Logging In to Art from Around the World

This oil painting on wood and enamel, by Ree Morton, is being exhibited at the VIP Art Fair online.One of the next big art fairs could be coming to your home. The VIP Air Fair, which starts this Saturday, will feature 7,500 pieces of contemporary artwork by more than 2,000 artists, presented by nearly 140 galleries in 30 different countries -- and it will be held entirely online.

During the nine-day fair, billed as the world's first global, online art fair, prospective buyers will be able to register and browse works for sale for free at vipartfair.com. (VIP is an acronym for "viewing in private.")

Visitors who pay a fee of $100 on Jan. 22 and 23, or $20 starting Jan. 24, will also get special access to galleries' inventory in private viewing rooms; entry to the VIP Lounge, which features fair tours by well-known collectors, critics and curators, and video tours of artists' studios and of notable private art collections; and will be able to message and live chat with the galleries' staff.

Although the art will be for sale, with prices ranging from less than $5,000 to more than $1 million, the fair won't include any e-commerce: Buyers will be able to communicate online with art dealers, but must complete transactions offline.

The Concept

The concept for the art fair was developed by James and Jane Cohan, partners in James Cohan Gallery, a contemporary art gallery with locations in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea and in Shanghai, China, and by Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren.

The four realized that "if we used the international art fair as a model, we could create a sophisticated platform where galleries could come together, in one place for a limited time only, to be accessible worldwide and to take advantage of the global reach the Internet provides," Jane Cohan says.

The participating galleries include heavyweights like Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth, which have locations in the U.S. and Europe, as well as smaller galleries from cities like Sao Paolo, Brazil; Turin, Italy; and Taipei, Taiwan. About a third of the 138 participating galleries are based in the U.S.

All of the galleries have previously participated in other major (offline) art fairs, such as Art Basel in Switzerland and Miami Beach, Cohan says. They've paid to rent virtual booths at VIP Art Fair, much as they'd rent actual booths in an offline fair.

Andrea Serbonich, artist liaison for the Perry Rubenstein Gallery, a Chelsea-based gallery that has represented contemporary and emerging artists since 2004, says one advantage of VIP Art Fair is that "it's not about who has the biggest booth, or the placement of the booth." The online fair "is democratized and everyone looks the same," she adds.

What Shows Well on the Web

Another difference? The choice of artwork. "A big factor is what kind of work reproduces well online, would look great in an online format," Serbonich says. Perry Rubenstein kept that in mind when choosing the 10 public-booth and 40 private-viewing pieces that it will feature, including Amir Zaki's color photos of lifeguard towers along the southern California coastline.

The fair, she says, will create "a level playing field in attracting collectors from all over the world" who can "log in whenever they feel like it." Rubenstein will staff its live chat and messaging services during U.S. and European business hours.

Unsurprisingly, one risk for galleries participating in the fair is that some prospective buyers might not be willing to make a purchase before seeing the art in person.

Rubenstein plans to let prospective buyers reserve artwork for 48 hours, for free, to give them time to visit its gallery in New York and examine pieces they wish to purchase. Of course, that may not be enough time -- or enough incentive -- for some collectors who are farther away.

"We're waiting with bated breath to see if people will be serious about actually purchasing work," Serbonich says. "There's a distinction between browsing and purchasing. A lot of people are not comfortable about purchasing a work they haven't seen in person."

If the fair turns out to be a success, art collectors will likely soon be able to attend far more shows without leaving their homes. And with galleries selecting pieces specifically for the Web, that means the online medium could eventually alter not only the viewing, but also the value, of art around the world.

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