Thursday, December 6, 2007


LA Show Back From the Abyss?

I recently exhibited at the Asian & Tribal Art Show, held at the Santa Monica Civic Center. The show was moved from its time slot in October, back to its original mid-November date, and shortened by one day to a Friday night opening and two full weekend days. Formally, this show was dominated by dealers selling classic Asian objects from China, Japan, and Korea, but over the last few years has seen an increase of dealers offering Tribal Art from Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania.

Unfortunately for some time, this show has slowly, but steadily, declined in attendance, sales, and enthusiasm, seeing a regular turnover of disgruntled sellers. Rarely, have the Tribal Art dealers reported big sales at this venue making it difficult for the show organizers to keep the best galleries/sellers on board. In fact this has often led to a few dealers with marginal material (to say the least) being allowed to exhibit, thus pulling down the quality even further.

Of course, the dealers are always trying to analyze the reasons for this: tired venue; lousy PR/advertisement; ill-conceived opening night support; and non-supportive collectors. To some degree I would agree with much of this assessment.

The venue at the Civic Center is tired and shabby in my opinion, and a snazzy newer location actually built for trade show exhibitions, instead of an old converted concert hall would be much better, especially if still located on the West Side of LA. However, several other shows using this venue, such as Photo LA, are very well attended, so it seems unlikely that is a primary reason for the low turnout.

I do think previous PR for the show was not as good as it could have been and it has always been unclear if any media campaigns or advertisements were ever effective in bringing in new blood. This is, and has always been, a problem with Tribal Art shows: getting the word out to a new audience that will actually attend.

Setting up the opening night with a specific cause or institution, to bring in their supporters hoping to expose them to a different art world, has also been an iffy proposition. I can’t recall it ever working effectively in LA or at the NYC shows. It has been very successful at the SF Tribal Show with the support of the De Young Museum, who pushes to get out their “troops”. For the last couple of years, the show organizers hooked up with UCLA’s Fowler Museum, which would appear to be a natural connection. After a few down years, the Fowler Museum (under the direction of Marla Berns) has really bounced back with some very exciting exhibitions.

But, where were their supporters? I have been to several openings at the Fowler and it was packed with hundreds of people attending, but it never seemed like more than a few dozen of these people, at best, came to the openings of our LA show. Why the enthusiastic interest in a show at a museum and the lack of interest in a show of art objects they can view and actually buy? It did not appear that the museum pushed or energized their supporters into attending our opening, even when it benefited them financially to do so.

Ah, now to the collectors! “What collectors”? Many have said. Los Angeles is one of the wealthiest communities in the world and has been touted of late as a major center for contemporary and photographic arts. But, why is there so little support or interest in attending the one major show in the area that offers the opportunity to experience and buy Asian or Tribal Art? Even if a collector is not currently in a position to buy, at least you would expect them to drop in on the show and pay attention to state of the market. Oddly enough, I often see more of the LA area collectors at the SF Tribal Show, than I do at the show in their own backyard!

Certainly the number of visitors to our show is considerably less than the numbers of people in the LA area that collect art, regularly visit museums, or are members of art councils and support groups. Even the majority of the membership of our area’s tribal art collector’s group; the Ethnic Arts Council (EAC) rarely attends or supports their local show or dealers. Why don’t they attend, again at least for curiosity’s sake?

It has been my experience that despite the potential for finding quality, open minded collectors in LA, they really don’t exist in the quantity that I find in the Bay Area, the East Coast, or Europe. It has always been my position that most collectors in LA tend to be followers and not innovators when it comes to art, usually buying what is popular, trendy, or what their decorators place in their homes. Perhaps, collecting authentic Tribal Art is just too “outside the box” for most novice collectors, so their attention for it never comes into focus.

Another sore point for me, is that a considerable percentage of the LA area collectors I've encountered tend to be concerned more with getting "deals" rather than good art! Many of these "collectors" have filled their homes with souvenirs, tourist pieces, and lower end artifacts (again because they were cheap) instead of higher quality art objects. I keep wishing that they would stop buying this junk, clear it out of their space, and save that same money to buy a few good pieces.

