Wednesday, June 22, 2011


Where are the serious tribal art collectors in Los Angeles?  Or more to the point is there or will there again be a serious market for tribal art in Los Angeles? 

For the last couple of decades, local dealers and show promoters have pondered this question.  The assumption has been there is a market for tribal art, perhaps even a big one, we just have to create the proper set of circumstances to develop it: the right show venue, the right PR campaign, the right ad placement, the right opening night beneficiary, and so on. 

In part, to tackle this issue, I helped found LA TRIBAL, an association of dealers in the Los Angeles area, specializing in the tribal arts from Asia, Africa, Oceania, and the Americas.  The primary goals were to promote cooperation within the existing tribal art community (other dealers, collectors, and museum specialists), as well as finding creative ways to cultivate new collectors. 

LA TRIBAL members have joined local collectors’ organizations, such as the Ethnic Arts Council (EAC) and other museum support councils, with some members becoming quite active within these groups.  We participated in the primary tribal art show produced by the Caskey Lees organization, produced our own “mini” shows, offered appraisal services, and ran ads in a variety of magazines.  We tried bringing in new faces by supporting their favorite charity as a beneficiary on opening night.  We made sure to invite museum staff, local collectors’ groups, and other individuals known to have a specific interest in tribal art.

Despite these efforts, there are ongoing problems with the tribal art market in Los Angeles.  A case in point was our most recent show (held in early June); arguably the best show LA TRIBAL has ever produced.  It certainly was the show we worked the hardest on to promote.  We could not have a found a more perfect venue: a large empty space directly across from the LA County Museum of Art.  We hung a massive banner on the front of the building, easily seen from Wilshire Blvd. (one of LA’s most traveled streets) and the entrance to the museum.  We sent out nearly 18,000 mailers (five times more cards than any previous mailer), all to a well-targeted list of individuals with an interest in art.  We paid for PR and got several listing in local publications.  We sent out numerous email blasts.  We specifically invited individual collectors, museum specialists, and support council members.  We added an appraisal clinic and yet another beneficiary group, one known for its activism and support of fundraising events.  The show was beautifully set up with a full range of material: pieces priced for the beginning collector to those looking for only the highest quality items.  We had the opening night catered with a wonderful selection of Vietnamese food (a crowd favorite).  Our members made a considerable expenditure of money, labor, and time to make these preparations.

Almost no one came.  The beneficiary group promised 75 to 100 members of their group would make it to opening night, so we paid for food and drinks to make sure we accommodated their needs.  I’d be surprised if 10 people from that organization showed up.  We had about 30 others come by that evening, after expecting at least 150.  Over the next three days we had perhaps another 100 to 150 visitors.  Only four museum specialists came through: two from the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana and two from the South Asian Art Department at LACMA (I would like to personally thank Peter Keller, director at the Bowers for his continued support of all of the tribal art events in California).  The Fowler Museum was missing in action, as well as all of the other local museums.  The EAC, Los Angeles’s premier tribal art collectors group with close to 200 members, once again barely showed (20 or so came through over the weekend).  Virtually no one came from the Bower’s Museum Collectors Council.  The few known collectors of tribal art in the Los Angeles area were mostly no-shows.

Despite my disappointment, it was easier to accept that our efforts were not dazzling enough to attract new people.  But, what really surprises and continually vexes me is that people who are actually collectors of tribal art, have even a remote interest in tribal art, as well as local museum staff that owe their jobs to the interest in tribal art, did not bother to come to the one tribal art sales venue left in Southern California.

I have two questions: why is there so little support or interest from the existing local tribal art community and why are we unable to attract new collectors?  I have my own theories and will address the two issues separately.

At one time, Los Angeles was an important location for collectors of tribal art.  This was especially true in the 1970s and 1980s when there were several active collectors of African art, most notably the Wallaces, the Baums, the Silvers, the Kuhns, the Dimondsteins, the Franklins, the Goldenbergs, and Jerome Joss, to name a few.  Pre-Columbian art has always had a strong following and at one time LA was the most important center for the emerging Indonesian tribal art market.  These collectors were also responsible for founding and growing the EAC, which in the past was actually dominated by a core group of serious collectors.

