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VIP online art fair overwhelmed by early technical setbacks

Majority of dealers claim disappointment as organisers defend privacy settings and vow to overcome glitches

Ten years after the dot.com boom and bust, the art world was once again ready to embrace technology at the launch of the VIP art fair (22-30 January). Unlike other industries, the art world has yet to harness the potential of the web and several high-profile attempts have failed (notably Sotheby’s £100m investment in its online auction site during the dot.com era).

Nevertheless, there was optimism in the ether and a sense that this dealer-led initiative might finally allow the art world to take bold virtual strides. Co-founder James Cohan had managed to secure an impressive line up of fellow international gallerists including David Zwirner, Gagosian, White Cube and Hauser & Wirth. “Every market tries to find new possibilities to expand—who knows what will happen,” said Hauser director Marc Payot ahead of the launch.

No one, it seemed, was prepared for what did happen. As the fair went live, the site buckled under the demand as thousands of people tried to log in. What Cohan is calling a “glitch” in technology in fact undermined the entire premise of the fair. In addition, the much-vaunted interactive chat feature failed to work, and was then deliberately disabled by the organisers, further crippling the speed of the site. “It was a fiasco,” said Paris gallerist Emmanuel Perrotin. A survey of galleries, collectors and advisors conducted by The Art Newspaper confirmed wide-scale disappointment. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of those surveyed asked to remain anonymous.

As well as the much-reported technological failure, the event has raised some uncomfortable questions about online privacy. The twitterati, while branding the fair “VIP art fail”, were also tweeting furiously about problems with visitor confidentiality. While browsers could adjust their privacy settings, the default was to “share”, and each gallery has now received a list of everyone that visited the booth—along with their email addresses. Cohan says the settings were standard fare for a website: “We were advised by council that [the link to the privacy setting] should be on every page. It was made very clear.”

Some dealers are scratching their heads to work out the best way to make use of the information. “What do you say to your clients? ‘I VIP-fair stalked you?’” said one. Another problem was that, in the brief period when the chat function was operational, some comments were said to be sent to the wrong people. “Sometimes the wrong party received our messages,” said Johann König. Not so, say the organisers. “No chat went to anyone by mistake,” said Cohan.

For others, however, there was another over-riding problem. “The biggest negative was that all the work was old and stale,” said one prominent American collector, who declined to be named. Cohan countered this: “How many times have we heard the same things about fairs?”

Despite such “glitches”, the demand that apparently crashed the site was also impressive in its scale. 41,000 people registered for the fair from 196 countries, according to the organisers. Some galleries, including Sadie Coles, said they made fresh contacts: sales manager Lieselotte Seaton said the gallery met two totally new collectors from the US and made several sales.

“I still believe in the idea. We will overcome these problems,” said Cohan. “There is a place for this platform in our world, and I am proud to have paved the way.” But, do the dealers agree? The most common reaction was, as one New York dealer said: “I might consider it with the guarantee of functionality and at a lower price” [exhibitors paid $3,000 to $20,000 for their cyber-space]. While the technology will doubtless be improved for VIP 2.0, the extent to which the fair is a game-changer remains to be seen.

The collector’s experience…

Mervyn Metcalf, managing director at the investment bank Global Leisure Partners, was sent a VIP pass by Gagosian gallery, from where he has previously bought work. Early on he bought one piece from its VIP fair booth: Roe Ethridge’s Studio with Red Bag, 2009, for $12,000. He later bought T.M. Davy’s Portrait of Liam (detail, right), 2010, for $2,000 and Like a Record, 2008, for $7,000, both from Eleven Rivington. “VIP gave me access to galleries [such as Eleven Rivington] that I wouldn’t normally see in London,” he told The Art Newspaper. But he was disappointed by the website. “Navigation was clunky, it didn’t work at all well on the iPad and, of course, there was the infamous failure even to log people onto the site,” he said. He was also unaware that his personal data had been stored by the fair: “I am not too pleased about this… [VIP] should think hard about how they respect their customers.”