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Los Angeles is primed: Art fair, please step up

Many in the art community believe the city could sustain a major fair. Shows lined up for the year, including this weekend's Art Los Angeles Contemporary and a new one in September, aim to make it happen.

January 27, 2011|By Jori Finkel, Los Angeles Times
  • The L.A. Art Show at the Convention Center last week drew 5,000 visitors on its opening night.
The L.A. Art Show at the Convention Center last week drew 5,000 visitors… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

When Art Los Angeles Contemporary opens at Santa Monica's Barker Hangar on Thursday night, hundreds of visitors are expected to make the rounds at more than 65 gallery booths. Also planning to attend are some executives from Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., which is organizing a new art fair to debut here Sept. 30.

Depending on whom you ask, the MMPI group will either be quietly observing the competition or actively working to win over disgruntled galleries for its new venture, which it hopes will be a game-changer in the city.

"There are plenty of art fairs out there — you could even argue there are too many," says Adam Gross, the director of MMPI's upcoming L.A. fair. "But it is pretty universally recognized that if you were to do another art fair in the world that went beyond regional to become a true destination, L.A. would be the city."

As arts patron Eli Broad puts it, "Los Angeles in my view is becoming the contemporary art capital of the world. As the number of galleries and collectors increases here, it becomes more attractive to have a major art fair here."

"I think it's going to happen," adds Broad. "The only question is who is going to do it, and when."

Call it the battle of the L.A. art fairs. London has Frieze. New York has the Armory Show. Miami has the whale of them all, Art Basel Miami Beach. But L.A. has not by many accounts had a world-class contemporary art fair since the late 1980s, when the London firm Andry Montgomery held an event at the convention center downtown that tanked with the economy of the early '90s. (News that one of the firm's subsidiaries organized fairs for weapon manufacturers didn't help.)

Today several other organizers are trying to fill the gap and create a contemporary art fair that attracts leading galleries and drives cultural tourism.

There's MMPI, a Chicago firm that hired Gross away from the Museum of Contemporary Art's development team to serve as director of its new venture, Art Platform — Los Angeles. MMPI already organizes seven art fairs, including the Armory Show and Art Chicago, and 77 other trade shows. Gross says his fair will take place in the L.A. Mart, an MMPI property downtown, from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3, to coincide this year with the launch of the museum-wide extravaganza "Pacific Standard Time."

There's Kim Martindale, organizer of the Los Angeles Art Show. Founded in 1995 by the Fine Art Dealers Assn. with historic strengths such as California Impressionism, it has increasingly moved into the contemporary realm, but without landing the most prestigious art galleries in that sector. Martindale now calls the fair "encyclopedic." It's also the largest art fair in town, drawing 114 gallery exhibitors and an opening-night crowd of 5,000 to the Los Angeles Convention Center last week.

There's Stephen Cohen, the photography dealer who has organized Photo L.A. for 20 years and launched Art L.A. in 2005 to focus on contemporary art, involving Chinatown and Culver City galleries. That show ran for five years, at which point Cohen's director, Tim Fleming, started his own fair, now known as Art Los Angeles Contemporary. Cohen alleges that Fleming cost him "hundreds of thousands of dollars by giving away free or discounted booths" during his employ and afterward used his fair's name and "stole proprietary information like a VIP list." Cohen says "a lawsuit is imminent."

Fleming declined to comment on anything related to his former employer. As for his own fair, it also draws heavily on the local cutting-edge galleries, with about half of this year's exhibitors coming from California. Last year it took place at the Pacific Design Center, which he admits was "not the best venue for creating a world-class contemporary art fair." Like the other existing fairs, Fleming's fair draws mainly local visitors.

Then there are the perennial rumors that the Art Basel group is considering extending its franchise to Los Angeles. Marc Spiegler, a director of that fair, declined to comment, while Broad confirmed that his discussions about this prospect with the fair's previous director, Sam Keller, didn't pan out for various reasons, including scheduling.

Still, the stakes are high. Over the last decade, fairs such as Art Basel Miami Beach have become big business for galleries and a major source of cultural tourism revenue for the cities.

According to the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, the 2010 Art Basel Miami Beach attracted 46,000 visitors during its December run, many of whom attend the dozen-plus ancillary fairs that have cropped up that week as well. Hotel room rates spiked by 45% that week alone. Visitors Bureau President William Talbert says that "at times the fair draws more private jets than the Super Bowl." (He could not confirm published reports that the fair generates $400 million to $500 million in sales and related revenues each year.)

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