The future has yet to arrive for online art fairs

VIP Art Fair expands its business model and improves technology, but big-name dealers are unconvinced


The online-only VIP art fair opened its second edition to the public on 3 to 8 February after a disappointing 2011 debut that was marred by major technical glitches. VIP 2.0 went off without a hitch, thanks to an overhauled operating system and redesigned, more user-friendly, website.

The fair is aligning itself with top-tier dealers. “We are a luxury brand, creating a luxury site experience,” says Lisa Kennedy, the fair’s chief executive. To wit, nearly 200 of the 1,500 plus works on offer were valued at more than $100,000, with at least ten works above the $1m mark. Among this year’s 135 participating exhibitors were leading galleries David Zwirner, Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Pace, White Cube, Marian Goodman and Victoria Miro.

The keyword is access: the organisers hope to connect dealers to potential new collectors, and those potential buyers to the top galleries. The fair is “not taking art outside of the gallery context. It’s not an e-commerce site where you put a work of art in a shopping basket,” says the fair’s co-founder Jane Cohan.

The organisers plan to expand the brand, launching three new fairs later this year for works on paper, photography and contemporary art. They are considering five additional events including contemporary Asian, Latin American, design, video and antiques. The idea is to track consumer data to gauge collectors’ interests and generate new boutique online fairs, says Kennedy, adding that new technology should be up and running in time for the VIP Photo fair in July. The organisation is in the process of translating the website into Mandarin to accommodate the growing Asian art market.

So, how did these strategies play out in the real world? According to the organisers, VIP 2.0 had 70,000 registered users from 155 countries who logged in more than 150,000 times. These are impressive numbers, but converting traffic into sales is critical and reports from dealers were decidedly mixed.

“From our point of view, this fair was a total waste of time. Our expectations going in were, frankly, quite low, and they were not even met. We sold nothing. We had no exchanges of any consequence,” says New York gallerist David Zwirner. This opinion was echoed by Pierre Ravelle-Chapuis of Van de Weghe Fine Art, which was showing secondary market pieces, priced at over $500,000, by artists including Richard Prince and Andy Warhol. Ravelle-Chapuis was only contacted by five people during the fair, and only one of those was a collector. Other gallerists including Elisabetta Di Grazia and Antonio Tucci Russo of Galleria Tucci Russo said they had interest, but no sales.

Dealers selling at a lower price point seemed to have more success. Christine Koenig Galerie from Vienna sold a Jimmie Durham sculpture for €50,000 to a European collector, and had several additional works by the artist on reserve. Rio de Janeiro’s A Gentil Carioca gallery sold works by Brazilian artists and had a piece on reserve by an important American collector. Emerging New York gallerist Ana Cristea sold a painting by Bogdan Vladuta priced between $10,000 and $25,000 and drawings by Caroline Walker. Pékin Fine Arts of Beijing sold a sculpture by Eko Nugroho, photographs by John Clang, and was negotiating additional sales. Dealers from these galleries said that they are committed to returning in 2013.

A persistent complaint remains the lack of fresh inventory at the fair. Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac avoided this pitfall, using the online platform to mount a series of seven single-artist shows of mainly new work that changed daily, encouraging repeat viewings. This ambitious presentation included a 24-hour exclusive live performance by Terence Koh, a preview of never-before exhibited pieces by Raqib Shaw, and a drawing show by Robert Longo. According to the gallery’s Matthieu Lelièvre: “It was really important for us to show something current, not just works but our entire programme. We received interest and enquiries for all of our shows. An online art fair is low investment for amazing exposure.”

o Online art fairs this year: VIP Paper

(20-22 April), VIP Photo (13-15 July), VIP Vernissage (7-9 September)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The future has yet to arrive'