On a cool summer evening in the two-tiered garden of the Swedish consul general in Brentwood, a crowd of 140 art-world insiders have gathered to drink vodka and hear an update on the Absolut L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational (running through Aug. 18). Robert Berman and William Turner, co-chairmen of the event, are hailing its advances in its decade of existence.
This year, there are more participants than ever: More than 70 galleries and arts institutions, compared with last year's 65; 200 artists from 30 countries, and several new sponsors, including Audi, which has parked a spanking new sedan at the front curb as a visual aid.
Alma Ruiz, associate curator of MOCA, discusses the opening of the David Hockney retrospective, "Photoworks," which happily coincides with the opening events of the biennial.
The biennial is a unique event for L.A., a kind of contemporary art fair scattered across the area, from Venice and Santa Monica to West Hollywood, from Mid-Wilshire to downtown and Chinatown. The veteran galleries are present--Ace, Angles, Iturralde, Herbert Palmer, Louis Stern--as well as novices Coagula Projects, Gallery 2211, INMO and Lord Mori.
After their presentation, Berman and Turner, both directors of their own galleries, take a break from networking to talk about the past and present of the biennial. Both point to a previous fair, ART/LA, which began in 1986 and took place in the old Convention Center for seven years, as whetting the appetite for a citywide arts event.
"ART/LA started out with great fanfare," says Turner, citing several large New York galleries that joined in. "It felt like L.A. had really arrived."
Adds Berman, "And people were really buying art."
But the annual event began to run into trouble financially--it couldn't attract enough established dealers from L.A. or the rest of the world to be viable. After the recession hit in the early '90s, the event went belly up. In the aftermath, dealers reevaluated their options.
ART/LA "wasn't the right model for how things were going to work for Los Angeles," Turner says. "We realized the things that didn't work about an art fair in a convention center--you're in a very compromised exhibition space and it's very expensive."
In 1993, the year after the last ART/LA fair, dealers Christopher Grimes and Sandra Starr organized the first L.A. International Biennial. It was a much more modest affair--using extant galleries rather than asking gallery owners to kick in rent for booths in a central space. It was launched with a modest $6,000 contribution from Sotheby's. But says Turner, it did provide the basics dealers were looking for: "It was a great way to utilize the spaces we put so much time and effort into, as well as an opportunity to develop relationships with artists and dealers around the world."
Berman and Turner took over administrative duties the next year. At a cocktail party, Berman met the West Coast distributor for Absolut vodka, known for commissioning ads from famous artists, and talked him into becoming the title sponsor for the next biennial As a result, Absolut--which won't disclose how much support money it gives to the biennial--has taken the above-the-title credit since 1995.
Today, the event has almost doubled from the initial 40 gallery and institutional participants. Turner says the galleries are looking for a long-term payoff. "It's a fairly costly venture," he said of mounting the exhibitions and bringing in international artists and their work. "The returns are less than immediate. It varies from exhibit to exhibit and year to year. Generally, the artists exhibited are new to the gallery, and it always takes time to develop a following for them."
Starting last Wednesday and rolling into this weekend, there were a series of opening parties, organized by geography, Westside to East Side. And a number of exhibitors are planning additional receptions, discussions and performances over the five-week period.
To maximize participation, the requirements for joining the biennial are minimal. Galleries pay what Turner calls a "token fee"--$400--to participate. That, along with sponsors' contributions, pays for the coordination of biennial events and joint publicity in the form of ads and a catalog. What the organizers ask in return, Turner says, is that the galleries adhere to the event's theme.
"Since the idea of this event is to enhance and develop a dialogue between the Los Angeles art community and the international art community, there's a basic requirement that the galleries show something of international scope."
The term international can mean artists from abroad or those of foreign birth who might reside in the U. S. Otherwise, everyone is allowed to do his own thing, and certainly does.
