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Mar. 6, 2008 

This January, the global art market got its first significant test of the new year as attention focused on Los Angeles for a pair of art fairs -- the Los Angeles Art Show at Barker Hanger at the Santa Monica Airport, Jan. 23-27, 2008, and ART LA at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Jan. 25-27, 2008. With the opening of the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum set for early February, and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa finally starting to get the cityís cultural affairs department in order, it would seem to be the time for L.A., a city with formidable cultural cachet in general, to step into the art limelight.

The verdict? Well, despite the impressive turnout -- a total at both shows of approximately 200 galleries from Europe and the Americas -- L.A.ís fair weekend admittedly didnít quite have the clout of similar events in Miami or New York. Whatís more, the weekend was marred by several external factors, notably, unusually heavy rains and a week marked by turbulence in the stock market.

Still, despite these difficulties, plenty of business was done. And, most importantly, Los Angeles has at last taken on its own identity in the art-fair universe.

According to Leigh Hope Fountain, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Art Show, the event saw "record-breaking attendance and sales," with 25,000 visitors and total sales of over $20 million. For this installment, the fair, which is put on by the Fine Art Dealers Association, joined up with the International Fine Print Dealers Associationís Los Angeles Fine Print Fair, so the roster of dealers increased to 125 from about 75 in 2007. This arrangement is expected to continue. Fourteen dealers participated in the first installment of the show, held in Pasadena in 1994.

"A lot of people did a lot of business," said Howard Rehs, whose New York gallery specializes in contemporary realism and 19th-century salon and academic painting. "I talked to 40-plus dealers, and all but two had sales, anywhere from two to 25 works." The president of FADA, Rehs has done the show every year since its inception. He notes that the event is one of the least expensive on the circuit, with a typical booth costing under $20,000. Another plus is that the show is run by dealers, who know what the exhibitors need.

The L.A. Art Show is especially strong on contemporary realism, but also has plenty of classic modernism from dealers like New Yorkís Jill Newhouse, Blue Chip contemporary from galleries like Jonathan Novak Contemporary Art and more edgy fare from dealers like Wooster Projects, which this year featured photographs by Nat Finkelstein of the Velvet Underground.

"We try to make it a broad-based show," said Rehs, noting that prices for works at the fair ranged from a $1,000 or so up to a couple of million. The fair remains popular with dealers. For the 2008 installment, FADA received some 180 applications for 125 spots; about 40 FADA members do the show, and the rest are independent galleries.

"I think the show was pretty impressive," Rehs said. "Iím happy with the results."

As might be expected in L.A., plenty of Hollywood stars were among the visitors to the L.A. Art Show, including Kevin Bacon, Billy Crystal, Albert Brooks, Rebecca de Mornay and William Shatner. And the "Butterscotch Stallion" -- movie star Owen Wilson -- reportedly bought a $12,000 work by Maya Lin.

"It was a good fair for us, very good in fact," said dealer Jack Rutberg, whose Jack Rutberg Fine Arts in Los Angeles currently has on view a show of black-and-white works by Sam Francis. Rutberg reported substantial sales, among them an important bronze by Francisco Zuñiga, Juchiteca Sentada (1974), which drew interest from multiple clients and which ultimately sold to an East Coast collector. "We showed works by Pablo Picasso to contemporary art, and got an eclectic response," he said. "Our sales ranged from $5,000 Ed Ruscha prints to works for $500,000."

Despite his happiness with the show, Rutberg did note several ways that it could have been better. He said that participation by local museums was "shamefully absent," generally speaking, and also noted that the fair was more or less ignored by the L.A. Times. (The paper did feature the show prominently in its "Calendar" section last year, but has since suffered staffing cuts. The L.A. Weekly and other local papers did cover the event.)

Rutberg was emphatic in urging the Los Angeles art world to use the art fair weekend as an opportunity to strut its art stuff on the world stage.† "The L.A. art scene needs to learn how to embrace itself," Rutberg said, "Consider Miami, Basel -- these places take pride in their community and have a sense of event." He was quick to add, however, that "L.A. is and always will be the land of opportunity. If 25,000 people turn out in the middle of a rainstorm, something must be going on."

William Shearburn of the William Shearburn Gallery in Saint Louis was showing for his first time in at the Los Angeles Art Show, and echoed Rutbergís assessment of the cityís art scene.

"Itís hard for me to tell whatís going on in L.A.," he said. "My take is there is an art energy in that city that is fueled by the artists, not the collectors. You can certainly name a few individual figures, like Eli Broad. But to me, at least, the city doesnít seem to have a broad-based collecting community."

His verdict on the weekend was less rosy than Rutbergís. He called sales "disappointing," though he did do enough business by the end of the fair to recoup his expenses. "I think we got lucky," he said.

Kelly Purcell, gallery director for San Franciscoís Paul Thiebaud Gallery, returning for its second year, said the weekend went well for the gallery. "Weíre pleased with the feedback we got from this fair," Purcell said. "We did well with all the artists we brought. Not just that, but we have had good feedback afterwards. Sometimes, the business you do at an art fair doesnít pay off until later. From Los Angeles, weíve had lots of follow-up. Weíve sold a lot in the post-fair glow."

The other show in Los Angeles, ART LA, was nothing if not an avant-garde event, a gathering of younger dealers and galleries that are notable for their venturesome art offerings. According to ART L.A. director Tim Fleming, the fair got off to a good start with its vernissage, which was organized in collaboration with the Hammer Museum and had an attendance of 1,200, an increase of some 250 visitors from last year. The event raised $70,000 for the museumís "Hammer Projects" exhibition program.

Attendance during the entire week was good, Fleming said. Top collectors were on hand, including Mera and Don Rubell, Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson, Michael Ovitz and Herb and Lenore Schnorr. Celebrity spotters had a field day at ART LA, as well. Among the burgeoning collectors in the Hollywood community cruising the aisles at the civic center were Matt Dillon, Patricia Heaton, Dustin Hoffman, Marisa Tomei, Daniel Stern and Keenen Ivory Wayans.

Sales at the fair totaled $3 million, Fleming said. One of the more dramatic installations at the show, a "bus crashed to the size of the booth" by artist Piero Golia, was bought by collector Eugenio LÚpez. Other sales included a diptych by Mark Grotjahn at Anton Kern Gallery, a drawing by Bruce Connor at Michael Kohn Gallery, and a large-scale sculpture by Aaron Curry at David Kordansky Gallery. And Miami dealer Fredric Snitzer reported selling over 400 pieces by Bert Rodriguez, an artist included in the current Whitney Biennial -- though admittedly the art was "priced to move at $2 to $100."

During the fairs, various rumors were flying. One in particular had Art Basel Miami Beach pulling up stakes and moving to Los Angeles. While this tale has been debunked before, its persistence is suggestive. Los Angeles is clearly viewed by the global art world as an art market whose time is long overdue. Leigh Hope Fountain, the Los Angeles Art Show spokesperson, only added to such speculation with her cryptic comment to Artnet Magazine that a "pretty monumental development" was in store for the 2009 installment.

In the meantime, for art lovers looking for an update on L.A. have their next chance, ironically, in New York, as L.A. Art, featuring 15 Los Angeles dealers, comes to the Altman Building in the Big Apple during the Armory Show weekend, Mar. 27-30, 2008.

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