The Web has enabled the advent of the pajama-clad, online shopping experience, but can e-commerce work in one of the world’s most lucrative retail markets?
The founders of the VIP Art Fair — James and Jane Cohan, owners of the James Cohan Gallery in New York and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren — believe so. They’ve created the world’s first virtual, limited-time art marketplace and branded it an “art fair.” It recently concluded its second-year incarnation, dubbed “VIP 2.0,” earlier this month (Feb. 3-8).
There was impressive participation from 135 leading galleries representing 35 countries, including Gagosian, Pace, David Zwirner, Hauser & Wirth and White Cube. The galleries were segmented into categories from large to emerging and there was also a segment for prints. There were more than 1,000 works by stellar contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst, and emerging artists, many bordering on the cusp of the big time.
In essence, the VIP Art Fair functioned much like an e-commerce website, but available for a limited time. Purchases were made directly through the dealers, with the website providing a portal to showcase art in the same way an e-commerce site showcases any product. Rather than entering items into a shopping cart or wish list, visitors were invited to save works in an area designated, “My Collection.”
Prominent art world figures, such as tennis-star-turned-art-dealer John McEnroe and Miami collector Dennis Scholl, publicly shared their “My Collections,” thereby highlighting interesting works.
Fair visitors could browse anonymously via avatars, so people got to enter the virtual fair looking like such art world regulars as a Bergdof-clad collector, or scruffy art intellectual. Navigating the fair’s website was easy. Landing pages contained boxes that served like front doors, and when you clicked on them you entered a virtual gallery space and could view individual artworks through a scrolling display. It was easy to chat with, or email, the galleries.
Once inside the virtual gallery space, you could click for details about the artist, size and materials. Prices were visible on some works, but on others you had to email the gallery. There was a “scale” button, and when you clicked it, the display adjusted the artwork in relation to your human-scaled avatar.
If numbers are the only measure of success, the fair did well, boasting 73,000 registered attendants from 155 countries. In case you’re not familiar with online measurements, those are good stats for such a short period of time. By comparison, Art Basel Miami Beach, which ran for five days in December, concluded with “record attendance,” but that only brought 50,000 visitors through the convention center’s doors.
However, behemoth fairs such as Basel deliver the same prominent, yet predictable, usual-art-world-suspects. In the case of VIP 2.0, visitors included people not inclined, or perhaps even interested, in traveling to an art fair, but with the means to make major purchases. VIP 2.0 reported a growth in visitor numbers from key emerging markets, including a 278 percent increase in visitors from India, 288 percent from the UAE, 277 percent from Brazil, 409 percent from Turkey, 319 percent from Mexico, and 456 percent from Chile.
In many respects, VIP delivered the unparalleled ability to reach new clients for not that much more than the price of an ad in one of the major art trades, and without the hassles or costs associated with shipping, setup, or staffing at real-life fairs. This also makes VIP a platform for expanding the global reach of art gallery brands.
Final sales information is still being compiled, but Jane Cohan noted in an email that, “….galleries who reported that they made sales include Lisa Cooley (they reported selling out 80 percent of their booth), May 36, Brooke Alexander, Peter Blum, Arndt, Marian Goodman, Roslyn Oxley, Annet Gelink, LTMH–Leila Heller, Nara Roesler, White Cube, James Cohan, Jeffrey Frankael and Untitled, and many of our museum exhibitors sold works.”
Most galleries showed paintings, but many fully leveraged the forum’s predilection for video work, and it was nice to visit galleries and not have dealers or gallery assistants standing there scanning you from head-to-toe.
VIP received criticism for not delivering the full fair experience, but the problem could be semantics. Branding VIP a “fair” sets real-life fair expectations. Some won’t see the potential of the virtu-sphere and those that don’t appreciate the Web as a marketing platform won’t acknowledge peripheral benefits, such as providing an email marketing list.
“Last year, conversations revealed that one of the most meaningful attributes of the first edition of the fair is the lead generation that was initiated online,” Cohan noted. This, she said, led to, “….sales in the weeks and months following the event.” Another benefit to a virtu-fair: Web analytics. Everything is measurable — and in real time. So galleries get statistical information about visitor demographics and preferences.
It’s possible that VIP is ahead of its time. They may need to soldier on and wait for dealers to fully embrace the Web as a viable sales and marketing tool and for the public at large to realize that an online fair is its own entity, and isn’t intended to replace the real thing.
“We have never proposed, by organizing this online event, that people stop appreciating art in person,” Cohan said. “I think it is well-understood that the Internet is a wonderful connector. However, it does not replace real-life experiences.”
VIP Art Fair goes live each year in February. Additional fairs include VIP Paper (April 19-21), VIP Photo (July 12-14), and VIP Vernissage (Sept. 20-22). For more information, visit http://www.vipartfair.com/
Jenifer Mangione Vogt is a marketing communications professional and writer on art and Italian culture. Visit her blog at www.fineartnotebook.com.