L.A. art fair may rival Paris, Basel. Second outing brings better organization, more visitors

Works from many big-name artists were conspicuously present: Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, David Smith, David Hockney, and Susan Rothenberg. Many top-name galleries were conspicuously absent: Castelli, Mary Boone, Sonnabend, Paula Cooper. But interviews with exhibitors here at the second international contemporary art fair - called ``ART/LA87'' - indicate Los Angeles is well on its way to becoming a world-class American alternative to the well-known Navy Pier exhibition in Chicago. And it may soon equal - in size, diversity, and talent - the top European-based fairs in Basel, Paris, and Cologne.

``It doesn't yet have that `buzz' that you get in Chicago or Basel,'' says William C.M. Jackson, managing director of the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh, who has exhibited at 20 fairs in the last eight years. ``But the commitment I feel here this year, the quality and diversity and the organization, [mean] this will be a major fair in three to four years.''

From more than 400 galleries that applied, a panel of experts, headed by Los Angeles professionals and including patrons Marcia and Frederick Weisman, selected 170 galleries representing 54 cities and about 1,000 artists. The exhibition, at the downtown Convention Center, was complemented by 36 seminars presenting 70 international speakers on contemporary art trends and issues.

The fair opened about two months after another more commercial fair, ArtExpo Cal, and a year after its own poorly attended debut, which was blamed on competition from two museum openings: the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. All these events have been heralded as steppingstones in a general burgeoning of art savvy in Los Angeles.

This year has produced more commitment, better organization, and better advance advertising and press, exhibitors say. The result was stronger attendance this year. Though final figures weren't in at press time, some exhibitors were estimating twice as many visitors in the first two days than in all of last year's fair. Even so, sales appeared to be off slightly from last year, a circumstance being attributed to the October stock market crash and pre-Christmas thriftiness. About a dozen interviews with exhibitors from Brazil, Spain, Paris, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, England, and more found consensus on some key points:

Though the fair threw a wide net across American and British cities, the absence of major galleries, such as New York's Pace and London's Waddington, kept it from being as comprehensive as it might have been.

Though some of the emerging California artists exhibited have not yet ``arrived,'' in the eyes of European and Asian visitors, they and the Los Angeles public will benefit immeasurably from the yearly contact with some of the best the art world has to offer.

Exhibitors liked the climate control, carpeting, wide aisles, and high ceilings here. ``All that contributes to a sense of quality and style,'' remarked David Robinson, director of the Marlborough Gallery in New York.

Most of the exhibitors interviewed said they were just about breaking even on the next-to-last day. ``My heart goes out to the European visitors because of plane ticket cost, shipping and hotel,'' said Richard Iri of the Lasorda/Iri Gallery here. ``But there are so many intangibles ... that may lead to new exhibitions and sales that you almost have to come to something this large and prestigious if you get the chance.''

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