Blips for VIPs Technical Woes Plague Online Fair


If The Social Network, the Facebook flick, taught America one lesson, it was that a successful web site shall not crash. Given Art in America‘s weekend test-run of the VIP Art Fair, the world’s first online art fair, let’s call this one a beta. From the outset, functionality was sporadic. By midday Saturday an advisory note on the homepage read:

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. Please bear with us as we work to remedy this situation. Thank you.

At one point, the site completely shut down.

It had started out so well. For one thing, Julian Schnabel wasn’t the only VIP in pajamas, as I braved New York City’s 14-degree temperature from the comfort of bed.As conceived by its creators, Chelsea dealers Jane and James Cohan and collectors and techies Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, the fair aims to facilitate both focused and spur-of-moment acquisitions.

When the site was functional, here’s what I found: a clean and simple interface, with stark white backdrop walls (and info icons). The virtual booths are framed in a crisp grey, black and orange color scheme, with
functions similar to luxury shopping sites like Gilt or Net-a-Porter with easy-to-use scrolling/zooming features.

Once you login, one can tour by search for a particular artist, creating a tour of favorites, or searching through those of fellow fair-goers (provided they submit it). The “incidental viewing” that’s possible when searching through a tour is quite seamless—you can start in one booth looking at an Elizabeth Peyton portrait and end up zooming in on a Roxy Paine sculpture, just as you would while walking a real fair.

By noon I’d scoured about a dozen booths, uploaded a slideshow tour of favorite works, taken guided tours (from VVIPs like Jason Rubell), and visited the “VIP Lounge,” equipped with news blogs, perfunctory video tours of collectors’ homes, and brief, minimally insightful in-studio profiles with William Kentridge, Julie Mehretu, and Paul McCarthy.

Highlights included the innovation in the work shown by certain South American and Asian galleries, including Seoul’s Gallery Hyundai, Tokyo’s Ota Fine Arts, and Sao Paulo’s Galeria Raquel Arnaud.  Points also go to New York’s LTMH Gallery, Reykjavik’s I8, and Rio’s A Gentil Carioca. The latter actually let visitors sponsor planned public art projects. London’s Limoncello Gallery added a humorous layer to the white wall aesthetic by showing Polaroids of their works for sale.

Just as you’d find in the real world, every VIP-based encounter involves email, and digital images—only the pictures here may be a bit more detailed. “Every was skeptical,” says Cohan, in an interview before the fair began.

They got over the skepticism, he says, when they saw the privacy features (each page has an encrypted key code), booth design, and virtual reality functions.

At Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, users could zoom in to the granular level of a Rob Pruitt glitter painting. “You can see the glue that’s used to create this work,” Cohan told me in his west Chelsea office last week, showing me a Tom Friedman pencil sculpture from his gallery. He was right.

Comprising 139 galleries from 30 countries, the fair is divided according to size and scope: LARGE; galleries exhibiting 20 works; MEDIUM; galleries exhibiting 15 works; FOCUS; galleries bringing eight works from a single artist; and EMERGING, with galleries presenting 10 works by emerging artists.

The $100 VIP pass gives users early access-regular admission is $20 and begins today, Monday—this bandwidth/server issue would be a non-starter to most, unless the glitches continue. But there were more than 8500 VIPs and 12,500 total passholders as of last week, from as far afield as Afghanistan and Australia.

Direct sales cannot be made through VIP, which feels curious. Cohan says the platform facilitates dialogues that can happen “in 10 seconds or over 10 years.” Nonetheless, isn’t part of the point to demystify this exceedingly unregulated market for the outsider?

The VIP in VIP Art Fair stands for “Viewing in Private.” Still, at best, VIP is a one-week-only, quasi-social networking opportunity that isn’t free from the attendant elitist pecking order that has always ruled the art world. Participating galleries had access to the site last week and VVIPs got access on Friday, before regular VIPs.

According to Cohan, the difference between VIP and its tent-and-booth analog is “the time to actually digest a lot of information and the ability to learn an enormous amount about a gallery’s perspective, the artist’s ideas, and general price ranges.” That’s a high-minded assessment. Aside from contact info and quality images of a few disparate works, you’d probably have a better understanding of a gallery and its artist and price range via Google and their respective websites. Those services come free.

While it might be potentially less intimidating for an art world novice to approach a gallery salesperson via email, it’s not quicker. I never heard back regarding a private room request (basically a viewing of unlisted works) for David Zwirner. Most of the blue-chip galleries had no one available to chat after 5:30 PM. Or did they?

Chilean gallery Gonzalez y Gonzalez got back to me promptly about a request to see four separate marble-powder infused paintings from Chilean artist Jorge Tacla, but it took 45 minutes to together the pdf files, which came via email. “The fair is having some issues at the moment,” said a representative from the gallery. “So it was quicker to send these by e-mail.”

The next morning a Tokyo gallery sent me a chat: “Sir, did you talk to me several hours ago? If so, your message did not come to me because of the system trouble. I’m sorry for this inconvenience, but I’d appreciate it if you could write to me if you have inquiries.” When I inquired about the work in question it was sold. Admittedly, if I were seeking out the painting in earnest I would have called, texted, skyped. But why pay extra for the chat and private room access, especially when the site didn’t archive a record of my Saturday chats?

Jane Cohan chalked up the troubles to abundant traffic, and representatives indicate that programmers are working round-the-clock. But when collectors paying for early access, the last thing they want to come in between them and an acquisition is bandwidth.

Large galleries—Gagosian, L&M Arts, White Cube—paid $20,000 to participate in the fair, a fraction of in-real-life fairs, with far less overhead. The fee is $3000 for Emerging booths. For that, according to Cohan, they got “a platform, the aggregation, and a pretty extensive marketing campaign,” and a piece of the novelty.

Whether that novelty inspires the same herd of top-tier galleries to participate in a second annual VIP Art Fair, and whether buyers flock to buy art on the net, remains to be seen.