VIP Art Fair: a virtual failure?

Forget Very Important People; forget being seen. Last week’s VIP Art Fair – whose acronym stands for “Viewing in Private” – was the first art fair ever attended by people dressed pyjamas. It was also the first art fair to take place exclusively online

When, on January 22 ,138 contemporary art galleries from 30 countries opened their virtual booths to the online public, expectations were high. The fair closed, however, on Sunday night after 10 days of mixed success and technical malfunction – with, as gallerist and fair organiser James Cohan put it, “some very sore feelings”.

It’s not hard to see why VIP generated such a pre-launch buzz. An online art fair free to browse and modelled on a bricks and mortar fair with three easy-to-navigate “exhibition halls” – what could be simpler? We were told it would be as good as the best international art fairs (with the likes of White Cube, Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian taking part) only, unlike those fairs, it would be stress-free.

Those with special-access (and confusingly named) “VIP” passes were promised “a program of interactive and enriched viewing”, which included private video chat with dealers and exclusive access to galleries’ “back rooms”. It was this kind of instant, personalised communication, we were told, that would make the VIP Art Fair not just a website but an event.

So what went wrong? By the evening of the first day, an “advisory note” had been posted on the website that warned: “Due to the overwhelming number of visitors from around the world who have logged on to VIP Art Fair since its launch at 8am EST this morning, the Fair is currently experiencing slower than normal response rates”.

Frustration mounted as word spread that the website had crashed. On Twitter it was dubbed the Very Inactive Page. Those who had bought $100 weekend “VIP” passes, for the privilege of early access (they were $20 after Sunday), began to demand their money back. The dealers, who had paid up to $20,000 for a booth, were more reluctant to voice their concerns during the progress of the fair. When I contacted White Cube at the start of the week, a representative told me the gallery would issue no statement until after the fair – adding that I must have heard the site had “had some problems”.

On Monday, a new note apologised to visitors for the “delays, error messages or slow processing speed” during the opening weekend. It reassured them that, “We have stabilised the system and wish to invite you back to visit the fair.” To minimise the pressure exerted on this evidently fragile system, the “Chat with Gallery” function was disabled – removing one of the fair’s key benefits to both dealers and buyers – and communication by e-mail or telephone encouraged instead.

Before the opening of the fair, the New York-based David Zwirner gallery commented, “We are excited to participate in VIP Art Fair‘s transformative and innovative sales platform and certainly expect it to enrich the way we do business.”

But did it meet their expectations? Julia Joern, marketing director at the gallery, told me she had felt frustrated on the first day, mainly because she didn’t know whether the technical problems would last “one hour, one day or one week”. But things began to look up, she said, with the sale of Chris Ofili’s “Mary Magdalene (Infinity)” (2006) to an American private collector for $375,000.

This was where VIP came into its own, she insisted. Traditional art fairs tend to favour works that are easy to transport around the world and install in small booths – but, in a virtual environment, sculptures and installations can be displayed more easily and often more sympathetically (many pieces here even had short accompanying films). It is, perhaps, unsurprising then that two of the most important sales of the week were the Ofili bronze and Angus Fairhurst’s two-metre sculpture of a gorilla (also bronze) titled “I’m sorry, and I won’t do it again”, sold by the London-based Sadie Coles gallery for $200,000.

Of course, things could have been better. For David Zwirner, the sudden disabling of chat feature resulted in few requests from collectors to see their virtual “back room” (containing 80 of their 100 works). VIP’s early technical problems seemed to uncover the experimental nature of the whole venture, with different galleries approaching it differently. Lieselotte Seaton, sales manager at Sadie Coles, admitted the gallery didn’t make use of VIP’s back room or chat features because they weren’t sure how the fair was going to work. “We had no concrete expectations,” she said.

In the end, it was VIP’s traditional art fair features – such as its fixed time-frame – that, in Seaton’s words, “focused the collectors”. The failure of the chat function, though “frustrating”, meant that the gallery only dealt with those who were serious about buying, she said.

That said, both participants and organisers were keen to stress that the VIP Art Fair was always more about publicity than e-commerce (PayPal doesn’t deal in millions, after all). Features such as the pan-gallery Artist Pages, with biographies, pictures and videos, proved popular, totting up 42,300 page views over the week. “Education comes first, deals second,” said James Cohan when I spoke to him after the fair. He referred to the website as an “enormous resource” – one that was not be dismantled at the end of the fair, but that galleries will use “on an ongoing basis” (the details of which are yet to be confirmed: watch this space).

Cohan called the first fair “a big success overall”; others demanded their money back. But a second edition has been scheduled for 2012, and no one can deny that the internet is now so important to the way people encounter art, that the art world cannot ignore it. Over 41,000 people registered for VIP; David Zwirner even hired a digital marketing manager to oversee the gallery’s presence at the fair. In 2010, Christie’s saw a 22 per cent increase in new clients registering for auctions, and recorded 28 per cent of buyers bidding online. Commerce is now more global than ever, and the art world both bigger and – when the technology allows – better connected.

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