The new stARTup Art Fair comes to L.A. this weekend, transforming hotel rooms into galleries

Art fair weekend has come to Los Angeles. The glitzy Art Los Angeles Contemporary opens Thursday at the Barker Hanger in Santa Monica, showing works by more than five dozen international galleries. Across town, at the L.A. Convention Center, the L.A. Art Show features another 120 galleries from Osaka to Barcelona.

But there is a new kid in town: the stARTup Art Fair, a scrappy, year-old enterprise out of San Francisco that focuses on artists who don't have formal gallery representation. Over the course of three days, from Friday through Sunday, the fair will transform the guest rooms at Hollywood's Highland Gardens Hotel into a series of mini-galleries.

"These days, most sales are being made at art fairs," says stARTup co-founder and artist Ray Beldner. "So if you're an artist who doesn't have a gallery, you are up the creek without a paddle. This is to give those guys access to a group of buyers and art world people."

Inside the mini-galleries will be an estimated 60 exhibits by artists, collectives and some of the fair's nonprofit partners. This includes shows staged by the Torrance Art Museum and its support group, the Torrance Art Museum Advocates (TAMA), as well as Santa Monica's 18th Street Arts Center, featuring work by video artist Tom Dunn and new media artist Luciana Abait respectively.

It's a model that is uncommon — most fairs feature galleries, not individual artists — but not entirely unheard of. The Other Art Fair, held in England and Australia, for example, also features artists instead of galleries. 

StARTup previously organized one iteration of its fair at the Hotel Del Sol in San Francisco last May, which featured some 60 exhibits and drew roughly 3,500 visitors over a three-day period.

The fair's organizers, Beldner plus co-founder and former Bay Area gallerist Steve Zavattero, say they have done their best to make this a good opportunity for the artists and art groups — who are each paying between $2,500 and $5,000  for an exhibition space at the fair.

"We didn't want this to be a pay-for-play situation," says Beldner, "where someone just ponies up $5,000 and they get in."

Participating artists had to be approved by a selection committee that included L.A. artist Kim Abeles and former Orange County Museum of Art curator Dan Cameron. The fair's organizers have also created a roster of tours, art talks and panels to take place over the weekend. 

The pair say they are intent on avoiding the sorts of poor professional practices that can leave artists holding the bag. In 2014, for example, a first-time fair called the World Wide Art Fair made headlines in Los Angeles after artists and galleries shelled out upwards of $5,000 to rent booths at the L.A. Convention Center, only to have little buying public (or public of any kind) materialize.

To keep things small and manageable, stARTup launched its project in a hotel since it is more economical (hotel rooms double as galleries and artist accommodations) and because it can be more intimate.

"At a convention center, you're cruising through, you peek into a booth and then you move on," says Zavattero. "It's nearly impossible to do that kind of drive-by at a hotel fair. You're walking into this room where you have a one-on-one with the artist. They are presenting you with their best body of work."

The organizers says they have received good feedback from the San Francisco iteration of their fair, with at least two artists there selling out their works and others receiving future commissions or exhibition opportunities. (stARTup does not keep cumulative totals on sales.)

But Zavattero says the guiding mission has been to keep production costs inexpensive so artists can easily recoup their expenses. 

"Any art fair that we did as a gallery, we were talking about $20,000 to $25,000 for a booth rental — which meant you had to sell that much work to get in the black," he says. "Here, artists can sell a few pieces and they're in the black. And there's the exposure — that can also be valuable."

The stARTup Art Fair runs from noon Friday noon to 7 p.m. Sunday at the Highland Gardens Hotel. General admission is $15; VIP tickets are $125 and include admission to the Friday night party, a swag bag and a one-year membership to the Torrance Art Museum Advocates. Proceeds benefit TAMA. 7047 Franklin Ave., Hollywood, startupartfair.com.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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