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Entertainment & Arts

Los Angeles is primed: Art fair, please step up

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.”

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“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.”

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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.)

Many believe that L.A. is likewise ripe for a major contemporary art fair — with a glossy party circuit. “You have so many important artists living here and galleries gaining prominence. The collectors are important enough, and their parties should be good enough. The restaurants are good enough,” says L.A. gallery owner Michael Kohn, who is married to restaurateur Caroline Styne of AOC and Lucques. “Those are all factors in our favor.”

Kohn participated in Art L.A. in 2009 but “I did not sell a thing,” he says. He does not have a booth at its successor this week. .

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Culver City gallerist Susanne Vielmetter, who does have a booth at this week’s fair, believes “L.A. should have a major contemporary art fair. If Miami can do it, why can’t we?”

Historically one problem has been the lack of a sizable venue in a desirable location. While art dealers nostalgically remember a boutique fair held at the Chateau Marmont hotel in the 1990s — where they leaned paintings against the walls and displayed sculptures in the bathtubs — the charms of that venue proved to be its downfall in the long run. And the city’s bigger venues elicit a chorus of complaints.

Santa Monica’s Barker Hangar is, says Fleming, “a dream to build in, but it’s an empty shell,” lacking proper lighting, bathrooms and other amenities. Martindale, who held his art fair there for years, adds that it has space and parking limitations. “There’s no way you can have 40,000 people come to a fair there,” Martindale says.

Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, the home of Photo L.A. and onetime home of Art L.A., is even smaller. Bennett Roberts of Roberts & Tilton gallery in Culver City says it’s just not up to par. “The Santa Monica Civic needs to be renovated. Putting up a booth there is like putting up a booth in a high school gym,” he says.

Roberts, who is participating in this weekend’s fair, says he is also looking forward to the new September fair. “I think Adam Gross’ fair will be spectacular — they hired the right person to do it. He’s a mega-cheerleader. And I think it will be managed amazingly judging from the Armory and Art Chicago.”

But the dealer does express concern about the new fair’s location. “It might be a challenge to get people to go downtown,” he says. Kohn agrees, noting that out-of-town collectors like hotels near the beach or in West Hollywood. “Japanese businessmen will stay downtown, but not people who buy art,” he says.

Reaching the most important European collectors is the big challenge, adds Vielmetter, who was born in Cologne, Germany. “L.A. has maybe a dozen great collectors, but you can’t sustain an art fair on that. You need to get the international collectors to fly in — and that’s the part where every single art fair here has failed.”

She says that she has high hopes for the MMPI fair but only if it can line up the marquee galleries with leading European clients, mentioning Sprüth Magers, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner. “If the new fair can work at that level, I think they have a chance of pulling it off,” she says. “I don’t think we can afford another L.A. fair that fizzles out.”

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Gross at MMPI mentions some of the same gallerists as prospects but says that applications are still being solicited and participants have not yet been finalized. As for reaching international visitors, he says that the Armory Show’s VIP list has roughly 10,000 names. “Ultimately it’s the brand name of the Armory Show that gives us the ability to market to the international audience.”

With global ambitions, Gross believes the new fair could complement and even drive traffic to the existing, more regional fairs. Some of the other art fair organizers agree.

Stephen Cohen says he is resurrecting Art L.A., which has been on hiatus since 2009, this September to coincide with the MMPI fair. He has just secured the Diamond Ballroom on the third floor of the JW Marriott at L.A. Live downtown.

Are Fleming or Martindale also considering moving their 2012 fairs to September? Fleming noted only: “We love January because it’s an open slot in the art calendar, and for us it’s about consistency.”

Martindale, who says he is talking to Gross, sounded more receptive. “If Adam Gross and that whole company is putting their full weight behind September, then September makes sense for all of us.”

Martindale says collaboration of this sort is often the best way to serve art buyers, like other types of consumers. “It’s like car dealerships: They used to be spread out, but in the last 10 years we’ve seen them pull together. It’s the concept of a mall with an anchor tenant.”

“We’ve seen that model happening in many industries, and we’ve certainly seen it play out with the Miami art fairs with great success,” he says. “There’s no reason it shouldn’t work in Los Angeles.”

jori.finkel@latimes.com


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