Salon 94 booth at VIP Art Fair (image from VIP Art Fair)

When the VIP (Viewing in Private) Art Fair kicks off this Saturday January 22, there won’t be mad dash of collectors behind the gates, ready to snap up any work on view. The only crush might be an overloaded server or a long login time as patrons struggle to sign in. VIP marks the first digital-only commercial art fair: prospective buyers will simply visit the fair’s website and virtually peruse galleries’ wares for the event’s duration, through January 30. Founded by James Cohan Gallery, directed by Noah Horowitz and Stephanie Schumann and featuring 138 galleries from 80 different countries, of every magnitude from Marianne Boesky to Winkleman Gallery, the VIP Art Fair is a uniquely expansive event. But it’s also not as different as it initially appears.

To make the experience of digitally browsing art more viewer-friendly, the online interface of VIP Art Fair has been designed to better mimic the experience of standing in a physical gallery. I spoke with fair director Noah Horowitz about VIP’s approach to art viewing. Horowitz was quick to point out that the website’s technology is “very very simple, really anybody should be able to use it,” even older luddite collectors. That means no fancy flash animation, just a scrolling panel for art viewing and a chat window, “much like Skype,” that will allow full price ticket buyers to interact with dealers and gallery assistants. A silhouetted human figure set aside each artwork, viewed one at a time, “will allow [galleries] to show [their art] within a real relative size,” Horowitz says. A 5-foot canvas stretches a little over the human figure’s head, while a 50 foot sculpture will cause the viewing window to pan out in virtual space, showing the human figure dwarfed by the artwork.

Galleria Massimo de Carlo booth at VIP Art Fair (image courtesy VIP Art Fair)

This flexibility also marks another advantage for VIP: galleries are free to “bring” whatever art they want to this digital art fair, a rare opportunity given the restrictions of physical fairs. There are “no incremental costs” for the fair, Horowitz says, galleries “don’t pay for shipping, insurance or flying a team in.” But at VIP, galleries also don’t lose the possibility to curate their space. Participants will choose how high to hang their work on their digital walls, how far to space works apart and what order to display them in. The only limit is the amount of virtual real estate galleries purchase, which determines how many pieces they can bring. The largest virtual booth will allow galleries to have 20 public works on view and 80 in storage at a cost of $20,000, “less than 20% of what they pay to go to Basel,” Horowitz points out.

The extent to which galleries can control the appearance of their art online is the most important innovation of the VIP Art Fair, and a new standard for digital art viewing. Horowitz admits that buying art based on a jpeg “is already happening.” But what VIP hopes to do well is to “provide a sophisticated way to harness that,” a way to formalize the digital art viewing and purchasing already going on. Websites like 20×200 and the new Collectionof use the internet as a virtual gallery to sell work, but they fail to change the basic experience of viewing art online, as a context-less still image. Galleries will also have the ability to attached multimedia to the art on display, and Horowitz notes that several have produced videos documenting their art as well as biography videos for their artists.

There are no artist projects or non-profit spaces included in this first VIP Art Fair, but Horowitz remains hopeful that these opportunities will develop in future fairs.

Johann König booth at VIP Art Fair (image courtesy of VIP Art Fair)

It’s important to note that no actual buying and selling will be done at VIP Art Fair. Visitors won’t have the option of an Amazon-like ‘add to cart’ or ‘check out’ button. Instead, VIP will act more as a digital storefront for galleries’ physical operations. “We are a third party connective mechanism,” Horowitz emphasizes, and will not take any commission on sold works. All final deal making will be done offline, so don’t expect your Yinka Shonibare sculpture purchase to come straight to your door. For VIP, the art fair isn’t about making sales; it’s about building an online-friendly art buying community that can foster personal connections offline as well. What VIP Art Fair will lack in art world tribal rituals (unless there’s a gallerist LAN party I don’t know about?), it will gain in ease of access and lack of an entrance barrier for viewers. As a compliment to the physical fairs, I think that’s a good thing.

If VIP is a success, it will be because the fair succeeds in making viewing art online a pleasant, engaging experience. It doesn’t matter that buying art online isn’t an entirely new concept; it matters that VIP seems to be trying to do it on a higher level than its competitors, with a better selection of galleries, art, artists, and multimedia resources. Theoretically, every gallery website could have an online storefront on the level of VIP, with public access to works on view and flat files. But they don’t online viewing as seriously as they should, and that’s where VIP is a welcome change and a new step in the development of the art world online.

The first VIP Art Fair runs from January 22 through 30, 2011 at their website. Access is free by registration, but tickets that allow access to prices and chat options run $20 for a Monday through Saturday pass and $100 for the full week. 12-13,000 people have already pre-registered, Horowitz says, including 8,000 full-price tickets and 3-4,000 browse-only public access. Galleries are recommended to stay open 12 hours a day, but it remains to be seen at what times the virtual booths will be staffed. Just think: you don’t even have to wait in line for an espresso. Keep it tuned to Hyperallergic for impressions of the fair itself.

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

4 replies on “How the VIP Art Fair Innovates Online Art Viewing (and Buying)”

  1. I went to the launch party for this last night and the website for the fair was available for party-goers to scroll around it. The graphics and visual capabilities are incredible. It doesn’t replace seeing the work, but it definitely sets a new and higher bar for on-line art viewing.

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