The Gray Market: Why Frieze Los Angeles Would Be Dead on Arrival (and Other Insights)

This week, our columnist draws on his LA gallery experience to chart the pitfalls of Frieze's potential westward expansion.

Frieze Art Fair on Randalls Island, 2012. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Outside the 2012 edition of Frieze New York. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process. 

This week, a special focus on what is, for me, a special issue…

THE RUMOR

On Thursday, Charlotte Burns and Allan Schwartzman reported in Art Agency, Partners’s “In Other Words” newsletter that “the Frieze Art Fair is looking to launch a Los Angeles event in January 2019.” A Frieze rep responded to further inquiries with this coy statement: “We are always exploring new ideas and discussing ways to respond to galleries’ needs but we can’t speak to any specific plans at this point.”

Translation: Book it.

Except, with all due respect to Frieze, you probably shouldn’t book a trip to LA quite yet. Because experience says that not many other people in the industry are likely to, either.

As some readers know, I just left Los Angeles after 12.5 years—most of it spent working in the gallery sector, and the rest floating through the art scene as a free radical. I’ll say it if no one else will: LA is an art-fair graveyard for a reason.

As my colleagues Julia Halperin and Eileen Kinsella pointed out, the last seven years have witnessed a seemingly strong contingent of fairs and organizers—FIAC Los Angeles, Paris Photo Los Angeles, Art Platform Los Angeles, and Paramount Ranch—fade out almost as quickly as they faded in.

A smaller group of ongoing local products have failed to reach escape velocity from the region. Art Los Angeles Contemporary is fine. For LA galleries, it’s the equivalent of the McDonald’s you eat in a barren airport terminal because, somehow, it’s the best option you have. The LA Art Show is, frankly, not a thing that anyone takes seriously.

So what’s the problem? Let’s start with…

The downtown Los Angeles skyline. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images.

The downtown Los Angeles skyline. Photo: David McNew/Getty Images.

THE GEOGRAPHY

As much as most everyone likes BEING in Los Angeles, the reality is that GETTING TO Los Angeles from the power centers of the art world is a low-level fiasco.

It’s a six-and-a-half-hour flight from New York, an 11.5-hour flight from London, and if you’re coming from further away, get ready for the type of travel odyssey normally only endured by college-aged backpackers hoping to disappear into a summer haze of opium smoke and snake-blood shots.

It’s not as if things get drastically more convenient once you land, either. Reminder: There isn’t even a train to or from LAX. (Not that anyone flying to an art fair would use it other than journalists, rank-and-file artists, and art handlers, but still…)

And anyway, what route would that train take?

Los Angeles isn’t really one city. It’s an amalgam of smaller cities threaded together by a freeway map that often seems like it was drawn this way because someone in city hall lost a bet.

That isn’t the actual origin, of course. But as William Hackman describes in the early pages of Out of Sight: The Los Angeles Art Scene of the Sixties, LA makes so little transit sense today in large part because the founders of its various metropolitan communities WANTED to be isolated from one another at the outset. The city writ large was literally designed to discourage travel!

This helps make Los Angeles really interesting and diverse, but also really frustrating on a practical level.

Pure distance plays a role here. Nearly 20 miles separate the Team Gallery Bungalow in Venice from Hauser & Wirth’s downtown complex. Which is an even bigger problem because there is no gallery district as concentrated as, say, Chelsea or Mayfair to be found anywhere in between.

Ironically, “Gallery Row” in downtown’s historic core contains no galleries that anyone outside the local art walk has heard of, and the Arts District basically consists of Hauser, an overbuilt collection of new lofts, a series of artisanal brunch spots, and soon enough (because it’s the law) Soho House.

Instead, the city hosts various pockets of galleries scattered apart from one another by modest to major stretches. It’s as if a cargo plane had to strafe over Los Angeles and airdrop bunches of commercial spaces without slowing down, lest a militia of rocket-launching, market-phobic art purists blow them out of the sky.

On big nights for gallery openings, you basically have to decide in advance which area you’re hitting, to the exclusion of almost all others. Between 6-8 p.m. you might be able to get from a few spaces on La Cienega to a couple others on Highland—if you stay selective, talk to no one, and Uber efficiently.

But if you want to try to get from Boyle Heights (assuming you’re not blockaded by anti-gentrification demonstrators) to Gagosian Beverly Hills in two hours on a Saturday night, lol, you might as well try to split the atom with a plastic spoon.

The gallery distribution only matters because it speaks to the larger fragmentation of the city. The point is that it’s nearly impossible to create the kind of critical mass of networking opportunities that power other major fairs outside the convention center.

People have to stay in too many different neighborhoods around Los Angeles, and even for residents, the prospect of traveling from one area to the other tends to have the same effect on social and professional ambition as popping half a Percocet.

Long story short: If you wanted to art-fair-proof a locale—an increasingly tantalizing idea in 2018—LA’s City Planning office would be a damn good place to start.

Even if that weren’t the case, though, there’s still an even bigger issue…

Eli Broad, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Edythe Broad at the Broad Museum opening. Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images.

Eli Broad, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Edythe Broad at the Broad Museum opening. Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images.

THE COLLECTOR BASE

Here’s what I can tell you from my own experience, coupled with an informal survey of peers in Los Angeles who have worked in various roles on the sell side of the business: In an average year, it would be really unusual for more than about 40 percent of sales to be made to clients actually based in the city, and not at all unusual for the number to dip closer to a third.

Ironically, a big chunk of that pie chart’s opposite side comes from—you guessed it—art fairs! Which should be doubly worrisome to anyone hoping to plant a major fair in LA.

