Online Art Fair Accidentally Great for People it Tried to Exclude

Jimmy Hagan, Arts Editor

Few college students, myself included, get the opportunity to travel to international art fairs. Art Basel in Miami, while certainly a desirous escape from December snow in Oberlin, falls right on top of finals week — and, with loan payments starting to grow against our best interests, such extravagances epitomize an unwise economic decision. Still, gathering the best work — or at least the most marketable — displayed by the best galleries (the most prosperous) in one venue can thrill even the skeptic.

Luckily for students, a group of high-powered art CEOs and Picasso-owning money men accidentally invented a solution to a problem we didn’t really know we had. Intended to foster unlimited access to the world’s best galleries and directors for those in the know, VIP International Art Fair ended up benefiting the culture-strapped college art student.

On Jan. 22, VIP became the world’s first exclusively online art fair. The weeklong event offered the planet’s top galleries, by invitation only, the privilege of packing an online booth with whatever they wanted for as little as $5,000 and as ostentatious as $20,000 — one-third the cost of real estate at a physical art fair.

The booths held certain advantages. They let galleries display their best work, they handed each institution new audiences and they allowed them all to brag that they were a part of the first whatever. The fair stayed true to its corporal counterpart by disappearing after a week — the only feat it executed flawlessly. It also sought to recreate the conversations between gallerists and buyers via a concept perpetually cool to 40-year-olds: the chat room.

Although it had the potential to alter gallery-viewing in an exciting and immediate new direction, VIP came standard with invitation-only gallery list, catty VIP Lounges and elusive “VIP Passes.” It sought increased access and exposure mainly from the right type of viewer.

Fortunately, direct chat and admission to the “VIP Lounge” were reserved for holders of the “VIP Pass.” While VIP passes usually involve going in with a hot girl and telling the man you’re with Mike’s party, these passes were reserved for the gallery’s most lucrative clients. Stratification, though normal for every fair, becomes more surreal when de facto realities become de jure virtual rules.

After the opening two days, during which any wannabe could buy the rights to an early screening for $100, VIP Pass went on sale for only $20. Yet by that point the passes were useless.

Acting like the “real doll” version of Art Basel, VIP remained unsatisfying and unresponsive. The magical chat feature, the justification for the special VIP Pass, crashed on the opening day. Official reports by online art website likened the failure to a stampede but did little to quell a bad taste in the mouth. Sales, the reason for any of this, were evidently slow. What’s worse, Google’s “Art Project” technology — a feature released just after VIP that offers a walk through of several leading art museum across the world — made the fair’s virtual display functions look so 2000-and-late.

But before all of this, optimism soared. In August, while talking to, James Cohan, director of a New York-based gallery by the same name and co-founder of the fair, outlined his vision. Unfortunately, Cohan discusses art like 30 Rock’s Jack Donaghy talks about TV. Using words like “upmarket,” “downmarket” and “Venn diagram,” Cohan lifelessly pitched the event as a “filter” on the number of hits you get when you type “leading contemporary art galleries” into Google — no joke.

Despite its outward elitism, the whole thing reminds me more of a restaurant that calls itself “a celebrity hangout.” Moreover, the only appropriate logo for something named “VIP” should contain silhouetted women and sparkly stars. It was surprising, then, to bump into the gallery equivalents of Brad and Angelina at the bar. Gagosian, Zwirner and White Cube, among a solid corps of others, all signed on.

For an event so intent on acting important and selective, Cohan and Co. unwittingly gave me, a “layperson” by their terms, an unbelievable opportunity. For hours I could surf through mountains of art, zooming in, playing with person-shaped scale indicators and creating different art playlists. The site dubbed them “tours,” but that implies some movement off the couch anytime during the process.

While dealers and buyers around the world bemoaned the painfully slow connection and broken chat dates, I was having fun. On the show’s final day — as one gallery participant demanded her money back — I received an e-mail from Patricia Ortiz Monasterio, the director of the well respected gallery OMR in Mexico City. She noted that I had clicked on one of her works and was interested to know if she could create a “Private Room” to show me more. Despite the fact that sales were not general all over VIP, I was flattered she had sought me out. She could see my age and occupation as a student alongside my e-mail address. Even though I could barely buy a postcard in the gallery, she wanted to show me what her gallery was all about.

I wondered how often other directors contacted college students. It didn’t seem too far-fetched to bet I wasn’t the only one. So, as I reclined on my smelly College-owned couch, ate some grapes and perused a private showcase of some of the best art in Mexico, I couldn’t help but ask, “Who’s the VIP now?”