VIP Art Fair: pass or fail?

VIP Art Fair: pass or fail?

After 10 days of mixed success and technical malfunction, it was difficult to judge whether the world's first virtual art fair in 2011 was a great idea marred by imperfect execution, or a sign that there is no substitute for experiencing art in the flesh in a real art fair. But as a second edition of VIP was scheduled for 2012, it was a case of watch this space.

VIP 2.0 closed recently, so how did it perform?

The statistics look impressive: 73,000 registered users, 160,000 unique visits and 1.5 million pages viewed; 135 galleries from 35 countries, exhibiting 1500 works by 1,100 artists; growth in visitor numbers from emerging markets, including a 278% increase in visitors from India, 288% UAE, 277% Brazil, 319% Mexico and 456% from Chile.

And the technical glitches that dogged VIP 1.0 were ironed out this time, allowing the Internet platform to deliver a lot more traffic to the fair, but traffic doesn't equal sales and sales reports have been scarce. Whether dealers make money at VIP remains to be seen.

However, insiders believe VIP has secured its status as the leading online platform for contemporary art. CEO Lisa Kennedy said the fair was effective in making connections and providing stimulus that is vital to an active international market, a view shared by many galleries who said they connected with new clients around the globe.

Predictably, VIP 2.0 drew flak and much has been made of comments from influential dealers, like David Zwirner. In her Forbes piece, VIP Bombs Again: A Lesson Art Marketing and Online Sales, Abigail Esman reports Zwirner emailed her saying: “The fair was unfortunately a waste of time for us this year. We didn't have any significant traffic in the booth, nor did we meet new collectors. I'm uncertain this format will work moving forward.”

Other galleries have a better view of VIP, notably those that took an innovative approach to curating their booths. Elizabeth Dee used VIP's video capability to connect viewers with her artists directly and to launch a new media channel. Each artist was featured in short documentaries that offered VIP visitors an introduction or overview of their work. And rather than making a presentation with a unique selling point, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac decided to focus on introducing its artists and programme, presenting 7 solo shows over 7 days and one live performance by Terence Koh. On the day of Koh's performance, Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac was the most visited booth.

So the jury is still out on VIP and the big question remains unanswered: can the Internet work as a venue for an art fair? For galleries seeking conventional outcomes (like art fair sales) the answer is perhaps not. As one dealer said: “If you realise that taking part in this fair is the same cost as a big ad in Artforum it makes sense, but if you are expecting sales, I think some people are going to be quite disappointed.”

Online ventures like VIP seem better suited to galleries able to think their way into a new format, presenting shows tailored to the Internet and underpinned by audience and client building strategies that are part of a bigger game plan – galleries like Elizabeth Dee and Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac.