The Future of Art Fairs Is in a Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard
The Hotel Roosevelt. Image courtesy of Felix LA.
Amid the tourist-thronged block of Hollywood Boulevard across from the TCL Chinese Theatre, where tourists skip along sidewalks speckled with stars as they pass a Hooters, a Madame Tussauds, and a TMZ Celebrity Tour kiosk, an unlikely new neighbor opened Thursday afternoon: a contemporary art fair.
As the art industry scrambles to find new fair models that let mid-tier galleries participate without driving them to bankruptcy with booth fees and travel costs, three prominent figures in the Los Angeles art scene—collector Dean Valentine and dealers Alberto and Mills Morán—proposed a radical idea. They would return to the hotel fair model, a throwback to the Gramercy International Art Fair held at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. in the 1990s, where booth prices could be kept low due minimal infrastructure-building costs. For dealers who are really hard-up for cash, they could always sleep in their booth—there’s an option to keep the bed in the room.
Felix LA has gone from a germ of an idea to a full-fledged art fair in less than a year, and opened on Thursday at the Hollywood Roosevelt, a storied Tinseltown hotel—it hosted the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929—recently restored to its Art Deco splendor.
“There’s a lot of conversations going around about how to make a more viable economic model for the younger galleries which have huge overhead and very erratic revenue,” said Valentine, sitting in a basement room of the Hollywood Roosevelt. “This is an attempt to answer part of that. At a hotel, part of the overhead is already built in.”
Ellie Rines pictured with artwork by Al Freeman at 56 Henry's booth at Felix 2019. Photo by Eric Minh Swenson. Courtesy of Felix LA.
“And we aren’t building any walls,” added Mills Morán, who, with his brother, runs the Hollywood-based gallery Morán Morán.
The two were preparing for the fair’s first edition as a crew of organizers hauled boxes of Felix-branded T-shirts, buttons, and beer koozies, while art handlers carted wooden crates to some of the hotel’s bungalows, which also serve as fair booths. We were speaking two days before the fair was set to open alongside the first edition of Frieze Los Angeles, which held its preview on Thursday at Paramount Pictures Studios—a quick Uber ride away, even in the city’s notoriously bad traffic. Already, Hollywood Boulevard was getting ready for its art-world close-up. For the first time since the art market became a global, pop-cultural phenomenon—with the creation of Art Basel in Miami Beach and the advent of Instagram turning art fair-hopping into a lifestyle—there is a critical mass of the world’s biggest dealers and collectors in the world’s entertainment capital.
“Everybody’s converging in L.A.,” Mills Morán said. “This has never happened in Los Angeles. I can already feel that buzz—and this is where I’m from. Usually I have to travel to go find this, and now I can just go home at the end of the night.”
The talk that Frieze would expand to Los Angeles had been at a volume just under deafening since April 2016, when Endeavor, the talent agency co-founded by Ari Emanuel, bought a stake in the fair juggernaut that started as a small magazine in 1991, expanding into the art fair business in 2003. (The exact size of Endeavor’s stake in Frieze—said to be between 50 percent and 70 percent—and the price paid both remain undisclosed.) But Felix was conceived less than a year before its first edition. Valentine, a longtime TV executive who has been collecting art since the early 1990s—he was an early proponent of superstar artists such as John Currin, Takashi Murakami, and Mark Grotjahn—was at the 2018 Armory Show in New York when he realized he wasn’t having a good time.
Installation view of Bodega's booth at Felix 2019. Photo by Eric Minh Swenson. Courtesy of Felix LA.
“It was slushy, and it was wet, and it was cold, and people were pissed at each other about their booth placement, and collectors were pissed off,” he said. “There was a lot of negative energy around it.”
Over dinner with trailblazing dealers such as Berlin’s Tanya Leighton and New York’s Anton Kern, Valentine floated an idea: Why not go back to the good old days of the Gramercy International Art Fair, which eventually became the Armory Show, but initially took place at the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York and the Chateau Marmont in L.A. These were fairs for an art market in uncertain times that, Valentine said, gave rise to a new generation of artists.
“You walk into a room and it would be Marian Goodman’s room, and there’d be Thomas Schütte sculptures,” Valentine recalled, “or you’d walk into Patrick Painter’s room, and there would be some of the first Glenn Brown paintings. And Anton said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could find something like that again?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it would be great.’ And Anton said, ‘So why don’t you do it?’ And I said, ‘I’m not a fair guy, I have a life!’”
The next month, Valentine stopped by Morán Morán and happened to mention the dinner and the dream. Alberto Morán countered with an idea for a venue: the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It checks off all the boxes in the Tinseltown glamour department. Marilyn Monroe supposedly haunts the suite she once stayed in; Errol Flynn distilled bootleg gin in the barbershop; and Leonardo DiCaprio sauntered through its red-velvet hallways in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can. It also has enough suites, bungalows, and available rooms to host a major art fair.
“There was no other place,” Mills Morán said.
The founding team fell into place seamlessly. Valentine knows galleries in L.A. and globally from decades of buying art. The brothers Morán know the art fair business, having scored booths in fairs such as Art Basel in Basel and Frieze New York. But timing was of the essence. The fair would have to open in tandem with the recently announced Frieze L.A. in order to have enough collectors in town to get galleries to agree to sign on. And the fact that Frieze would be a fraction of its usual size—70 galleries instead of the roughly 160 that showed in London last year—meant that many of the galleries accustomed to doing Frieze in London and New York but shut out of the L.A. edition would be looking for another way to get in on the action.