What happened?  To be fair, most of this original core base has aged, with many having passed away.   It is understandable why this generation is no longer as active, because their houses are full of art and today their primary concern is the disposition of their collections.  Unfortunately, with very few exceptions it does not appear this “old guard” spawned a new generation of tribal art fanatics to carry on their passion.

There has always been a mid-range collector base that still survives, but no longer thrives in Southern California.  This group consists of passionate collectors of more modest means (god bless them for hanging in there!), non-serious collectors who focus on bargains (which often means objects of lower quality and reproductions), and so-called “tribal art tourists”, non-collectors who like to view and talk about tribal art, but rarely if ever actually purchase anything.  We always keep hoping that the first group will win the lottery or inherit money from a rich relative, that the second group will suddenly realize the error of their ways and buy quality over quantity, and that the last group will finally fall in love with the art and step up to the plate.  Unfortunately, this rarely happens.

We keep imagining that fabulously wealthy contemporary art patrons, known to pay fortunes for squiggles of paint on canvas, a whirling mobile made of soup cans, or a metallic sculpture of a balancing bear with a bottle stuck in its behind (actually seen a recent contemporary art show in LA!), will finally see the light.  We are sure that, once exposed to our magnificent tribal artifacts, they will divert most of their expendable income in our direction.  Certainly, the scholars that have written numerous books on the links between so call primitive art and the roots of modern art are practically begging these collectors to pay attention to us!  Well, so far we have not significantly benefited from this potential metamorphosis. 

We also have banked on getting in that big celebrity client, who will fall in love with tribal art and go around Hollywood promoting how cool it is, thus bringing in yet more celebrity buyers.  LA TRIBAL, the Caskey-Lees shows, and nearly every private dealer or gallery has tried to open that door. Some of the public art galleries in the Beverly Hills area will get celebs in for a while, but with few exceptions they rarely become long-term clients and when they do, it is nearly always for contemporary art. 

So we are left finding new collectors from a different pool of potential art enthusiasts in Los Angeles.  I am sure we all assume that under the right circumstances, by exposing this new, presumably younger crowd to the wonders of tribal art, we will finally find our market.  Following are my hypotheses for believing otherwise.

Los Angeles is a relatively new city that barely came into itself until the 1940s.  Most people here seem uninterested in history or tradition.  There is barely an awareness of the Spanish mission period let alone anything before that time.  Nostalgia for an earlier era in their own lives is about as far back as they will go.  Second-generation immigrants quickly shed their ethnic identities to blend in and have little interest in their own cultures.  People came here to break free from the past, to make their own future, to reinvent themselves.  Angelenos tend to look forward, more concerned about what will happen next, not what happened before. 

Because of this lack of interest, they have no connection to the past, including old world cultures or so-called primitive societies.  And art buying, even for decoration, is not high on their must-do list.  This is especially true with younger people, who disdain “antiques” as useless old dusty things their grandparents owned. 

Additionally, wealthy Angelenos do not appear to be very sophisticated when it comes to art.  There is a lot of new money that often comes without a background in the trappings of wealth.  They know they have to buy a big house and an expensive car (or two). They are aware they need to fill their house with some stuff, but art and antiques are not something they know much about and perhaps find a bit intimidating, so they tend to follow commercial trends or the recommendations of their friends or decorators.

In my experience, collectors in Los Angeles buy contemporary art, classic cars, photography, retro furniture, and pop cultural artifacts because it is modern, hip, accessible, and comfortable.  Everyone knows that paintings are real art, that a movie poster is cool, and so are those chairs that look like 1950s rocket ships!  ;-)

The few exceptions are those people who have traveled abroad, say to Bali on vacation or to India to visit their guru.  But, even that group tends to be satisfied with the collection of souvenirs, purchased on their trip.

Lastly, people in Los Angeles tend to be outdoor oriented.  Their homes are larger and so are their yards.  It is warm, sunny and bright, forcing you outside.  We have beaches, mountains, and deserts to visit and lots of cars to get us there.  Angelenos just don’t worry about getting stuck indoors and therefore think less about what is in their house to entertain them.

