Art Fairs

Young and Fair: VIP Art Fair Puts MFAs’ Artworks up for Sale Online

THE VIP ART FAIR has not exactly been an unmitigated success.

The first fair, in January 2011, was beset by technical difficulties that left dealers without the vaunted chat function. The site was temporarily shut down, and dealers couldn’t update the “back room” viewing function. The fair was reduced to something akin to an ordinary gallery website, and dealers, some of whom had paid around $20,000 for a booth, were not happy. In compensation, VIP offered partial refunds.

The second edition, which took place three months ago, was aided by an influx of $1 million by art collector Philip Keir and investor Selmo Nissenbaum. It ran smoothly and offered amenities like “insider tours” and videotaped discussions with dealers, but in terms of sales it doesn’t seem to have been much of an improvement. “The fair was unfortunately a waste of time for us this year,” dealer David Zwirner told Forbes. “We didn’t have any significant traffic in the booth, nor did we meet new collectors. I’m uncertain this format will work moving forward.”

VIP has spawned several spin-off ventures, such as VIP Paper (works on paper) and VIP Photo (fine art photography) and, now, VIP MFA, the purpose of which, Mr. Cohan explained, is to give artists exposure to a “broader public”—meaning “collectors, dealers and critics”—while also “serving our audience who are obsessed with contemporary art.” The average collector who visits the site is “not going to be your blue-chip Warhol buyer,” he explained. “It’s going to be someone who has a thirst for less-expensive, edgier work.” The most expensive piece is around $42,000; most of the work ranges from $400 to $10,000, far cheaper than the $500,000-and-up pricetags on a portion of the pieces on VIP (students split sales with VIP 50/50).

Not just anyone makes it onto VIP MFA. According to Gregorio Cámara, manager of VIP MFA, the fair approached administrators of the world’s top MFA programs and asked if they wanted to be involved. They could choose to either nominate students or have an open call. Even if school administrators were unreachable, or chose to not get involved, as was the case with Yale, Columbia and Goldsmiths in London, VIP MFA was not discouraged from spreading the word to students themselves.

In the end, the fair received applications from 380 students from 58 schools in 25 countries, with each student submitting up to 10 jpegs of artworks. Those were then submitted to the fair’s team of six judges, who selected 100 students to participate in the fair and chose three winners for a monetary award (Chris Hood got $10,000 for coming in second; first place was $15,000 and third $5,000) to be split with their schools. Whether or not a school would accept the money was a different story. Gregory Amenoff, chair of the visual arts department at Columbia University, said that had one of the participating Columbia students won, the university, which chose not to participate on the institutional level, would not have taken the money. “If someone’s lucky enough to get it, we’re going to turn the money over to the student,” he said, adding that his attitude toward any student who chose to participate in the fair was, “good luck, I hope they get the big goddamn award. And get a good studio and proceed with their life.

If VIP Art Fair derives its legitimacy from the galleries that participate, VIP MFA gets it from its panel of judges, to whom the fair pays an undisclosed sum: all of them are esteemed figures in the art world. There is Matthew Higgs, director of New York alternative space White Columns; Kate Fowle, executive director of Independent Curators International (ICI); RoseLee Goldberg, founder and director of the Performa biennial; and Joachim Pissarro, an art history professor and director of the Hunter College Art Galleries. There are also two artists, O Zhang and Diana Al-Hadid. Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, was appointed a judge, but had to pull out due to his affiliation with another art fair, Art Basel.

“It’s not clear exactly what it is,” Mr. Higgs conceded, when asked about VIP MFA. “What happens now is the question.” He said his reason for getting involved “is the same reason White Columns participates as a not-for-profit in an art fair: Our hope is that we find an audience of people who were unaware of us before. So my optimistic goal for these artists, is that, like the five or six people on the panel, another five or six people might come across their work for the first time, and it might lead to a subsequent opportunity.”

That opportunity would mean a lot to today’s art school grads, who emerge into a dismal economy burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and little chance of finding a day job.

Then again, exposure isn’t necessarily what students, who are still developing their work, should be looking for. Instead, said Columbia’s Mr. Amenoff, they may need time to experiment and be free of the pressures of the art market.

Mr. Tilton sold about half the work in his 2006 “School Days” show, but only a handful of its artists have gallery representation today. “If you pick 10, and two to three stay on track, you’re doing great,” said Mr. Tilton, “Not a lot of artists make it big.”

Some of the show’s young artists, like Natalie Frank, Titus Kaphar and Keltie Ferris, made a splash at the time and have galleries, but the ensuing years haven’t necessarily been a smooth ride. We emailed Ms. Frank, whose upcoming solo show in October, at her new gallery, Fredericks and Freiser, will arrive a full six years after her last New York show. She explained that it was a “luxury and gift” to have the platform of the show at Tilton even at a time when she was still developing as an artist, but that she eventually needed to take some time to focus on her work. “I always saw the business of art as an entirely separate component from the art itself,” she said. “I think the studio and artist should be mindful to separate the two, and while keeping an eye on their interest in this transaction, protect the actual work from its influence. I don’t know that it is for me to say whether young artists should take or not take a specific path.”

rjovanovic@observer.com