Reason being: It tells you that many west-coast gallerists are being driven to trade shows because they’re not selling enough in their backyards, and the clients buying at those trade shows are seldom from LA, either.

This is not to say that the Southland doesn’t have some great collectors and voluminous buyers. (Yes, those two groups can be, and often are, mutually exclusive.) Some of the most sought-after “bill to” parties in the art world now call Los Angeles home, even if they didn’t always: David Geffen, Eli and Edythe Broad, Eugenio López, and others.

But if you strip away the topsoil, how many other active and engaged collectors will you find beneath?

Not that many. Certainly not so many that an out-of-town art fair can justifiably promise exhibitors a rich, untapped clientele ready and waiting to buy out their booths. Too many wealthy Angelenos are willing to acquire just enough art to fill their walls, then cut off funding like rich parents punishing their shithead kids for totaling the Bentley again.

Why isn’t the local collecting scene stronger? It’s a complex question, but I think it begins with the relative youth of Los Angeles, as both an institutional destination and an art market.

While they’re not one-to-one proxies, museums can tell us a lot about the progress of collecting ecosystems. Even back when legitimate tax dollars actually went their way, these places didn’t build, fund, and fill themselves.

Here are the founding dates for some major New York institutions: The Met, 1870; MoMA, 1929; the Whitney, 1930; and the Guggenheim (as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting), 1939.

In comparison, LACMA only became an art-focused museum in 1961. MOCA Los Angeles was founded in 1979. The Hammer opened in 1990.

To put those dates on a human scale, I have eight years of seniority on the Hammer, MOCA is the same age as my brother, and the LACMA we know today is younger than my dad.

None of the above is a dig. Much of what people (justifiably) find so exciting about art and life in Los Angeles is the sense of possibility and openness. Sometimes New York’s long history and rigid hierarchy can weigh it down like a K-9 Unit rookie running away in an attack-dog training suit.

But the flip side is that everyone in Los Angeles knows that artists and galleries still only gain real credibility by penetrating the old guard to the east (and, to some extent, across the Atlantic). Placing a work with LACMA is cool. Placing a work with MoMA is a game-changer.

Plus, the older money on the east coast is generally more prepared to collect in depth, and the newer money there is generally both more robust and more eager to try to play the high-society game. (P.S. It is not a coincidence that the world’s finance capitals, New York and London, have also been its two leading art markets for at least a couple generations.)

In practice, then, what often happens is that many Los Angeles galleries direct a substantial portion of their efforts eastward. As a result, they spend much less time trying to cultivate a new group of collectors back home, and the market there grows incrementally instead of exponentially.

And since many gallerists feel they have to strain themselves like pack animals to expand their clientele in Los Angeles anyway, they also have to ask themselves about the size of LA’s upside vis-à-vis other growth markets.

Ask yourselves this: Which territory has more business potential between Los Angeles and China, let alone Asia more broadly? Would it be better to cultivate the third largest city in the union or the second largest economy in the world?

Of course, some of you are no doubt wondering: If the market isn’t there yet, then why do all these name galleries keep expanding to Los Angeles?

I think it comes down to three factors…

Exterior of Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Exterior of Hauser & Wirth, Los Angeles. Courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

THE OPTICS, THE HOPE + THE FEAR

As I’ve written before, in our growth-focused gallery system, it looks better to launch a satellite of any size, in any region, than to be pigeonholed as a one-city seller. Many collectors and artists today simply believe that if you’re not visibly getting bigger, you’re shrinking toward irrelevance.

Pair that knowledge with the amount of hype around Los Angeles as an arts capital. Even if a gallerist isn’t sure a paying audience exists there, it’s easy to be convinced that we’re on the verge. After all, the art scene “has exploded”! The city has become “a global powerhouse for new art”! Content farms have named it “the world’s best art destination”!

I can’t find the interview for the life of me, but the situation reminds me of something Colin Farrell said years ago about why he thought directors kept casting him in big roles early on, even though by his own admission he wasn’t that good an actor or that big a box-office draw yet: No one wanted to be the guy who said “no” right before he became a star in someone else’s movie.

Never underestimate the warm, cozy danger of consensus.

The last ingredient in this recipe is fear—specifically, the fear of being poached. Michael Govan, already years into his directorship of LACMA at the time, spoke to this understandable paranoia when asked about the recent influx of non-California galleries to the City of Angels circa 2015:

“Mostly, if you interrogate gallerists, I think they’re moving now [to Los Angeles] not to make money… but because there’s so many artists there, and if they don’t have a gallery [locally] then those artists will connect with galleries who do. A lot of it is a defensive move.”

This concept rings true to me. Artists LOVE Los Angeles, and they should. Sure, it’s not anywhere near as cheap as the New York Times would have us believe. (Even two years ago, you were more likely to find an active volcano in Echo Park than a two-bedroom bungalow for $1,250/month.) But the quality of life you can have in LA is significantly higher than the one you can have for the same money in New York.

If the talent is increasingly moving west—and I think it is—then the galleries have to either follow or resign themselves to chugging Pepto-Bismol out of separation anxiety.

The upshot is this: Los Angeles is a great place to make art. It can be a great place to see art, especially at museums and smaller nonprofits off the beaten path. (Shouts to the Underground Museum, Art + Practice, and LAXART.)

But a legit art scene and a self-sustaining art market are two separate things. Los Angeles checks one of those two boxes. It doesn’t yet check the other.

That’s why so many art fairs have failed there already. And it’s why, if I were Frieze, I’d re-evaluate the wisdom of wagon-training west.

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: Being too early is the same as being wrong.


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