While the auction market has thrived under COVID, the past few years have been rough on art fairs and museums. During the pandemic, earnings at the top end of the market remained strong. Sotheby's enjoyed consolidated sales of at least $7.3 billion, its highest annual total in its 277-year history. At Christie's, sales of $7.1 billion pushed their total to its highest in five years. That's all well and good for blue chip traders but what about scrappy practitioners and gallerists with prices a little more down to earth?
We head to this year's Frieze Los Angeles for an answer. This year, Frieze Los Angeles returns with a new location in Beverly Hills. The art fair has expanded to over 100 galleries and includes the usual suspects like Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, Sprüth Magers and David Zwirner. It also features local art stars like Betye Saar who's presenting a new iteration of her monumental 1983 Los Angeles public mural, "L.A. Energy" for Roberts Projects. Making its U.S. premiere at Gagosian booth is Chris Burden's "Dreamer's Folly," a large-format architectural sculpture completed in 2010, just five years before the "City Lights" artist died of melanoma. Kehinde Wiley has a new portrait in Roberts Projects booth, and Sterling Ruby has work with SprüthMagers, as does Barbara Kruger and the late John Baldessari.
Under Christine Messineo, the newly-appointed director of Frieze Los Angeles and New York, the show has expanded to include BIPOC Exchange, a collaboration with Tanya Aguiñiga, artist and founder of Art Made Between Opposite Sides (AMBOS). Located at the nearby Beverly Hilton Hotel's Wilshire Garden, it includes 10 L.A.-based artist-led projects geared toward creating a more just community.
But this year, the focus is squarely on local galleries like Blum & Poe, The Box, Château Shatto, Jeffrey Deitch, David Kordansky Gallery, Regen Projects and Various Small Fires (VSF). There is also Focus LA, a forum for galleries and artists who previously could only dream of Frieze-level exposure. Added this year are 11 exhibitors including Baert Gallery, Garden, Gattopardo, In Lieu, Luis De Jesus Los Angeles, Marta, Stanley's and Stars who are showing for the first time, with returning participants including Bel Ami, Charlie James Gallery and Parker Gallery.
"Aside from really wanting to support BIPOC artists, it's time to give that a larger platform, to celebrate and see it show up in institutions and private collections," says Focus LA curator Amanda Hunt of the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. "Indigenous, Black, Brown and also queer narrative, there are narratives here that I want people to learn from."
While galleries and museums can give voice to the unheard, they cannot force collectors to buy their work. In that, gallery owner Charlie James says the gallery has done fairly well. "If there's a creative space that was not significantly harmed it was the contemporary art gallery space. Our revenue in 2020 ticked down a bit but the margins were such that we were more profitable. And '21 was terrific," says James. "In months four, five, six of 2020, sure everything slowed down, but it never stopped. But come July of 2020 the faucets were back on and they stayed on. Everyone's margins improved because they didn't go anywhere, they didn't do art fairs. It was good while almost everything else was bad."
At the Charlie James Gallery booth is a piece combining work by two more L.A.-based artists, Patrick Martinez and Jay Lynn Gomez. Their collaboration, "Labor of Love," features a 10-foot wall made by Martinez. Cleaning it is a cardboard cutout version of Gomez's mother, made by Gomez. Cleaning ladies and gardeners are a cornerstone of Gomez's oeuvre since her breakthrough as Ramiro Gomez with her painting, "No Splash," based on David Hockney's 1967 work, "A Bigger Splash," but populated with a pool cleaner and a maid. About a dozen of her acrylic on magazine works are included here, luxurious images culled from periodicals in which she adds nannies, maids and gardeners.
Similarly, Parker Gallery experienced their best years in 2020 and 2021. Situated in a house in a residential Los Feliz neighborhood, their front yard became a sculpture garden during the pandemic. They prospered despite not offering virtual exhibitions or appointment-only scheduling when Charlie James Gallery and others did.
At Frieze, Parker Gallery offers two ceramic pieces by L.A.-based artist Melvino Garretti, stylized colorful and eccentric sculptures that dance a graceful line between abstraction and folk art influenced by improvisational jazz and pan-African rhythms. Three fabric paintings hang nearby, two of which haven't been shown before, mixed media pieces using textiles and personal objects.
The work is in dialogue with three paintings by Troy Lamarr Chew II, also from L.A. They're from his ongoing series "Out of the Mud," which combines traditional African textiles and patterns with contemporary scenes and imagery.
The unexpected uptick in business can likely be chalked up to two things — accumulation of disposable income and hours of boredom spent looking at the walls. "You couldn't do anything in 2020 for fun. Everyone was sitting home and buying stuff. That definitely favored us," observes James.
Hunt agrees. "People are just considering space more seriously, more intently. You see it in the housing market, too. I think art is something that helps people cope. You can look at it, engage with it, talk about it, think through something. That didn't stop. People have really missed going to museums and galleries."