Tuesday, November 02, 2010

The Challenges of Buying Art in One's Pajamas

This issue makes me feel all schizophrenic.

But let me begin with a personal epiphany I frequently refer back to when considering how visual information can lead you to very different conclusions based on whether you view it bit by bit or as a whole. It was during the trial of the LAPD officers who had severely beaten Rodney King, and I watched on TV as the defense slowed down the video of the incident and had experts calmly explain, second by second, how each and every action taken by the police was in full compliance with standard, legal procedures. Deconstructed in slow motion that way, with each action forming one succinct piece of information (one, info-bit, if you will), the defense's case was very compelling, and I found myself wondering if indeed the officers hadn't just followed procedure. Then the newscast airing the trial replayed the tape at normal speed and I was jolted out of my info-bit-induced lull, and it was suddenly very clear to me. There was no question. Those cops had beaten the sh*t out of that poor man.

I thought about this again reading A Guide to the Virtual Art Market, the nice update in ARTNews by Eileen Kinsella (one of my favorite arts market writers) on how technology is influencing the way art is being bought and sold:
But interpreting so much raw data and understanding the variables isn't easy. "What gets a little bit lost is that not every square inch of a Picasso painting is the equivalent of every other. It's not like ounces of gold," says Norman.

Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery, concurs. "The database is a great tool and has had a huge impact on the availability of information, but collectors have to use it with caution," Warren says. "The information can support almost any argument: how well an artist has performed, how poorly an artist has performed." But, he adds, "a database can't tell you what it's like to experience a work."
Indeed, no amount of information (descriptive or simply meta) can tell you what it's going to feel like to stand next to a work of art for the first time. I've often made a beeline to a fabled work in a museum to find that standing in front of it was not at all the experience I had expected. Either the colors or gestures seemed so very different from what I imagined, based on the images I had seen, or it was of such a different scale (how was I to realize, growing up in Ohio, that The Persistence of Memory, which loomed so large in my imagination as a kid, was such a small canvas?).

Part of this problem is being addressed by what stands to be a defining online art-viewing/buying experience: the VIP Art Fair. As I've discussed here before and as Eileen's report delves into more deeply:

The effectiveness of online auctions for multimillion-dollar masterpieces will be put to the test when some of the world's top galleries—including James Cohan, Gagosian, David Zwirner, and White Cube—launch the VIP Art Fair, billed as the first event of its kind, in January. All of the participating galleries, which fall under three classifications—founding galleries, emerging galleries, and exhibitors showing the work of a single artist—will have their own virtual booths. The online versions will attempt to simulate the actual physical placement of works in a booth. Paintings will "hang on the wall," sculptures will "sit on the floor," and works will be presented in relation to human scale. [emphasis mine]

Visitors will be able to zoom in to a painting's surface, get multiple views of a three-dimensional sculpture, or watch videos of multimedia pieces. Telephone or online chats with dealers, via Skype or iChat, will be available to collectors who pay for access. A VIP ticket, giving access to interactive capabilities, will cost $100 on the first two days of the fair and $20 thereafter. Browsing online will be free.

James Cohan conceived of and planned the fair with his wife, Jane, and Internet entrepreneurs Jonas and Alessandra Almgren. "We started conceptualizing about what the benefits of an art fair are and how they can translate into the virtual world," Cohan says, adding that he hopes to attract both new and established collectors to the fair.

Full disclosure: Winkleman Gallery is participating in the VIP Art Fair and we're very excited that the VIP team is specifically interested in solving some of the more challenging online presentation issues (we have a few very special challenges planned for our booth and, well, I'm such a geek, I can't wait to see how they turn out).

Still, how do I resolved this seeming paradox? On one hand I know that the essential art experience is to stand before the work yourself. On the other hand, as the technology permits a closer and closer approximation of that experience (without suggesting it will ever be the same), I find myself wanting to be there for that too. If only as a comparison point, perhaps, but also because I feel it's an advance over the current next-best thing to being there (i.e., flat re-sized images in books or low res online images without a point of reference).

There's no doubt that collectors are much more comforting buying work from jpgs than ever before, but as LA-based collector Dean Valentine notes, most collectors are still hesitant if they've never seen the artist's work at all:

When Dean Valentine, a Los ­Angeles-based media entrepreneur and a leading collector of contemporary art, wants to know what the top art galleries are showing and selling at major art fairs, he relies largely on virtual "visits" to their booths. Valentine generally avoids visiting in person because, he says, the frenzied atmosphere "brings out the worst" in competitive buyers, and "decontextualizes" the art in question, leaving viewers with no real sense of how an individual piece fits into the artist's oeuvre. "Years ago, it would not have been possible to look at a gallery's whole booth and offerings online. That has been a godsend and really made a difference," says Valentine.

