It’s late spring, time once again for the age-old tradition of the MFA thesis exhibition. Graduating art school students put on a final show of their work, in a rite of passage that marks the beginning of their lives as officially accredited artists, with all the struggles that entails: finding a studio, finding a gallery. The thesis shows, at least at the top-end schools like Columbia, Hunter and Yale, have also become a way for collectors and dealers to sniff out talent. It’s just a matter of making all those trips to all those schools. As of last week, there’s a brand new twist on the MFA thesis show, one that doesn’t involve any schlepping. VIP MFA, which launched last Friday, is the first-ever juried art fair that gives arts professionals and collectors a crack at the new talent emerging from 58 art schools around the world, from Manhattan to Mumbai—and it happens entirely online.
VIP MFA’s organizers are James and Jane Cohan, and Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren, founders of the two-year-old VIP Art Fair. That fair hosts galleries, which pay for virtual booths in which visitors to the site can view artworks, along with their price ranges; prospective collectors buy work by calling the dealers, or using the fair’s customized chat function. A whopping 100,000 people from 155 countries have registered on VIP’s platform.
As for VIP MFA, there are limits to its comparison to a thesis exhibition; many of the students whose work is featured have yet to graduate, while others graduated in 2010 or 2011. Student work appearing at brick-and-mortar art fairs is pretty rare, but exhibitions of student work by commercial galleries is not unheard of. Back in 2006, when New York gallerist Jack Tilton held his “School Days” exhibition—a show of promising young talent from places like Hunter and Yale—the show, to some, exemplified an overheated, youth-obsessed art market with collectors tripping over each other to get to the MFA thesis exhibitions, clamoring to discover the next Warhol. It had critics and art professionals wondering if the practice was exploitative and harmful to the development of the downy art youth.
And yet, as brazen as “School Days” may have been, it really wasn’t anything especially new. And neither, in some respects, is VIP MFA. The general feeling among academics is that grad students, unlike undergrads, can fend for themselves.
“Dealers started to cannibalize MFA programs some years ago,” said Bruce Ferguson, former dean of Columbia’s School of the Arts and current dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the American University in Cairo. “MFA students know what the issues are and what the problems are. I don’t think they are innocent or being exploited.”
Even before putting on “School Days,” Mr. Tilton visited schools. “I would stick by the rules and wait for the MFA thesis shows, and [artists] would already be picked up. You have to get in early or you miss the boat.”
But VIP MFA’s platform allows purchases with the click of a single button, making it more effective than a thesis exhibition, or even a group show at a commercial gallery, at delivering student work directly into the hands of collectors.
Browse the site during the fair’s week-long run (it ends on June 8) and you’ll likely encounter the paintings of Chris Hood, a recent graduate of the San Francisco Institute of Art. A few of his works look polished, others amateurish. A large, Pop-inspired painting of a grid of 12 identical flowers in various shades of gray is one of the more clean, eye-grabbing works. It carried a reasonable (for today’s art market) price tag of $2,400. That, coupled with the ability to purchase it on the spot, probably made it candy for the impulse buyer. On the opening morning of the fair, its sale, along with a smaller painting of two hands clapping, was met with a celebratory Tweet from VIP MFA: “Chris Hood from SF Institute of Art 2 artworks SOLD.”
Acquisition of artwork at an art fair has never been so seamless, or so impersonal.
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.”