A yellow forklift zigzags across a loading dock at Los Angeles' downtown convention center while workmen unload wooden crates from a dozen container trucks packed to the hilt with art treasures. One truck carries oil paintings and prints from galleries in Japan, England and the Netherlands, including several Damien Hirst works from London; a second holds a shipment from China — ceramics, ink paintings, parts for a multimedia installation.
On these two vehicles alone there is more than $10 million of art — all of which has traveled around the globe and just cleared customs at LAX. Soon the art will go on display on the convention center floor for the 19th annual L.A. Art Show, which opens Wednesday night.
Kim Martindale, who's overseeing the morning's deliveries, squints into the sunlight and smiles nostalgically.
"This is a completely different world from the early days," says Martindale, L.A. Art Show's executive producer and general manager, who's been with the show since its inception in 1995 at the Pasadena Civic Center. "People would bring art in their cars or maybe UPS it. You might see one truck with all the New York galleries."
The L.A. Art Show, started by the nonprofit Fine Art Dealers Assn., has grown steadily in gallery participation and guest attendance — from 14 galleries the first year to about 110 in 2012, which saw more than 50,000 visitors stream through the Los Angeles Convention Center. But since mid-2012, when it was purchased by the Palm Beach Show Group, the L.A. Art Show has amped up its ambitions.
Central to the new vision is broadening the international scope of the show by including more galleries and special exhibitions from around the world.
"We want to make it a world-class event on par with Art Basel or Frieze in New York," says Palm Beach Show Group owner Scott Diament. "Being that L.A. has such a vibrant Asian community, it seemed logical to loom toward Asia or Central and South America for participants and engage the local communities there."
Perhaps as a result, some local gallerists seem to be taking the show more seriously. This year, Southern California's ACE Gallery — which since the late '60s has shown work by Richard Serra, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg — will participate in the L.A. Art Show for the first time.
"We're taking it very seriously and we're giving a big chunk of art energy in our booth," says ACE Gallery founding director Douglas Chrismas. "It'll be a group exhibition — it's not about inventory to be moved as much as selecting wonderful, major pieces to inspire."
Prominent local art collector Dean Valentine attends the L.A. Art Show every year and says he's felt an increasing global presence at the show the last two years.
"There were some good London and French galleries last year, a couple from Berlin that were very good," Valentine says. "It's great for beginning collectors, a good way to find out what's happening in the global contemporary art market just by walking down the aisles."
Actively luring galleries from abroad, however, hasn't always been easy, Martindale says. Since 2002, when the show first hosted foreign galleries, the organizers have come up against language barriers, customs and visa issues, high shipping costs and the burden of flying gallery staff to L.A. represent the art. Not to mention competition: There are roughly half a dozen art fairs of varying sizes and focus around the world every month. In January alone Los Angeles will see the art fairs photo l.a. and Art Los Angeles Contemporary in addition to the L.A. Art Show.
Still, with its deeper pockets and ample marketing resources, Palm Beach Show Group increased L.A. Art Show's international representation last year by 15%. This year, it's doubled that number, with 30% more galleries from some 20 different countries — 51 international galleries in all.
China still has the largest presence at the show, but Korea is a close second, with 15 galleries — it's the part of the world the show organizers targeted for growth this year.
"Korea seemed to be building and growing its art scene, so this year we brought on an outside curator, Hoojung Lee, to reach out, and we have some of Korea's top galleries," Martindale says.
Korean artist Choi Jeong Hwa, who has work in the permanent collection at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and was part of the Korean pavilion at the 2005 Venice Biennale, will show a sculptural installation. Artist Lee Yong Baek, also from Korea, is re-creating the video and mixed-media installation he showed at the 2011 Venice Biennale; he also created a new performance piece to go with it for the L.A. show.
From China, there will be a special exhibit called "Breathing," about how humans interact with the environment, as well as a Chinese brush painting exhibit and a solo show by China's Zhang Yu, a former 2013 Venice Biennale artist. The Chinese government is also sponsoring an exhibit of paintings and ceramics.
"It'll be interesting to contrast the two," says Martindale of the privately sponsored Chinese exhibits versus the show curated by the Chinese government. "It really lets someone see the scope of what's happening in China."
The show is also broadening the kind of art being shown, this year introducing a lowbrow, underground art section its calling Littletopia, which is curated by New Orleans' Red Truck Gallery. L.A.'s Thinkspace and the pop-surrealist-oriented La Luz de Jesus will participate in it, as will Mexico City's FIFTY24MX. The move could be controversial. In the past, the L.A. Art Show — which combines historic, traditional, modern and contemporary art — has been criticized for being less focused than other more niche-oriented art fairs.
"I'm sure there will be people saying, 'Why's this here?!'" Martindale says. "But that's what this show is about — we want to be as inclusive, artwise, as possible. I think that's our strength."
Exactly, says Coagula Curatorial gallery owner Mat Gleason, who's participating for the first time in the LA Art Show because of its broad scope.
"The diversity of the galleries is gonna attract a diversity of collectors," Gleason says. "I'm gonna meet new collectors and that's why I forked up the dough. I wanna see who buys art."
L.A. Art Show
Where: Los Angeles Convention Center, 1201 S. Figueroa St.
Price: 1- to 4-day passes $15-$35; opening-night party $125-$250