LOS ANGELES — There’s an old adage that Los Angeles is a city where art is made, but not sold. Over the past two decades, however, LA has established itself as a major art capital, with galleries from New York and Europe opening outposts here. This week, LA hosted five art fairs, from the scrappy Spring Break Art Show and the hotel throwback fair Felix to the global juggernaut Frieze, suggesting that the market may have finally caught up to the creative energy here. Art is being sold, but the question remains: Who is buying it? Has LA’s long-awaited collector class finally arrived? 

When Frieze launched its first Los Angeles Fair in 2019 on the Paramount Studios Lot, there was skepticism about whether the city could sustain a fair of its caliber. Naysayers seem to have been proven wrong, and this year the show relocated to the Santa Monica Airport — former home of the city’s now-defunct long-running fair Art Los Angeles Contemporary — with over 120 galleries spread between two massive tents.

On opening morning this week, the VIP line to get in snaked past a van with a sign reading “Art Show Here” as a man could be heard calling “tamales!” That was artist Ruben Ochoa, and the van was a mobile art gallery he ran from 2001 to 2005, resurrected here as a Frieze Projects installation. It had previously been used by his parents to deliver Mexican food staples, and inside the white interior sat a stack of bronze tortillas, an homage to its previous life and the labor that is an integral part of LA’s economy. A few tamale vendors were set up nearby, invited by Ochoa, who designed the stands created in partnership with Revolution Carts.

Cart designed by Ruben Ochoa

Once inside the fair, a mix of collectors, artists, curators, and celebrities rubbed elbows, including Lionel Richie, Catherine Keener, and Christoph Waltz (and Gwyneth Paltrow and Owen Wilson, reportedly). With their typical bravado, several dealers boasted that their booths were completely or nearly sold out — like Gagosian’s presentation of large-scale abstract paintings by Rick Lowe, the gallery said. Among the reported sales were a suite of 42 photographs by Arthur Jafa at Gladstone Gallery for $475,000; a massive embroidery by Jordan Nassar that sold to an institution for $200,000 at James Cohan; and a Mark Bradford painting at Hauser & Wirth that sold for $3.5 million.

At the Barker Hangar, the smaller and more intimate of the fair’s two tents, Director of downtown LA art space Murmurs Allison Littrell said they had completely sold their presentation of ceramic wall works by Roksana Pirouzmand, all priced at under $10,000. Unlike some galleries at the fair that arrive with work pre-sold, Murmurs made a conscious decision not to make pre-sales in order to meet new collectors, Littrell added.

But where are these emerging collectors coming from?

Photographs by Arthur Jafa presented by Gladstone Gallery

One answer is Asia, a rising powerhouse in the art market, which LA is geographically situated to capitalize on. According to Frieze Director Christine Messineo, the LA fair has tripled the number of collectors based in South Korea in the last year. Dealer James Fuentes, who will be opening an LA branch of his New York gallery next month, put it even more plainly: “My clients from Asia will come to New York once a year, but they might be in LA every quarter.”

Another answer is Hollywood — an industry that the LA art world has long courted, but has not historically aligned with.

“It was impossible to connect entertainment money to art,” said Dean Valentine, collector and co-founder of Felix Art Fair. “I began collecting in ‘94 and I don’t remember seeing another Hollywood guy in a gallery for 10 years.” Valentine cites the purported increased diversity in both the entertainment and visual art spheres as a possible reason for the current crop of collectors in entertainment. “There is an acknowledgment of groups previously not allowed in through the front gates of culture … [Hollywood and the art world] shared this breaking down of boundaries at the same moment.”

And yet, in spite of all the talk of diversity, one notable area of underrepresentation at this year’s fair was work by artists of Latin American descent — especially glaring especially given LA’s demographics. Smaller hometown galleries had the strongest showing of Latinx artists, including Edgar Ramirez at Chris Sharp, Ruben Ulises Rodriguez Montoya at Murmurs, Veronica Fernandez at Sow & Taylor, and Harold Mendez and Michelle Lopez at Commonwealth and Council. And the $25,000 Frieze Impact Prize was awarded to artist Narsiso Martinez, who presented portraits of farm workers titled Sin Bandana.

Works by Jane Margarette at Anat Ebgi’s booth

It is also worth noting that LA-based entertainment conglomerate Endeavor, helmed by Ari Emanuel, is a majority owner in Frieze, adding to the hometown synergy. Another talent agency, UTA, has also gotten into the art business, even opening its own exhibition space in Beverly Hills. Its current exhibition of paintings by the late African-American artist Ernie Barnes had echoes at Frieze, where a joint booth by Andrew Kreps Gallery and Ortuzar Projects had several Barnes works on view. On the opening day, as confirmed in a peppy PR email, they sold one painting for over $1 million, three paintings for approximately $500,000 each, and eight works on paper priced between $60,000 and $100,000. A representative for the gallery said they could not disclose who, exactly, was spending this much cash, and other exhibitors remained similarly tight-lipped — a reminder that despite reports of booming business and a more open art world, much of it remains opaque.

Several members of Barnes’s family stopped by the booth on opening day, wearing matching “Team Barnes” sweatshirts, undercutting the commercial sheen of the fair with a moment of familial connection. When asked about her father’s fairly recent institutional acceptance after years of being seen as a popular, but not mainstream artist, his daughter Deidre replied: “It’s been a long time coming.”

Frieze Los Angeles 2023

This perceived opening up of the gates, it should be noted, is taking place in a state where wealth inequality gaps are among the nation’s largest. But enfant terrible Stefan Simchowitz, derided by some for his flagrant approach to the practice of “flipping” artworks by young contemporary artists and lauded by others for his disruption of the classic gallery system, told Hyperallergic that art collecting in LA is “expanding outside of its traditional zone” and “becoming a more mainstream activity.”

But as much as Tinseltown is seen as a puzzle that the art world has finally cracked, some acknowledge that it is only one piece.

“Everybody’s hoping for a link between Hollywood and art. That’s one reason why people come here, the potential in that,” said Philipp Kaiser, president and partner at Marian Goodman Galleries, which will be opening an LA branch later this year. “The entertainment industry is one of the motors, but there are many other segments that need to be tapped … To succeed in LA, the approach of a gallery has to be broader than that.”

Kaiser was previously a curator at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art from 2007 to 2011, and recalls when he arrived from Europe, a fellow curator told him: “What we’re doing here is subculture.”

“It’s like the teenage years are over,” Kaiser continued, reflecting on how much the city had changed. “We’re growing up.”

Ernie Barnes, “Groovin’ in the Bottom” (1978), acrylic on canvas, presented by Andrew Kreps Gallery and Ortuzar Projects
Narsiso Martinez, winner of this year’s Frieze Impact Prize
Works by Edward and Nancy Kienholz at LA Louver’s booth

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.