Could Online VIP Art Fair Ever Replace Real Thing?

VIP Art Fair

The VIP Art Fair – the the world’s first exclusively online art fair – opens to the public today: but is it a viable alternative to the real thing?

The VIP Art Fair – the world’s first exclusively online art fair – has today opened to the public. With the aim of ‘translating the experience of a traditional bricks-and-mortar fair to an online environment’, the fair boasts some 115 galleries – from Limoncello and Kate Macgarry, to Gagosian and White Cube –, each of whom have uploaded virtual galleries for our perusal. But do online fairs have what it takes to replace the real thing? And, most importantly from the gallerist’s standpoint, will buyers really be willing to part with big money for a work they have only seen on-screen?

While some galleries such as Bischoff/Weiss have already sold work, gallerists remain uncertain as to how events will pan out. ‘It is difficult to say because we are yet to see the console which will allow us to view who has visited our site’, Oliver Miro or Victoria Miro explained to ArtLyst; ‘but we have had many enquiries online which have been interesting via the chat system’, he added. There is, or course, the insurmountable problem of viewing artwork – a commodity in which pleasure is derived often via tangibility – on screen. It is a point well made by Miro that, while ‘the online genre is certainly interesting’, you have to ‘understand the artists and their work to be able to look at certain pieces and understand how they would look in real life’: ‘anyone that is new to an artist would have trouble fully appreciating work of an artist they would see for the first time online’.

This difficulty is multiplied ten-fold when the work in question is sculptural; but, equally, very few would vouch for reproductions of two-dimensional works as an adequate replacement for the real thing. In the words of Elena Bortolotti of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, ‘nothing replaces the experience of seeing art in person’. This, however, does not mean that an enterprise like the VIP does not have its uses: ‘Rather than posting a number of works that are for sale, we are trying to use VIP Art Fair for “events”’, Bortolotti explained, with today’s event being a live performance by Terence Koh. For her, VIP ‘permits collectors from around the globe to get acquainted with our program and hopefully, they’ll check out our own website or come visit us one day.’ Emma Fernberger of Kate Macgarry has a similar point of view, ‘thinking of VIP as an opportunity to advertise what we have in our gallery’, presenting a virtual version of the gallery’s current show with Renee So, while Paola Weiss of Bischoff/ Weiss welcomes the opportunity to ‘meet new people’, and has already made some ‘interesting contacts’ – ‘especially art consultants from the USA’.  And so – although there is a general consensus that online fair like VIP could never replace ‘real’ fairs, they are, without doubt complementary – something of a ‘conversation starter’, as Miro puts it.

There does seem to be some sort of umbilical pull towards the real world, with buyers reluctant to rely on the VIP’s interface, contacting and dealing the galleries outside of the system. ‘It’s interesting that most of them look at the booth and then will email directly the gallery for images rather than using the fair back rooms’, commented Paola Weiss of Bischoff/ Weiss, while Emma Fernberger of Kate Macgarry has had a similar experience: ‘The chat function is a nice addition, but mostly if people are interested in work, they tend to either call or email, as they did last year.’ Perhaps this side-stepping has something to do with the current look and functionality of the site. ‘I felt a bit confused with the booth layout to tell you the truth, it is very hard to present works beautifully on a screen’, admitted Weiss, ‘and I think the fair needs a bit of tweaking here and there, especially with the communication part’. But, despite these hiccoughs, most are in agreement with Fernberger, that ‘the fair is working much better than it did last year’.

And, it is worth remembering, there are some things that an online fair can actually do better that your traditional bricks and mortar outfit. ‘I think some buyers like the fact that they don’t have a face to face pressure’, Paola Weiss commented. ‘I always hear of those collectors who are not regular buyers, or not in art circles, being intimidated by entering a booth and asking questions’, she explained. But, in her belief, the openness of VIP’s format – clearly displaying both the prices of works, and the names of artists – ‘empowers some buyers who feel they lack the knowledge on art works’. This obvious benefit has not been lost on the fairs organisers, with VIP in fact standing for ‘Viewing In Private’. They have also been careful not to exclude potential buyers at the sign-up stage, allowing everyone and everyone to create a profile and view the works online. As Kate MacGarry’s Fernberger explains: ‘The obvious perk of doing an online art fair is that virtually anyone internationally can access it – not just those who have the time to hop on a plane’. For her, this opportunity for ‘a wider audience is definitely a draw’. Words: Thomas Keane © 2011 ArtLyst

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