An Old Model, New Means
By James and Jane Cohan
The single biggest shift in the art world over the past 20 years has been the proliferation of event-driven activities. The art world, like the world of show business, has entered into the arena of spectacle. Whether it is biennials in Venice, Lyon, Istanbul or Gwangju, or art fairs in Basel, Miami, London, New York, Taipei, Singapore, Dallas, Los Angeles or Hong Kong (and one could go on), these events speak to the power of contemporary art as a driving force in entertainment, commerce and tourism. The motivation behind these events is to make a digestible and intelligible assessment of the world’s best art, and to present it in a one-stop environment.
For dealers maintaining handsomely appointed galleries with active exhibition programs, the art fair is both a necessary evil and a great opportunity. While the biennial circuit connotes outside curatorial judgment and an artist’s inclusion acts as a stamp of approval on their career, art fairs have grown in prominence and now have their own role in defining hierarchy and status for commercial galleries. The basic concept of these events, of course, is not new—contemporary art fairs emerged in force during the 1960s, while biennials are a 19th-century phenomenon—but their desirability to artists and dealers is at an all-time high. If dealers want to be considered relevant internationally, they have to participate in the major fairs.
While the explosion of fairs seems to continue unabated, the internet also has become an integral part of the dealer’s business. With the global expansion of wealth and the increased awareness that visual art can be a gratifying area—both intellectually and financially—in which to invest one’s money, dealers are more dependent upon the web as well as the fairs to maintain relationships with an increasingly far-flung client-base.JPEG images, infinitely reproducible and sent in an instant, have taken the place of expensive, mailed transparencies. And while fairs have become an important vehicle for introducing artists’ work to new audiences, neither the collector nor the dealer can travel 12 months each year—someone must give the kids a kiss goodnight occasionally. We now rely on the speed of the web to maintain new relationships.
Three years ago, with the internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, we were dreaming up ways to create the experience of an art fair without the travel. Could it be possible to have an art fair, held as an online event, that recreated the urgency and exhilaration felt at traditional fairs?
At VIP Art Fair—our acronym for “viewing in private”—artwork is presented on a virtual wall in relation to other works of art as well as the human figure so that collectors can understand the scale and context of the work on view. An advanced zoom function allows collectors to place their nose to a work, as it were, examining its surface. Galleries can instantly provide supporting materials for each artwork by request: detail views, installation shots, press clippings and catalog essays. The idea is that well-informed collectors are empowered, through technology, to make the right choices.
A big hurdle for VIP involved translating the social component of the art fair to an online environment. A key aspect of the program is that the virtual booths are staffed by the gallery’s employees: we encourage dealers to be online for 12 to 18 hours a day to work with clients across the globe, even 24/7 for galleries with multiple international locations. Upon delving into the details of a given work—its scale, its price range, even a video clip—the collector has the ability to discuss it through a chat and messaging system. From there, dealers can provide access to their gallery’s back-room inventory directly on the collector’s computer screen. This is a unique form of interaction that allows business to be conducted in real-time—as if sitting on opposite sides of the same desk, even though the parties may be thousands of miles apart.
We are not trying to render the old model extinct. Our drive is to do our job: to get our artists’ work out into the world. The internet is a proven resource for building relationships, staying connected and providing in-depth information. A decade of social media has upended the idea that the web is a dehumanizing, isolating place; it has now become a powerful forum through which to learn and make decisions. We believe in harnessing this power to maintain and strengthen existing ties and to reach entirely new audiences around the globe in a cost-efficient and sophisticated manner. And we want to share it with our colleagues and competitors, just to see what happens. Access is free, the platform is green and the time, we feel, is right to adapt a 19th-century model to 21st-century demands.