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.