In the late 1800s, the idea began with the big international expositions of Paris. In the United States, the 1913 Armory Show held in a huge empty New York building exposed Americans to the likes of Matisse. Italy has its Venice Biennale and Germany its "documenta."
These international art fairs have, for nearly a century, joined countries, cities, and galleries under one roof to display their artistic wares.
The Los Angeles version - dubbed "L.A. International" - gives an old idea a new face that is quintessentially L.A.
Like the city that invented it, the "L.A. International" is a ranging, romping event without fixed boundaries that uses the city's notorious sprawl as an organizing principle.
In 1991, longtime L.A. art dealers Robert Berman and William Turner, along with other members of art-dealer associations from artsy and gallery-dense beach communities Santa Monica and Venice, dreamed up the notion of an art fair without walls. Pure L.A.
"Until 1992, we had the standard fair at the Convention Center every other year lasting for three days or so. L.A.'s really too big for that. Local and foreign galleries couldn't justify paying top dollar for less than ideal booths in a supermarket setting," Mr. Berman recalls.
Berman and Mr. Turner decided to recruit the city's serious art spaces and have them invite "sister" galleries from all over the world to show foreign art during a city-wide event that includes openings, tours, and lectures.
Since its inception in 1992, more than 100 countries have packed and shipped their visual culture, installing it for six weeks in more than 60 galleries dotting the vast and zany expanse of L.A.
L.A. also symbolizes successful ideas (like the Internet, also conceived here) that gain steam in a rule-thin atmosphere. Remarkably enough, in that realm just this side of order, inventive things happen and the "L.A. International" is an example.
For the first two weeks of the fair, each of L.A.'s unique, chic to funky art centers - Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, downtown, Venice Beach - hold area-wide receptions with whole blocks of galleries serving food and staying open to the wee hours so that fairgoers can actually amble on foot from venue to venue (no one walks in L.A.!).
Week 3 features talks by foreign scholars and artists such as Noriko Fuku discussing a century of Japanese women photographers at the 18th St. Arts Complex in Santa Monica.
Although the "L.A. International" is billed as a multinational invitational, participating galleries aren't obliged to show foreign art and many don't. Others mix local art shows with imported work, so the sampling is varied and exotic as a city where freeway signs direct you to Korea Town, Little Tokyo, or Olivera Street.
Jose Tasende is a top dealer of museum-quality Modernist art who recently opened a satellite space in Los Angeles. "There is an undeniable energy here," he says. "I guess you could call it eccentric and free, but things come together here in a way they don't elsewhere."
Patricia Correia, a young fairly new dealer based in Santa Monica, invited Finnish artist Stefan Lindfors to show in her space. Mr. Lindfors makes mysterious steel and fiberglass columns with a single crimson moth encased in each.
"Stefan has shown all over the world and is a very famous designer in a country where the entire national population is 4 million - there are 9 million people in L.A. alone. The global perspective this event gives all of us is terrific," says Ms. Correia.
And for all its bad rap, fads, and lapses of protocol, L.A. has an undeniable generosity of spirit.
Some art fairs are competitive affairs where big bucks and big egos sit behind polite veneers. Somehow with everyone wandering around the colorful expanse of L.A. for a month, attending an elegant brunch here, a lecture there, the sense of contest is minimized.
None of this is to say that art commerce or curatorial rigor are absent. Gagosian Gallery shows lush paintings by acclaimed artist Seydou Keita from Mali, Jack Rutberg invites Ireland's preeminent painter Patrick Graham, and Mr. Tasende hosts a show of work by Mexican master Jos Luis Cuevas.
At the Sherry Frumkin Gallery, Canada makes a great showing with Janieta Eyre, who crafts fine, enigmatic works from double self-portraits.
The Museum of Contemporary Art shows Canadian photographer Jeff Wall, who has won 20 years of acclaim for photo-based works linking mass media and master painting.
And, finally, an excellent venue at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art spotlights German Dadaist Hannah Hoch, who made proto-feminist collages pieced from snippets of popular ladies' journals as far back as the '20s.
* The 'L.A. International' began on July 9 and runs through Aug. 15.