Without question, putting on a quality show with the best dealers displaying higher end material that will attract those buyers already collecting Tribal Art and having higher profile museum/gallery exhibitions that educate and stimulate new interest would make a big difference. And then, continually making the connection between the two, so potential new collectors can find the proper sources. Unfortunately, the LA show rarely attracts enough of the major dealers, most don’t bring their best material because they don’t expect big sales (I am also guilty of this), there is virtually no local Tribal Art “gallery” scene, and the local museums (other than the Fowler Museum) lack the interest to produce regular related exhibitions. It has always been difficult to pull together a sustained and cohesive Tribal Art community in Los Angeles.

That said, the good news is this year’s LA Asian & Tribal Art Show appeared to come back from the edge of the abyss! The opening had more energy and excitement than I have seen in years. The crowd was larger than usual and it appeared there were many new faces! Virtually every dealer I talked to said they did as well or better than previous years. I know that I saw an increase in business, including a few sales with new buyers.

Why this year? To start, Tribal Art has received more world-wide attention in the last few years, with record prices paid at many of the international auction houses. Perhaps, the has helped bring a little notice to our local show. The new PR team (AGK Media), hired by the show organizers, starting last year, had garnered a huge amount of press. The show also teamed up with some local magazine sponsors that did get some of their own people out on opening night. The organizers cut one day (Friday) off the schedule, normally another sign of a failing show, but seemed to work to our advantage this time. It concentrated attendance, which at least gave the appearance of bigger crowds and likely had had the side-effect of convincing buyers that there was more interest, thus building more excitement and real interest! Whatever the reasons, it made a noticeable difference.

From the viewpoint of the Tribal Art part of the show, there were several of the top local dealers present: Ron Normandeau (Anthropos Gallery-LA) pre-Columbian and ancient art; Philip Garaway (LA) American Indian art; Joshua Dimondstein (LA) African Art; John Strusinski (Primary Source-LA) Indonesian Art; Jerry Solomon (LA) Japanese and India Art; Michael Hamson (LA) Oceanic and New Guinea; and Thomas Murray (SF/LA) Indonesian and Textile Arts. From outside of LA, other important dealers exhibited: Joel Cooner (Dallas) you name it; Casey Waller (Caravanserai-Dallas) Carpets and Central Asian Textiles; Georgia Chrischilles (Brussels) Gold and Tribal Art; and Shirley Day (London) Ancient Art. In addition, some strong newcomers were present: Michael Auliso (TRIBALMANIA-SF) Tribal Art; Joe Loux (SF) Tribal Art and Jewelry; Zena Kruzick (SF) Tribal Art and Jewelry; and Craig De Lora (NJ) Tribal Art. My apologies if I missed a few others.

Indonesian pieces that stood out: a pair (male/female) of rare and fantastic tattooed Tau-Tau figures from the Rembon area of Torajaland (G. Chrischilles); a great painted Dayak shield (J. Cooner); an old Batak charm (T. Murray); a delicate Batak powder horn (C. De Lora); a fantastic medium sized Dayak figure with hands in the form of hornbills (Primary Source); and of course everything in my booth!!! Ha!

Now that this show seems to have bounced back, hopefully the best dealers will stay on and others will return. The show organizers need to drop a few dealers that do not belong in this show (or any other higher quality venue), which will bring up the overall quality and the dealers themselves should bring better pieces (if they are not doing so already), even if the current LA market is not prepared to buy, it may eventually attract others that will. The current PR firm should continue their good work and expand on the educational programs and special exhibitions. And lastly, the organizers might need to retool the opening night sponsorship. I still like the idea of working with the Fowler Museum, but they need to step up their physical presence and bring in their people.

These shows are important, because they bring the tribal art community together: dealers; collectors; academics; and potential new buyers. It is a rare opportunity to see good art, to exchange information, and of course, to buy. The bottom line is; collectors need to support the dealers if they want these shows to continue. Dealers spend considerable sums of money and their time to set up at these events, if they don't make regular sales, there is no reason to be there. To be blunt; if collectors don't buy, dealers won't come, the show falls apart, and everyone loses!

1 comment:

Tribalmania said...

Hello Mark:

Your assessment of the show and the marketplace in LA is a valuable perspective. Thank you for stating it honestly and not sugar-coating it as an exhibiting dealer.

Michael Auliso