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Why doesn't L.A. have a major contemporary art fair? And why it matters beyond the art world

January 27, 2011 |  7:00 am

It's no secret: L.A. has some of the world's leading contemporary artists, museums and galleries and, increasingly, the collectors needed to support them all. So why doesn't L.A. have a world-class contemporary art fair?

At first glance, this might seem like something of interest to the contemporary art elite, and trivial or just plain trifling to everyone else in town. Think again. These days a major contemporary art fair is, by definition, a driver of cultural tourism and attendant hotel, retail and restaurant revenues.

In an interview for this Times report on the battle of L.A.'s new art fairs, Eli Broad helped put it into perspective by citing a 2004 study that shows that L.A. has less than 3 million cultural tourists a year, while London and New York have 10 million and 15 million, respectively. "Having an art fair is another way to promote cultural tourism," says Broad, "and cultural tourists spend a lot of money -- more than any other kind of tourists."

 That helps to explain why just a few years ago Broad was talking seriously to Samuel Keller, the former director of Art Basel, about extending his franchise here. "I even suggested they give Miami a sabbatical one year and try it here," Broad said.

(If you wonder why an art collector even entered the fray, remember that Art Basel Miami Beach was originally the vision of mega-collectors like Craig Robins, Norman and Irma Braman, Don and Mera Rubell, and Carlos and Rosa de la Cruz.)

Broad says that in the end Keller didn't bite for a host of reasons,including expense and scheduling. This leaves room for the Merchandise Mart group, which organizes the Armory show among others, to take a crack.

Broad said he didn't know enough about its plans to comment, but is not surprised by the interest in starting a major art fair here. “I think it's going to happen,” says Broad. “The only question is who is going to do it, and when.”


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The ABCs of L.A.'s art fairs


-- Jori Finkel

Image: Visitors to L.A. Art Contemporary in 2010 check out the booth of Charest-Weinberg gallery from Miami. Photograph Stefanie Keenan/WireImage.