In contrast, those living in older cities, like NYC or Paris, even an office worker or mid-level bureaucrat will own art.  Most urban residents on the East Coast and in Europe are focused indoors because of colder weather, closer neighbors, and louder street noise.  An indoor lifestyle encourages you to think about what you have in your house. You need art to dress up that dark and dreary apartment!  

There may be some hope from the growth of the local museum scene in Southern California.  The LA County Museum of Art purchased a major collection of Oceanic art a couple of years ago and have expressed interest in building an African art collection.  The Fowler Museum at UCLA is more active under the direction of Marla Berns.  Outside of LA, the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, the Museum of Art in San Diego, and the Mingei Museum of International Art, also in San Diego, have good collections of tribal art.  Important, regular exhibitions, especially at LACMA may encourage existing art patrons to take tribal art more seriously.

Otherwise, in my opinion the above factors make Los Angeles an unlikely place to find new, serious collectors for traditional antiques of any kind, let alone tribal art.  Is it time to throw in the towel and re-focus our efforts elsewhere?  Perhaps, but I am still hopeful there may be a few more angles to try before we completely give up on my favorite city.


RugBooks said...

A very astute article. Thank you for this.

For what it's worth my theory on why younger collectors are missing in action is that we (I am 32) are more interested in collecting experiences than objects. If they had $5000 to express their love and interest in Borneo they would be more likely to book a flight and tramp around the jungle for a couple weeks than buy a great old Iban mask. It is easier now than it was at the height of the market in the 70s and 80s to visit these locations (except Afghanistan, natch). -Wesley Marquand

Mark Clayton said...


Excellent commentary, and I agree with virtually all of your points. I would like to add a few additional observations:

1. Heightened anxiety over legal issues (and new rules) concerning paternity and provenance have had a chilling effect on the antiquities and tribal art worlds. Scared museums and nervous collectors do not make for a healthy, thriving tribal art market.

2. The internet did not exist for the previous generation of ardent collectors, so they naturally congregated at physical shows in the tradition of Cultural Crossroads III.
Now, there are pervasive forces of decentralization at work.

3. In a world where American Idol is the top-rated TV show, it is not hard to imagine a poorly attended tribal art show. Cultural dumbness abounds.

4. The middle class - where a lot of collecting begins - is getting squeezed in the pocketbook and dunned with warnings about an insecure future.

5. The media have successfully promoted a hyper-consciousness of "now" and thereby a de facto ignoring of the past. This is not conducive to the appreciation of other cultures and their traditions.

6. Art education is being deprioritized and defunded at the post-secondary level. This is not a boon to tribal art awareness and appreciation.

So, whither the new patrons of ethnic art? Eventually, I expect many will come from the cohort of newly-affluent within the various cultures themselves. Increasing demand for the objects of its own artistic heritage is already a fact in China, for example. As you said, Los Angeles has little sense of historical identity, so although we may be the nexus for insipid movies and the car culture, we don't seem to be on a trajectory to becoming a hotbed of high-end tribal art commerce any time soon. A better economy wouldn't hurt, however.

Best Regards,
Mark Clayton

asiaart said...

Thank you Mark and Wesley for the additional comments on this subject. All are perfectly valid.

I agree with Wesley that many younger people may be more interested in collecting experiences than objects. Nothing wrong with traveling to far places and learning about other cultures. I would encourage more to do so. Aside from the experience, this exposure may also led to an interest in the material culture in the future.

Jim Beazell said...

Sadly, I have to agree. My wife, Gwen, and I may have been the only people from the Bower's group to attend your wonderful show across from LACMA. We greatly appreciated your efforts. The attendance to this, and many other shows has, indeed, been dismal. I don't know the answer. To say, "Keep trying" is a sad, almost insulting, admonition. My Lord, what more can you do? Jim Beazell, Rancho Palos Verdes.

Unknown said...

Fabulous article! How important it is to organize an event space according to the show. The picture of the Tribal Art show looks amazing. I really like going to such art shows and exhibition where the theme is tribal or ancient. Keep posting more about such art works here