Still, his decisions about what to buy are never based on digital images alone. "I buy things off JPEGs if I know the work already and I've seen it live," he says. When you're looking at a painting on screen, "it doesn't convey size or texture. It's really deceptively ineffective for making actual decisions about art."

Hence my schizophrenia.

Utimately, if nothing else (and I'll be the first to acknowledge that I am not exactly sure what to expect), efforts like the VIP Art Fair represent an opportunity to reach new audiences who will, hopefully, one day stop by the gallery or we'll meet doing a fair they visit too. I know plenty of collectors too busy or otherwise not interested in visiting the real world fairs because they don't enjoy the physical experience (personally, I like taking our show on the road, but you can't be all things to all people all the time ;-), so I am curious how being able to "experience" one in their pajamas might appeal to them.

Stay Tuned!

Labels: Art Fairs, art market, art viewing


Blogger Saskia said...

That sounds pretty interesting.

I have purchased art after only seeing it online, (currently anxiously awaiting a recent purchase to arrive in person..) but I've also had the experience of seeing an exhibit online, then seeing it in person and ending up with an entirely different piece than what I was attracted to online.
I purchase online when I can't be there in person, but there is definitely no replacement for seeing something in person. Mostly when I purchase online, I have the option to send it back if I'm not satisfied, which has never happened yet.

On the other side of virtual experience, after visiting the Adobe virtual museum and participating in a virtual job fair (non-art related), sometimes those things that are added to 'simulate' the real experience such as 'walking' through space, architectural simulations, etc..) I find cumbersome and annoying. I could do without that, as long as there are just some good high res pictures, several if required to really see a piece, or time based media, etc.

11/02/2010 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear EW:

I feel compelled to call into question your use of the word "schizophrenic" to characterize your experience. What, exactly does your experience have to do with either of the definitions of "schizophrenia" below? I am a mental health professional, but not a particularly PC one. My concern is not with potentially offending those who suffer from this disorder, but rather wanting a clearer sense of the use of the word. I hope you will provide elucidation.

1) Any of several psychotic disorders characterized by distortions of reality and disturbances of thought and language and withdrawal from social contact.

2) A severe emotional disorder of psychotic depth characteristically marked by a retreat from reality with delusion formation, hallucinations, emotional disharmony, and regressive behavior.

Definitions are from Webster's Online Dictionary.

Yours Truly,

11/02/2010 02:00:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Not to make light of the disorder (but to wipe my brow in relief that you're not PC about folks using psychiatric terms colloquially), growing up in Ohio the term was abused to mean simply of two minds and torn.

11/02/2010 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

for me the schizo part is the VIP access.

If I walk into a gallery, the gallerist doesn't discriminate if they are willing to talk about art with me or not (to a degree admittedly - the client of 25 years with a collection to match assuredly would get priority) Yet it's that built in red rope discrimination that makes me wonder if this is progress. Or more that the walk in is no longer a welcome member of the artistacrats.

good luck with this Ed, it is non the less fascinating!

11/02/2010 02:58:00 PM  
Anonymous Mary A. said...

It always amazes me what people buy over the internet, or in the old days, over the phone or from a slide or a fax even. Its all just information. If you know the artist's work well, then maybe its good enough. But you can't judge it until you see it, smell it, and if you have to, touch it.

11/02/2010 07:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear EW:

Thank you for clearing up the "schizophrenia" issue. The "of two minds" part doesn't fit exactly, but I do get the "being torn" part.

So while the word "ambivalent" doesn't quite pack the same dramatic punch in a blog's lede, I daresay it is more accurate.

Nevertheless, I shall continue to enjoy your blog.

Yours Truly,

11/02/2010 09:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

What the art was doing in one's pajamas I'll never know.

11/05/2010 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous otis said...

I'm sorry, but for me paintings and drawings on a computer screen, at best, only slightly resemble what they look like in person. I'm ok with taking a gallery or artist website but, I've been wowed by how stupid some pieces I fancied on the web play out in the 'real-word'.

11/07/2010 11:53:00 PM  

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