If Malraux's museé imaginaire can be considered the theoretical foundation for the virtual museum, then the VIP Art Fair is it's commercial offspring, an "international art fair without walls." Entirely online, VIP (which stands, with less humor than perhaps intended, for Viewing in Private) is a web-based live event taking place from January 22-30, 2010 that will allow international collectors and art aficionados to browse galleries, speak to dealers and purchase artworks all from the privacy of their own homes. The website hosting the event, www.vipartfair.com, will entirely reconstruct the space of the contemporary international art fair right down to the VIP lounge, allowing participators to "visit" 139 galleries from 30 countries, among them heavy hitters like Gagosian and White Cube, who have paid for stalls in the virtual space. If Second Life is an online world for the ordinary avatar, then VIP Art Fair is a space for the Netjets set, those whose hunger for collecting art can no longer be quenched in the physical world.
We met up with Jane Cohan, who runs the James Cohan Gallery, based in New York and Shanghai, with her husband, Jim Cohan. With Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, a pair of Internet entrepreneurs recently transplanted from Silicon Valley, the couple has worked on the VIP Art Fair concept for over three years. The final result, which Jane toured me through, is a meticulously executed online replication of the now ubiquitous international art fair. "We know what the dealer needs, we know what the collector needs, we know what the art advisor needs," Jane told me when I asked her why her team was able to so successfully re-build the space of the fair in a virtual environment. "And we're mad. We're the perfect people to be Internet entrepreneurs because we're absolute idiots at it."
When the site goes live in January, visitors will find themselves in an atrium, where they will be presented with a map of the galleries participating in the event. They will be able to click on the names of galleries that they are interested in browsing, and be directed to a booth where the artworks are "hanging on the walls." They can then click on the reproduction of the painting (or photograph or sculpture, etc), and zoom in, giving them a sense of scale and texture. If they are interested in learning about the artist represented (during my tour, Jane showed me a painting by Roxy Paine that might very well have reched its full visual potential on the high-definition computer monitor), they can click onto a page that gives them biographical facts, video documentaries and background information on each work.
Browsing the site is free for all visitors, but personal interactions with dealers, who will virtually man the booths in real time for 12 to 18 hours a day, will be reserved for potential buyers. These buyers will be able to speak to the dealers via Skype, email, or on the phone, unencumbered by the distracting air kisses and toe stepping that characterize interactions at art fairs in real space. "It's our job to build artist's careers," Jane explained to me. "It used to be that we could create these well-appointed galleries where collectors could have the space and time to view the works. The wealth was more concentrated then. As it grows more global, our job is to bring the work of our artist's global. The art fair is one of these forums where these artists are able to grow."
Paying visitors will be privy to information such a pricing and availability. They will also have access to the VIP lounge, where they can go on virtual art tours to up to eight private collections, including one owned by a Japanese collector that is physically housed in a guest house designed by Tadao Ando. When asked if there would be beverages to accompany the virtual tours, Jane jokingly told me that the lounge will have free cocktail recipes.
The VIP Art Fair will no doubt engage raise skepticism regarding the feasibility of selling original artworks online. But the global art market has shown time and time again that quality and facture matter far less than pure commodity value, and I have very few doubts that the VIP Art Fair will prove that a table can dance just as well on its head in a virtual world as it can in real life.