides many practical advantages. There is unprecedented flexibility in terms of the artwork galleries can upload to their booth. Works that would be too large or too fragile to bring to a real-life fair can be shown with ease. “I can show sculpture that I would not be able to show at a regular fair,” Augusto Arbizo, director of New York gallery Eleven Rivington, told Bloomberg News. He is showing a 12-foot-tall foam and resin piece by Kevin Zucker priced at USD40,000.

As visitors view works at their leisure, there are none of the time constraints associated with a normal fair. In addition, there are no shipping or insurance costs, no need to fly people to the event and the booth costs are a fifth of what you would pay for space at, for example, Art Basel. As one young gallerist put it, “exhibiting here is cheaper than putting an ad in Frieze.” Many of the younger galleries used the Fair to massively expand their mailing lists.

Delays caused frustration, virtual vs real-life

So, what were the reactions? Due to a massive amount of traffic over the opening weekend, loading was extremely slow and galleries and visitors complained. The chat function was disabled as long delays meant collectors were logging off. Instead, if visitors were interested in a work they were encouraged to get in touch with galleries via email or the more traditional telephone. Art Review was quick to spot that privacy was being flouted when visitor email addresses were made available to galleries, whether they were making an enquiry or not.

The general opinion of the galleries that I spoke to was that the Fair was oversold and that it underperformed. Eason, for example, was certainly disappointed by the technical challenges that characterised the Fair, saying that “due to the heavy traffic, the speed of the connections has hindered some of our communications with clients.” She concluded that although it was “an interesting endeavour,” the gallery would have to evaluate whether or not they would sign up in 2012.

Judd Tully reporting for ARTINFO experienced severe dissatisfaction from one dealer:

Despite selling a work by one of her emerging artists for under USD5,000 to a significant new collector with ties to a major museum on the first day of the fair — a coup for any fair, physical or virtual — she still wants some money back from the organisers. ‘If I hadn’t sold anything or made any new contacts, I would be really furious,’ said the dealer. ‘They didn’t provide what they said they’d provide.’ The inability of dealers and buyers to talk on the site was especially irksome. ‘Without the chat feature, it doesn’t make it much different than a regular Web site,’ she said. ‘The whole point of having this venue is to interact with people.’

Australian art dealer Anna Schwartz in her pajamas. Image from brisbanetimes.com.au.

Australian art dealer Anna Schwartz in her pyjamas. Image from brisbanetimes.com.au.

And it seems the virtual world can do nothing to replicate the experiential and romantic “real-life” viewing experience. Many of the comments on blogs or Twitter criticised the flatness of the images, and the frustration of not being able to see the work in 3-D.

Despite these problems, VIP Art Fair still managed to impress. The marketing campaign was exceptional and the site itself was well-pitched and well-designed. It is just a shame that, as one gallerist put it, “they did not spend more time testing the site rather than merely concentrating on look and data.”

Can top tier art sell online?

Whether top tier art can successfully sell online has been a long standing question in the art world since Sotheby’s ended its online sales venture in 2003. But increasingly, collectors are more at ease spending big sums online. In December 2010, Saffronart, an online auction house dedicated to Indian art, sold a USD2.2 million oil painting by Aripta Singh.

Christopher Baer of Ben Brown Fine Arts thinks collectors are still nervous of buying work over a certain price bracket online. “It is easier to buy a photograph online than a painting. If you know the artist, like Gursky, Schaller or Hofer, and the quality of his work, then it is easier to judge a photograph online whereas a painting you would want to see in reality.”

By Thursday, artworks in the virtual booths had logged 5.3 million page views, according to Cohan. Some dealers had sold works, including Cohan himself, who sold Fred Tomaselli’s 2010 Study for Night Music for Raptors for USD200,000, and David Zwirner, who sold Chris Ofili’s polished 2006 bronze Mary Magdalene (Infinity) for USD375,000 to an American collector.

Matthias Schaller, 'DIS 2', 2008-2010, at Ben Browns Fine Arts.

Matthias Schaller, 'DIS 2', 2008-2010, at Ben Browns Fine Arts.

But is this enough for exhibitors to return next year? Will these clicks translate into hard cash? And although the new and uninitiated have no doubt benefited hugely from the experience, will those veteran collectors spend at the click of a button?

For more on artwork sales, click here to view the event’s closing press release.

Attracting young buyers, generating connections

Younger buyers new to collecting art have been predominantly positive about the experience. Elizabeth Higgins, a London-based buyer, used the event as a research tool. “It has been a great opportunity to browse a specially curated list of galleries and their work at leisure. I particularly enjoyed having the time to view video art as well as what the videos available in the VIP Lounge have afforded, such as the tours of private collections.”

Galleries have benefited from the data made available to them as a result of the online structure. Nicollette Eason commented on the possibilities of data gathering that only an online fair allowed. “There is way more data available. We can see who has come on to the stand, where they are from, what they looked at and how long they spent looking.” Many dealers noted over a thousand hits per image, as was the case with Washburn Gallery’s miniature one-man virtual show, “Jackson Pollock Drawings on Paper, Canvas and Sculpture”.

Speaking to ARTINFO, Copenhagen exhibitor Jens Faurschou said, “I come from another part of the world where people really don’t know what I have, and for me it’s good to show the great works we have. I hope the fair gets another chance, but people these days, they don’t have the patience.”

Georgina Adams reported in the Financial Times:

‘A lot of dealers are ticked off by the site going down,’ said one non-participating New Yorker, and there are rumours that furious demands for refund of the stand prices are already flowing in. The organisers said they cannot comment on financial relationships with individual dealers but pointed out that by Tuesday there had been almost 300,000 logins to the fair and 4 m[illion] views.

For all its faults, the Fair was certainly a bold move and a central online commercial art hub has without doubt found its place within the multi-layered world of the international art market. Let’s hope the VIP Art Fair lives to see another day.

For more VIP Art Fair facts and figures, click here to view the event’s closing press release.

Guest writer Pippa Dennis is a Chinese art specialist based in London. She has an MA in Art History and spent ten years making documentaries for the BBC before living in Shanghai and working at Eastlink Gallery. She subsequently set up Asia Art Forum, an educational platform aimed at promoting the understanding of Asian contemporary art. Click here to read more articles by this contributor.

Editorial disclaimer – The opinions and views expressed by guest writers do not necessarily reflect those of Art Radar Asia.

KN/HH

Related Topics: art fairs, business of art, market watch, art and the Internet

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