The VIP Art Fair was down for maintenance when I checked Twitter this morning, a bad sign amongst countless bad signs. Since the fair launched this weekend (it runs through January 30th), the first and only online art fair, has been riddled with problems ranging from connectivity to disappearing chats and navigational problems. I’ve heard rumblings from many dealers wanting their money refunded, and many collectors claiming they aren’t going to deal with the site any longer. “[It] was a complete day of collector torture,” collector Mike Mao told me over Facebook the day of the fair’s debut.
Just what are these issues? The most glaring one is that the site’s had slow load times and even downtime. According to Jane Cohen, one of the site’s co-founders, VIP received many more visitors than they anticipated, bringing down the company’s servers. Given the slim margin of error the site is working with — it is, after all, only up for a week — it’s surprising that they didn’t purchase far more space than they needed in order to prevent this issue. As of Sunday, my typical chat lag time was 30 to 40 minutes, a serious challenge to the term “instant message”. Apparently White Cube got wind of the situation and adjusted the text in their “about the gallery” description on the main navigation page of the fair. As pictured above, the first line describing the gallery currently reads: “Chat function is currently unavailable, please email us with your enquiry.”
Past this, most problems seem to be the result of a concept that would have been difficult for even the best web development professionals to overcome: launching a perfect website upon delivery that by design would be untested. A few pluses and minuses of the site below:
1. Slow image load times, and site down time. This is the worst problem and likely a deal breaker for future iterations of the show. If a dealer can’t make a sale, the fair’s worthless.
2. Navigation. It works, but is difficult to use. I like Internet sites with big navigation buttons so I know where to go. There’s none of that on this site save the chevron button moving the user from work to work. It’s not even easy to find the sign in page on the front page of the site! Still, it’s very nice that as you visit galleries, the site remembers and colors them for you; it’s a little feature that keeps the user running through the site.
3. Artwork search function. This is a step forward for the art world — only a few sites offer comparable services, artnet being the most well known — but not without a few bugs. It allows users to search by price, medium, and artist, which is great, but I’d like to see color, size, and date added. 20×200 does a much better job in this respect. More pressingly, however, is the issue that I still have not been able to figure out how to move from one page of search results to the next.
4. Website display scalability. This could have used some work. The fair design was not optimized for smaller screens, such as my 13 inch laptop. The info bar had to be minimized to view the images properly, and even then, it was impossible to see the images as well as I would have liked. Artist Man Bartlett, artlog's Dylan Fareed, and I discussed whether the lack of a mobile version was a deal breaker over twitter — I’m not sure any of us thought it was a dealer breaker. I wish I could have bookmarked favorites, but as Dylan Fareed noted if the site worked properly I doubt anyone would care about whether it could be used on a phone. It would likely just be placed in a “things to look forward to” category.
5. No purchasing ability. Earlier this week I mentioned we’d have to wait until people were ready to buy hi-ticket items online — a mistake, since immediately afterwards I spoke with a well-known gallerist who chose not to participate because users couldn’t purchase online. The source, who wished to remain anonymous, also mentioned that the limited time concept made little sense to them.
Paddle 8, an online art-specific marketplace billing itself as “a series of online exhibitions curated by cultural innovators” (ew), was cited as more desirable, but until it launches in April we won’t know how it sizes up. More promising is 1stDibs.com a highly successful online market place for antiques, which now hosts fine art as well. If the drop down menus and ads are any indication of this site’s clientele, I'd say the giant ad placed by VIP and the default search price of high to low suggest they're targeting collectors. The site also allows visitors to build virtual portfolios and make offers on items. Of course, unlike the furniture section, which has almost all of its prices listed, almost everyone in the fine art section lists “contact dealer” as the default.
6. Privacy issues? According to Art Review, the default privacy settings allow galleries to view your email every time you look at a work. This seems to be not particularly useful for anyone. Galleries don’t want to add people who aren’t curious about their programming to an email list, and viewing is not an indication of interest. Users don’t want to be subscribed to lists they do so themselves.
7. Galleries can’t make any links from within the site to relevant outside sources. This is just stupid.
8. Tours, Favorites and Sharing. It’s good that VIP has made sharing over Facebook, Twitter and email easy, but that’s straight forward. Only eight people have shared their tours in the Lounge, and I know why: it’s very difficult to figure out how to use them. First, users need to favorite individual art works; then, they can drag and drop those images onto their tours. The thumbs are too small to do this easily. Also, don’t click on the large tour icon image if you want to view what you’ve made. For that, only the tiny link below it will take a user to see their collection. Here, users can arrange the work they’ve viewed and provide commentary. This would be useful were anyone using it. Even the best designed sites take time and patience for users to learn how to use them, and in this case, a week perhaps just isn’t enough of either. Still, I’d be more inclined to learn if I could share my collections with friends, and I can’t do that. Instead I’m presented with searching through a list of tours by people I don’t know. Not fun.
9. Staying power. I’m not a shopper, so my experience on the site is probably a little different than that of a collector, but there weren’t a lot of attributes to the site’s design that made me want to spend time on it. I got bored of looking at jpegs, which is a problem for a fair that only lasts a week. Part of this is the structure of the fair itself, which offers no indication how quickly art is selling unless it comes up in a chat with the dealer. The art world likes this, of course, but even Art Basel has plenty of red dots, and the nature of the fair means that generating visible hype should particularly be on the organizer’s minds. Gilt.com, for example, does a better job of generating the kind of anxiety that comes from limited quantities of luxury goods: there’s a real fear, when their daily newsletter comes out, that deals will disappear if you’re not quick. Sure, some of that difference is down to operating in a different market, but a lot of it is good old-fashioned sales technique.
Galleries could do a better job in drawing collectors in, too, as there are a fair number who don't arrange jpgs well or simply could have prepared better. Gagosian is showcasing chairs for sale that look totally out of place in their showroom, and Galerie Peter Kilchmann chose to start with an image so small the male viewing icon VIP uses for scale is ginormous. Limoncello took this to an extreme, uploading a series of images that are teensy-tiny – or are they just far away? Maybe it’s some sort of statement about lacking the physical boundaries of the other fairs; ARTINFO commenter “Bear”, who brought it to my attention, seems to think it’s intentional [Update: apparently it is intentional – a statement is up on their site). Indeed it has a whiff of the Urs Fischer Gavin Brown collaboration at Art Basel whereby the gallery emptied the booth to show a crane pulling around an empty box of cigarettes by a string but at least that provided more pointed commentary on the frenzied booth. I’d like this more if it didn’t look like a mistake. Lisa Cooley, on the other hand, has a great-looking booth, but provides very little information on the artists. If this sort of accompanying information is what’s gained by using a website — and it is — it seems a waste to present so little.
Ultimately, VIP and its customers would be more successful if it were more attuned to what moves people on the Internet. I find it promising that the site exists at all – the art market is clearly ready to expand online — but as collector, artist, and co-CEO of Heavy.com David Carson told me over Twitter, this was “a good opportunity squelched by terrible execution”.