Installation view of Michael Benevento's booth at Felix 2019. Photo by Eric Minh Swenson. Courtesy of Felix LA.
And the cost for the hotel fair would be much lower. Booths at Frieze start at $8,277.50 for the smallest booth, a paltry 215 square feet. For a large booth, mega-galleries have to pay more than $75,000. Meanwhile, a gallery at Felix LA can get a booth for just $4,000, and the most expensive booth, at $10,000, is a small uptick from the low barrier at Frieze—but that fee gets you all 1,200 square feet of the hotel’s over-the-top Roosevelt Suite, more than five times the size of a small booth at Frieze.
The fact that Felix LA is free and open to the public will allow participating galleries to introduce would-be collectors—many of whom may not be willing to fork over as much as $250 for a ticket to Frieze L.A.—to work by emerging artists who wouldn’t have a place at a major fair stuffed with work already validated by the market.
“It’s a response to the market now, where the market starts concentrating on blue-chip art because it’s a nervous-making world,” Valentine said. “What that means is that the new art, the emerging art, the younger art that hasn’t had time to marinate in the world—the only way that art can get absorbed into the system is for people to talk about it. We’re not anti-capitalistic, we’re not anti-market, we just want to create a safe haven for certain kinds of art and artists.”
To assemble an inaugural exhibitor list, Valentine looked to dealers he’s worked with closely over the years, such as Kern and Leighton. The final roster includes long-established heavy-hitters such as Canada in New York, Jessica Silverman Gallery in San Francisco, and Kavi Gupta in Chicago, as well as international galleries from Europe, Asia, and South Africa. But Valentine and the Moráns also stayed true to the youthful spirit of the fairs at the Chateau Marmont—which were co-organized by Matthew Marks when he was in his early thirties, and had Jay Jopling and Maureen Paley showing in some of their first fairs—and invited outfits such as New York’s Bridget Donahue and 56 Henry, a tiny Chinatown space run by the dealer Ellie Rines.
“You want that gallery that’s going to be a bigger gallery 20 years from now,” Mills Morán said. “I’d love for Ellie Rines to have a much stronger program—and that she showed at our fair way back when. That, to me, is important. And that brings the energy to what happened in the 1990s, and trying to recreate that.”
nstallation view of Susan Vielmetter's booth at Felix 2019. Photo by Eric Minh Swenson. Courtesy of Felix LA.
Installation at the Hollywood Roosevelt began late Wednesday afternoon. The hotel’s 11th floor had been turned over completely to galleries, with art handlers ducking into suites carrying large canvases, while hotel staff removed beds and couches from the rooms.
The “booth” of Clearing, a gallery with spaces in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Brussels, was in room 1101, with windows that revealed the full splendor of the Hollywood sign and mansions in the Hollywood Hills dotting the landscape. “It’s quite a view, isn’t it?” said gallery founder Olivier Babin, as his staff unwrapped works by Calvin Marcus and Aaron Garber-Maikovska. Paintings by Zak Kitnick would be installed horizontally, as tables, and visitors to the fair are welcome to use them as backgammon boards.
Down the hall, Kate Werble, who has had a gallery in New York since 2008, was unwrapping works by Melanie Schiff, who was on hand to install herself. Werble cut open a box to reveal a black basketball sculpture by Christopher Chiappa, an appropriate contribution to a fair in the NBA-obsessed new home of LeBron James.
“This is my first hotel fair,” Werble said, standing in front of a window revealing the palm tree–lined streets. “I feel like I missed that whole thing—I went to the Gramercy International when I was an intern.”
One Felix LA participant who did show at a previous Gramercy International is Kenny Schachter, a dealer, writer, and practicing artist. A show of new video, sculpture, and paintings that draw from his columns about the art market opened this week at Kantor Gallery in Beverly Hills. His booth mixed work made by his sons with works from some of the most prominent artists of the last few decades, including a rare Cady Noland work involving a photo of Patty Hearst and her one-time fiancé, Steven Weed, in a metal frame made by the artist. Leaning against the bed was a Robert Colescott piece and a small but potent black-and-white work by Wade Guyton. Propped against a table was a brilliant Chris Burden work from the 1970s, part of a series consisting of his cancelled checks—some to his phone company, some to the company heating his studio—arranged in a grid.
Aaron Garber-Maikovska, Untitled, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Clearing, New York/Brussels.
“The most valuable ones are the ones with a cancelled check to his pot dealer,” Schachter said.
Anton Kern was installing down the hall in a suite that was big enough to put many traditional fair booths to shame. A quick elevator ride led me to the galleries taking over poolside bungalows on the ground floor. Bridget Donahue was in the room that would house her “booth,” overseeing the installation of a video by Martine Syms and lounging on one of Jessi Reaves’s touching-is-encouraged works that blur the line between sculpture and furniture, when Reaves walked into the bungalow.
“I have so many of my artists here in Los Angeles,” Donahue said, noting that it was her first time doing a fair in the city—there just wasn’t one for her to do before Felix LA.
There was no way to be sure that sales would be solid for the galleries in this first edition, and a rainy opening day was certainly a curveball for collectors who’d flocked to the perpetually sunny city. But the funky vibe at the Hollywood Roosevelt seemed to put dealers in a better-than-usual mood during installation.
Valentine mentioned that they had anticipated 150 RSVPs, but received 750. The apparent surge of interest begged the question: If Felix LA is a runaway success, could it be replicated in other cities?
“It’s been discussed, and we always come back to: ‘Let’s get through this week,’” Mills Morán said. “But it’s fun to think about.”