The art shows must go on

ATTENTION: Melanie Pullen's "General Patton (Soldier #42, Soldier Series)" (2008) is at the photo l.a. fair.
ATTENTION: Melanie Pullen’s “General Patton (Soldier #42, Soldier Series)” (2008) is at the photo l.a. fair.
(Melanie Pullen / Ace Gallery)

Three Southern California art fairs in January, two of them in one weekend? In this economy?

It may defy logic, but business is business.

As conceived when the financial outlook was rosier, photo.l.a., an annual marketplace for a kaleidoscopic range of photography, is winding up today at Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar. Art LA, a showcase and sales venue for edgy new work, is gearing up for its Jan. 23 to 25 gig, also at Barker Hangar. And the Los Angeles Art Show, offering an eclectic survey of art from the last two centuries, is sticking with its plan to leave Barker for the much larger L.A. Convention Center, where it will appear Jan. 22 to 25.

“We have confidence that art is still a good buy,” says L.A. photography dealer Stephen Cohen, who founded photo l.a. in 1992 and launched Art LA in 2005. “It’s a buyer’s market. We expect a big turnout, but it might be that a lot of people are looking, holding on to their money or getting an idea of what to buy when they have some to spend.”

How the sagging economy will affect the fairs is “the biggest question out there,” says Kim Martindale, who manages the Los Angeles Art Show, a 14-year-old enterprise of the Fine Art Dealers Assn. “Some galleries that have done the fair for years just can’t do it this time. Other galleries are saying, ‘We can’t afford not to.’ It’s a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation. Do you reach out and try to make something happen or do you retrench?”

Louis Stern, an L.A. dealer who has participated in the Los Angeles Art Show since 1998, has decided to forge ahead in a 24-by-30-foot booth at the Convention Center. “Human beings are naturally optimistic,” he says. “The financial crisis is at least 50% psychological and people are tired of being in the doldrums. The presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 will be a day of catharsis. Our fair opens the next day with a gala preview.”

To his way of thinking, fear of investing in the stock market and real estate may help the art market. “It’s a good time to look at collectibles, whether it’s stamps, coins, antiques or art,” he says. “You have dominion over art and you don’t have to maintain it. You don’t have to feed it, water it, change its tires or put a new roof over it.”

The local fairs are arriving in the midst of a jittery art market. Although auctions provide about the only public record of art sales, it’s clear that the art business has its share of the widespread financial misery. Sotheby’s 2008 sales dropped about 11% from 2007, and Christie’s is said to be down about 20%, but it has yet to release its sales figures. Gallery traffic has slowed considerably from L.A. to New York, leading to some closures, and more shrinkage is likely.

No one is predicting record sales at Southern California’s January art fairs. As such events have proliferated globally, there has been some fallout. And the economic downturn has led to the cancellation of the 2009 International Asian Art Fair in New York and raised serious questions about how many fairs can survive. Dealers at October’s Frieze Art Fair in London did lots of business, but not at the usual frenzied pace. Then came Art Basel Miami Beach, the be-all, end-all contemporary art market, with its constellation of smaller independent fairs. It opened in early December, but not with its customary aura of competitive shopping.

“Oh my goodness,” says Tim Fleming, the managing director of Art LA, who helped to produce Photo Miami, one of the fringe events. “It was like this blanket just lay across the entire length of Miami and quieted and compressed every single fair and the traffic going to all of them. I heard that people did better than expected, which is a positive way of looking at it, but I also heard that people got crushed.”

So what does that bode for L.A.?

“Well, this is what I tell dealers,” he says. “When people are down and out, they still go to the movies. There is still money in Hollywood.”

Bernd A. Lausing, a specialist in Minimal art who has galleries in Düsseldorf, Germany, and Toronto, got off to a rocky start at one of the December fairs in Miami. But it ended as a big success for him and encouraged him to join the Los Angeles Art Show this year. “Potential clients and dealers from Los Angeles were interested in my program,” he says. “I don’t think the economy will affect my general price range, about $5,000 to $15,000.”

Dealers will spend from $5,000 to $40,000 to rent booths at the local fairs and incur additional expenses for transportation, shipping, insurance and staffing. Although some may not cover their costs, all will try to parlay the exposure and new contacts into future business.

All the fairs are likely to draw thousands of viewers, if only because they are cultural events as well as one-stop shopping centers for the art crowd. The gala previews, priced at $50 to $225 per ticket, are benefits for local museums that bring the institutions’ supporters. During public hours, collectors, wannabes and the merely curious have an opportunity to meet and greet art folks, make the rounds of booths stocked by an international assortment of galleries, go to collecting seminars and hear lectures and panel discussions.

There are also off-site attractions. Photo l.a. has invited photographer Catherine Opie, whose work was featured in a recent retrospective exhibition at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, to lecture and sign books at the Ruskin Group Theater, near Barker Hangar, at 1 p.m. today. The Los Angeles Art Show has scheduled a series of films about art at USC’s Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre next Saturday and Sunday.

The fairs compete for clients, but art aficionados who visit all three will find that each has a distinctive flavor. Cohen has rounded up about 65 dealers who concentrate on photography or include photo-based work in contemporary art programs. Local participants such as Ace, Michael Dawson, DNJ and Sarah Lee will be joined by Charles Cowles of New York, Flo Peters of Hamburg, Stephen Hoffman of Munich, Simon Finch of London and the Czech Center of Photography in Prague.

Art LA, a 5-year-old fledgling, is honing its identity as a tightly focused, high-quality alternative to bigger contemporary art fairs, says Fleming, the managing director. This year’s edition has about 60 galleries, roughly half of them based outside California. High-profile showcases to be represented include Blum & Poe, Susanne Vielmetter and L.A. Louver of Los Angeles; Ben Kaufmann, Isabella Bortolozzi of Berlin; and Rodolphe Janssen and Catherine Bastide of Brussels.

For the Los Angeles Art Show, moving from Barker Hangar to the downtown L.A. Convention Center is a big leap. Doubling the fair’s space, from about 75,000 square feet to 150,000, the shift is intended to give the fair a larger presence at home and elsewhere. The lineup of about 160 exhibitors includes 128 galleries representing a broad range of work -- 19th century European painting, California landscapes, early 20th century Modernism and contemporary painting, sculpture and photography.

The 24th annual Los Angeles Fine Print Fair also will have a space at the Convention Center. And Supersonic, an exhibition of student work organized by master’s degree candidates from Southern California fine art programs, will return after a hiatus.

“Being at the Convention Center allows the fair to go to a new level,” Martindale says. “It’s the largest fair in the western United States, even at this point, and it’s exciting to be part of the change going on downtown.”