Among the artists featured will be a few readily recognizable names (Griffin Contemporary Exhibitions, in Venice, is showing works by the late Joseph Beuys, the celebrated German conceptual artist, and Leslie Sacks Fine Art, in Brentwood, will have works on paper by modern Italian master Marino Marini) and some fairly recognizable ones (Robert Berman Gallery, at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica, is sponsoring a show of Yves Amu Klein, son of the famous French painter of cobalt blue canvasses). The younger Klein has created sculptural forms that incorporate artificial intelligence and mechanisms enabling them to interact with people and their environment. "They have a mind of their own," Berman says.
There will also be more traditional work. Flowers West, also at Bergamot Station, is importing the works of 12 British figurative painters, and Louis Stern Fine Art will show photography by Cartier-Bresson. But many of the galleries see this as a prime opportunity to get a little experimental.
Turner, for example, is turning over his Venice gallery to video art by Magnus Wallin (Sweden) and an international group show, "Head Frame," from the Art Gallery of Sudbury (Ontario, Canada), although his usual fare is contemporary painting, photography and sculpture.
Chac-Mool Gallery, in West Hollywood, has invited several Mexican artists who specialize in site-specific installations, and the results will be as much a surprise to the gallery as to the public. "I'm not sure what they'll look like until they're done," says director Esthellas Provas. "These are conceptual artists, and we're giving them free range to do what they want to." However, she does know that as part of one performance-installation piece, she will be doing business (or trying to) from an office set up inside a white stretch limo parked on the street.
The 18th Street Arts Complex, in Santa Monica, is already known for its experimental proclivities. It will feature works by six artists in residence, including one playwright, plus works by 10 artists from Luna International Gallery in Berlin. Another venue specializing in edgy fare, Half a Dozen Rose in Venice, is showing five French artists working in paint and multimedia.
As for museums and other cultural institutions, they are participating mainly by highlighting what happens to be on their schedule now.
"We believe in supporting the arts community and in forming relationships with other institutions in town," MOCA's Ruiz explains, adding that the museum's schedule is fitting. "We are actually fortunate to have David Hockney, who is an international figure but also associated with L.A."
Meanwhile, the Santa Monica Museum of Art was able to join in Wednesday's biennial grand opening at Bergamot Station by unveiling an installation-in-progress by Liga Pang, a Chinese artist who lives in Japan. (The formal opening of Pang's bamboo piece will be July 28.)
Two of L.A.'s newest galleries, Double Vision and Forum, found the decision to participate a natural one. "We want to be supportive and we like the idea of an arts community," says Mingfei Gao, director of Double Vision, which opened in November and specializes in works by mainland Chinese artists. "It's a good opportunity for us to present the art we represent." In its show "Combination Platter," Double Vision features artists trained in traditional Chinese art academies, but, Gao points out, some of them are trying "to give a new meaning to tradition."
Likewise, says Forum Gallery's Niccolo Brooker, "anything that we can do to work closely with the Los Angeles community of galleries and collectors is worth the effort." For the biennial, his gallery is working with Toronto's Jane Corkin Gallery to bring the works of Canadian photographer Robert Bourdeau to town. These black-and-white photographs are 'beautiful renderings of industrial sites," says Brooker, "which resonate with the influence of Paul Strand."
Gallery veterans have also found it helpful to be part of the biennial. "It's an absolutely positive contribution to the art environment here in Los Angeles," says Douglas Chrismas, director of Ace, with its 40-year presence in the city. "It brings people to the city, it creates a dialogue, an exchange of ideas."
Asked why he chose to feature Vincent James, a young artist he discovered at Goldsmiths College in London, he replies, "Everybody has their own premise, but I try to bring something that's fresh."
While sales are certainly on the dealers' minds, Chrismas says, he also hopes "that the city is nourished by this activity [the biennial]. Hopefully, this is one of the watering cans that will help it grow."
* The Absolut L.A. International Biennial Art Invitational, more than 70 galleries and art institutions around Los Angeles. For a complete list, got to www.artsla.org; for more information, call (310) 392-8399 or (310) 315-1937. Brochure and catalog free at participating galleries.