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Q&A With Jane Cohan, Co-Founder of World's First Online Art Fair

Posted: 01/24/11 10:45 AM ET

Art Basel is no longer a plane flight away. VIP Art Fair, the world's first online art fair, launched on Saturday, January 22 at 8 A.M. Founded by New York power dealers, James and Jane Cohan, with partners Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, the fair, which ends on January 30, is poised to revolutionize the way we view, buy and experience art. Here, Jane Cohan discusses tips for navigating the site, protecting the privacy of users, and why the internet might be better for art.

Q. As co-founder of VIP Art Fair, you've brought the blue chip art fair to the internet and by doing so, you've eliminated the scene, in the flesh anyway, that surrounds fairs like Basel and Miami. Was your intention to strip the art fair down to its fundamentals -- the art, the artists, the sales -- and do away with the fluff?

A. That is more of an unintended consequence. The thought was that if we could bring the leading galleries together at the same time, online, we could reach a bigger audience of people who can't make the fairs, like, professors, students, and enthusiasts. VIP is a way for us to reach new audiences while maintaining current audiences. You do miss the excitement of a live fair but we want to replace that with a rich community, an experience of information.

Q. Let's hear more about this "experience of information." What can users expect? How do you go about reinventing Art Basel or Miami?

A. We knew that for people to find a work of art online and fall in love with it and commit to it, that experience of being online has to be good. We've actually been loyal to the traditional art fair structure. People who attend art fairs will find familiar touchstones. Most familiar will be the maps of the four exhibitions halls. Two of the halls focus on blue chip galleries. Then there's the Focus exhibition, which showcases one artist only; and, the Emerging exhibition, featuring galleries from lesser-known markets, like Santiago, Athens, Reykjavik, Glasgow, Brazil and Singapore. There's a lot of diversity on the site. It's armchair travel.

Q. How do these virtual galleries work?

A. So, the art fair map shows the galleries and by clicking on a gallery, you enter its booth. There's a lot of information you can't get from a jpeg, like scale. We've created human figures that are scaled in proportion to each piece of art. Users can use these figures to gauge the size of a piece in relation to them. You can click on a piece of art, take it off the wall and zoom into its surface, for a sense of texture, construction, and materials. We have videos of artists, like Yinka Shonibare, who talks about his work and tours you through his studio. You can click on Shonibare's name and a portrait comes up in English and Mandarin, along with his biography, a CV, press, and a second video.

Q. Do you worry that by stripping away the experiential quality of art, you've stripped the fair down to its most commercial level? What makes the VIP experience meaningful?

A. What distinguishes the VIP experience is the depth of information, as well as the time and space in which you are allowed to concentrate on that information. You can attend this fair in private and be snuggled up on a couch. Plus, this experience is free with a simple registration process. So, it's accessible to anyone. Galleries are thrilled about its versatility. We can show a monumentally scaled sculpture, like Roxy Paine's Distillation. You can view every welding detail of the piece. You can move through the entire installation space and print out a document with details of the piece and its exhibition history. You can see preliminary drawings Paine did in the early stages of work and you can get close enough to them to see his first pencil marks.

Q. VIP Art Fair sounds like a step towards democratizing the art world. Is that your intention?

A. We're working within the ethos of the internet, which means free access to information. We have people registered from over 126 countries. From Nambia, Ghana, Afghanistan, Uruguay, Peru. Those are just some of the people that can't make it to art fairs.

Q. Do you have any tips for neophytes who plan to browse the fair next week? How can they maximize their experience?

A. As a casual browser, I'd make sure to visit the different exhibition halls. There is a fabulous range of galleries and you can come in and browse from booth to booth. In the Emerging section, Limoncello, a gallery from London, has put together an alternate way of approaching an online art fair. Rather than posting beautiful, high-resolution images, he's posted Polaroid snaps in his booth that look like tiny little squares on a wall, so it's not at all attractive. A Gentil Carioca, from Rio, is showing two public art projects that were financed by pairing a collector with an artist in downtown Rio. The gallery is showing them as an opportunity for more collectors to collaborate with artists. Another gallery has set up its own live fair within the VIP fair.

Q. Do you have any tips for serious collectors, or professionals, who know exactly who and what they're looking for?

A. Serious buyers should register for the VIP level, which allows you access to prices and lets you chat with the galleries via instant messenger. Collectors might go to the artist search and put in a name like Richard Prince. Prince pops up, along with all of his works at the fair and the galleries he's showing in, and you can go from booth to booth. You can generate private tours organized by medium, or price range. You can speak directly with a staff member from a gallery in Shanghai by sending an instant message. When you start the chat conversation, you might say, "I love the Roxy Paine sculpture, what else do you have available?" And the gallery, who might have a hundred other pieces by Paine in their inventory, can show you everything they have. Here, in this private room, you can view and discuss art with a dealer who is thousands of miles away, and maybe this leads to a phone call.

Q. Or an order. Are people able to purchase art through the site?

A. No, this is not an e-commerce site. There is no "buy now" button. All transactions happen in private. We've created a place where buyer and dealer can interact. Where they take these discussions is up to them.

Q. What about privacy? Your database is about to grow substantially. How do you plan to protect the confidentiality of your users?

A. We collect very little information about our registrants, and thus there are few issues where privacy and confidentiality are at stake. Buying expensive art has as much to do about the closeness of the relationship between the collector and the dealer as about the work of art. There needs to be a high level of trust. VIP Art Fair provides a sophisticated platform for galleries to maintain relationships that they already have in place as well as a starting point for building new relationships.

Q. What is your favorite feature of the site?

A. I love the Favorites file. One thing that people love at fairs is sharing their favorites. It's always, "What did you see and what did you love?" You can make a tour of your favorite works by dragging and dropping images into a Favorites file. What's neat is that I can email my Favorites tour to anyone, and they can click on the URL, which takes them straight to that tour. It's also a practical tool for directors, advisers and curators, who need to take their patrons on curated tours. There are many different entry points for people.

Q. I would think this site would appeal to anyone who loves art and wants to start a collection but is intimidated by entering a gallery.

A. Exactly. It's a great way to break the ice. You come to this fair, you have a few conversations and you get to know the galleries in your city. Or, you can search by other cities, and create a guide, so when you come to town you know where to go and you've already started the conversation.

Q. So, is the sun setting on Basel and Miami? Are they outdated models for viewing and buying art?

A. Oh, no. I think we totally will be coexisting. There are things that happen at live fairs that don't happen here.

 

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