Lisa Kennedy, the incoming CEO of VIP Art Fair, knows she has her work cut out for her. “We are not at all trying to shy away from the issues that existed during the inaugural fair,” she told us last week, and she seemed eager to list the flaws visitors saw in the online-only art fair’s rookie year: chat didn’t work, servers went down, login sometimes failed, users couldn’t figure out tours, and so on. It got to be a long list; the first VIP Art Fair was, in the words of designer, collector, and Heavy.com co-founder David Carson, “a good opportunity squelched by terrible execution.”
February 3-8th, VIP will have another chance to prove itself, and fortunately for Kennedy, the opportunity remains. No competitor has appeared, and VIP still has its formidable list of blue-chip exhibitors – albeit, some dealers hinted to us, one preserved by deep discounts on the stated rates. Simply put, so long as VIP can boast names like Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, David Zwirner, Pace, White Cube, and Victoria Miro, it will have little problem attracting visitors and press; the problem is building a system that can turn that buzz into sales.
The first step is tech. The most glaring issue with VIP last year was the lack of server scalability, leading to periods of downtime and slow responses throughout. It was, frankly, a rookie mistake, considering the number of reliable cloud-based hosting solutions available, and this year the fair will be on Amazon’s EC2 cloud. VIP, though, is going further than that, forming an internal tech team from scratch to re-design every piece of the site. “Every piece of code has been rebuilt internally,” Kennedy told AFC, from the database architecture to the front-end. Thankfully, this includes chat, which last year ranged from moderately dysfunctional to actively debilitating.
The second step is the user experience. VIP has hired a full-time User Experience Director, a sign of their seriousness about improving the interface and a step more websites ought to take. Modeling their experience on physical art fairs, VIP is taking steps to make browsing more visual, offering galleries the chance to showcase one work as a “front door” image and remodeling the sections of the fair as virtual “aisles”. Of course, exhibitors aren’t necessarily interested in letting users browse too freely – part of art dealing, after all, is maintaining a base of collectors loyal to a gallery first, and a medium second. Towards this, the front-end will focus on learning a user’s habits, pushing them towards their favorite artists and galleries. If everything goes as planned, this is the area for Kennedy’s past experience as Executive Vice-President of Soap.com to shine.
The third step is expansion. Despite the rocky start last year, VIP’s organizers seem hell-bent on faster growth and rapid expansion, and towards that they’ve announced three additional fairs this year: VIP Paper, focusing on works on paper; VIP Photo, focusing on photography; and VIP Vernissage, a second show of contemporary art slated for September. The expansions into works on paper and photography, in particular, make a lot of sense: collectors may shy away from buying paintings and sculpture without seeing them in-person, but two-dimensional pieces and works in large editions are an easier sell. VIP declined to name any exhibitors confirmed for the expansion fairs, but spoke enthusiastically about finding the “most innovative and highly-respected galleries in those fields”; as with the main fair, this will be make-or-break.
Assuming no complete meltdown at the main fair occurs, we predict that the Paper and Photo satellites will go well, given the innate suitability of their media to the internet; they reproduces well and the price point isn’t so high that collectors feel compelled to see the work in person. The challenge, for VIP, is to bring work to market that’s not already offered by high-end print and photo sites like Artspace; fortunately, that’s an area in which VIP has already shown some ability.
Generally, however, VIP is back where it was a year ago: nobody – dealer, collector, or otherwise – knows quite what to make of the fair, and for all involved it’s a gamble. Personally, we’re cautiously optimistic: VIP has the money and exhibitors to make online art buying a fixture of the market, whatever their track record. It certainly sounds like the fair has taken complaints seriously, and new tech team sounds good, but we’ve admittedly been fooled before: last year, we thought the VIP interface looked fantastic in a preview, only to have a difficult time seeing it at all when the fair actually launched. In some respect, we can look to the continued participation of blue-chip galleries as a good sign; whatever their individual flaws and occasional technological backwardness, these are generally well-run businesses with little interest in wasting time or money in a failing endeavor, and the fact that the fair was able to retain so many exhibitors after its disastrous first year is a vote of confidence in its organizers.