DOES the world need another international art fair? With ARCOmadrid in February, Tefaf in March, Art Basel in June, Frieze in October, Miami in December and a dozen fringe fairs in between, the travel schedule of art and antique dealers has become impossibly busy. The annual circuit is costly, too: dealers have to pay for their booths as well as the cost of travel, shipping and Chardonnay.
The VIP (for Viewing in Private) Art Fair, which will open on January 22nd and run for a week, promises to cut costs dramatically for buyers and sellers of contemporary art: it will take place exclusively in the virtual world. VIP was created by James and Jane Cohan, a couple of New York art dealers who teamed up with two internet entrepreneurs three years ago when the art world was about to be hit by recession.
At the last count 138 galleries from 30 countries had signed up. They range from established shops like London’s White Cube and New York’s David Zwirner to relative newcomers such as i8 in Reykjavik. Gallery owners can choose between three sizes of virtual booths for their wares, for about one-fifth as much as a traditional art fair charges. Mere browsing is free, although visitors must pay for access to an instant-messaging system, price lists and dealers’ private rooms.
After logging in visitors will arrive in an atrium displaying a map of the exhibition with the names of participating galleries. A click on a gallery name will lead them into the gallery’s booth where they can view pictures from different angles and distances and zoom in to inspect them closely—not often possible with the photographs art dealers and auction houses put on their own websites, and impossible in a printed catalogue. For those who prefer to wander, the fair will have three “exhibition halls”. Top artists such as Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami will be grouped in the Premier hall, whereas galleries showing eight works by a single artist will be assembled in the Focus hall and galleries with up-and-coming artists will be in the Emerging hall.
Dealers and auction houses have approached the internet warily. Christie’s, one of the two big international fine-art auctioneers, launched LIVE, an online bidding system, in 2006. Sotheby’s, its main rival, launched BidNow only last year after the failure of two early forays into online auctions in partnerships with the technology giants Amazon and eBay at the beginning of the last decade.
In 2010 Christie’s sold some $114m worth of art and antiques online, amounting to 16% of its lots. Yet this represented only 3% of total sales. Christie’s clients bid on the internet for commoditised items such as watches, wine, prints and jewellery. For the auctioneer’s most expensive offerings—paintings, sculptures and antiques—they telephoned or went to the saleroom and bid at auction by raising their arms, as they have done for centuries.
The real advantage of Christie’s digital offering is that it draws new customers: more than half of the firm’s online bidders last year had never registered for a Christie’s auction before. Attracting new customers is also the main reason why dealers signed up for the VIP art fair. They expect visitors mainly to gather information about their offerings and follow up with a phone call. For reasons of privacy, no sale will be conducted on the fair’s site. “Our expectations for actual sales during the art fair are modest,” says Ms Cohan.
Michael O’Neal, head of digital media at Christie’s, thinks the success of the new fair will depend on whether it can build a brand and whether the participating dealers will get enough new leads from the fair’s visitors that result in actual sales. VIP has one selling point that traditional art fairs cannot offer: it can show huge outdoor sculptures and other art that cannot be moved easily.