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L.A. art fair season is only fair

Shows invade the city, but winning over Angelenos has proved to be difficult.

January 10, 2010|By Scarlet Cheng
  • Hu Li's work "Backward Backward" will be at photo l.a., which begins Thursday in Santa Monica.
Hu Li's work "Backward Backward" will be at photo l.a.,… (Hu Li / MR Gallery )

January has become art fair season in Los Angeles, piggybacking onto new year optimism -- although, unfortunately, last year the economy tripped into the trough of piggy bank depletion. Thus, even though crowds thronged to the Los Angeles Art Show at its spiffy new Convention Center digs and jammed up ArtLA. and photo l.a. on the Westside, much art was seen but not so much was sold.

Los Angeles has been a fickle lover to art fairs -- ardent at first, then attention flagging as time wears on. This year ArtLA goes on hiatus, a casualty of the economy as well as competition from the push of a new fair, Art Los Angeles Contemporary (Jan. 28 through 31). In fact, some may be confused by this phoenix, and for good reason. It's run by Tim Fleming, the former director of ArtLA, and he has picked up many of his 55 dealers from the previous gig -- among them high-profile gallerists Blum & Poe, Honor Fraser, Marc Selwyn and Susanne Vielmetter. Fleming has also won over dealers of his own, including Eighth Veil and Gallery Luisotti.

"Art fairs have never worked in L.A., they barely work in New York," says Tim Blum. "The reason Art Basel [in Switzerland] is successful is that it's a small city, you bump into people all over the place." For him, Art Los Angeles Contemporary is making the right move by placing itself in West Hollywood. "The fact that it is taking place at the [Pacific Design Center] made it more attractive frankly. It's part of the city. It's alive."

Why a new fair? Fleming says, "It's really a reflection of what the galleries are interested in. In conversing with them, we determined that people wanted to try something new. It's a very tricky time with the economy, and it was time to reconfigure an art fair here."

His intent is to weave the fair "into the cultural fabric of Los Angeles." Thus, they're collaborating with other organizations. For example, both Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions and LA-ART will be doing special artist projects.

Fleming is especially jazzed about a special exhibition saluting the fabled Ferus Gallery -- in the space of the former gallery itself on La Cienega Boulevard near Pacific Design Center. Two New York galleries, Franklin Parrasch Gallery and Nyehaus, will be installing works by several artists whose careers launched with Ferus -- including Billy Al Bengston, Ken Price, Craig Kaufman and Ed Ruscha.

Photo l.a. (Thursday through next Sunday) comes first on the calendar, with a benefit Thursday for the photography department at LACMA. It's co-hosted by photographer David LaChapelle and actor Christopher Lowell -- both will have work on display.

"It's the longest-running art fair in L.A.," photo l.a. founder Stephen Cohen points out. "This will be our 19th year." It continues in its home for the last eight years, the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, but is down to 40 dealers from last year's 65. "All the fairs are down," says Cohen, who has just came back from Miami, where his gallery had a booth at photo miami. There were fewer dealers and smaller crowds. Still, he says, "We sold more and were selling afterwards."

Meanwhile, ArtLA is being postponed till 2011, says Cohen, who also runs that fair.

The recession has played havoc on art prices and art collecting. Recently in New York, the Works on Paper fair slated for the Park Avenue Armory in February was canceled. There is talk that the high-end International Fine Art Fair, slated for May, may also bite the dust.

Last fall Sotheby's and Christie's International auctions for Impressionist, modern and contemporary art did well, a major improvement over comparable May auctions, although not as well as fall 2008. That seemed to indicate that though things are improving, they won't soon be returning to the dizzying heights of the art market boom, partly fueled by newly minted millionaires from places like Russia and China.

Last year the venerable Los Angeles Art Show with its wide array of art offerings -- from classic European painting to contemporary work -- moved downtown, into the Convention Center. This boosted exhibition space by more than 50% from its former location at the Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. There were larger booths, nice carpeting and indoor parking. Opening night proved a glamorous event, and total attendance tallied a respectable 35,000.

Sales were apparently good enough under the circumstances. "The crowds were impressive," says art dealer Jack Rutberg, "and not just in terms of numbers. It was a who's who of collectors and some curators."

"It was definitely a difficult time in terms of sales," says Kim Martindale, director of the Art Show. "The great thing was that everything was on one floor, which gave it a cleaner, more professional feel. And the fair was in Los Angeles, and we got more support from the city."

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