interview by Summer Bowie
photographs by Oliver Kupper
For anyone who’s seen Velvet Buzzsaw, there were a number of glaring inaccuracies about the look and feel of an art fair, most notably is probably the fact that they’re usually filled with hundreds of slack-jawed visitors under harsh halogen lights who look like they just stepped off a Southwest flight…or a parade float, depending on which day you go. This scene is depicted far more accurately in Mark Flood’s Art Fair Fever, a biting, feature-length parody about the dark misgivings of the art world’s collectors and dealers. So, how does one go about reformatting the art fair formula? How do you pull it out of the white cubicles that we’ve all grown to abhor? For Dean Valentine, Mills and Al Moràn, the answer was to start with the location. Building out a fair in a convention center, throwing up some drywall dividers and pumping the AC may be the path to least resistance when it comes to such an ambitious endeavor. However, the humble team of three decided to use the historic Hollywood Roosevelt with its one-of-a-kind hotel rooms, cabanas and banquet halls to create a mis-en-scène that transcends the typical art fair experience. I had the chance to sit down for coffee with Mills and Dean to talk about their inspiration in starting an art fair, the obsession that art necessitates, and the future of the Los Angeles art scene.
SUMMER BOWIE: I want to talk about the inspirations for the Felix Art Fair, because the main inspiration seems to be the Gramercy Art Fair.
DEAN VALENTINE: During the time of the Gramercy Art Fair in New York, the art world was completely devastated by the [stock market] crash. I mean ‘89, ‘90 there was just nothing. And so, there were a group of dealers, Pat Hearn and Colin de Land who started the Gramercy International Art Fair. It was downtown, sort of low cost, and eventually that migrated over to Los Angeles. When it came to Los Angeles it became the Chateau Marmont Fair because it was the same idea kind of a hipster-y, old hotel, and that’s where I was at the time. I had just begun collecting and the whole LA art world was actually tiny. It all fit into the hotel, pretty much at one time. Marian Goodman had Tom Schütte sculptures. Jay Jopling had early Damien Hurst dot paintings and Tracy Emin quilts. Just, amazing work. So, people would just wander around, and wander to a booth, and look at art and talk to the dealer and talk to each other.
VALENTINE: A casual, fun way to engage.
MORAN: Really communal.
VALENTINE: I just feel like art fairs over the past few years have become so profoundly over-commercialized. Much closer to a shopping experience rather than an art experience. You know when they first started it was a bit different. You’d go to an art fair and it was become you could see art from all over the world in one place and that was pretty cool, but now there’s like 150 art fairs.
MORAN: They also used to find things. You know, now, there’s so much pressure on the galleries, coming from the galleries’ side; you have to get your PDF ready two weeks in advance. Most people will buy what they want early on and that’s a wrap. So, by the time you get to the fair, you don't really want to be there.
BOWIE: Yeah, the element of discovery is gone.
MORAN: The element of discovery is totally gone. So, as much as the Gramercy and the Chateau were reacting to a different time, to a market that had been decimated a couple years earlier. We’re responding, I think, in a different way; not so much because the market’s been hurt, but also because I think people are looking for something different: to engage with the art, and engage with the community.
BOWIE: Yeah. I also want to talk about the inspirations for the name of the fair. So, I’ve read that it’s Felix the Cat, the Latin word for happy, and then also Félix Fénéon, the dandy anarchist and critical genius, and I was curious if the curation of the galleries was in any way driven by these disparate, sort of, influences.
VALENTINE: We were all trying to come up with a good name for it. We kept coming up with these names that just sounded so…art fair-y.
VALENTINE: Yeah, quirky.
MORAN: There was no fun to it.
VALENTINE: We first thought, Alta. One name after another, we kept saying, “Oh, yeah, that’s okay, we should do that,” and then none of us were really—
MORAN: Nothing hit.
VALENTINE: I guess it was all three of those things simultaneously, I believe.
MORAN: It’s not too corporate-y, and it’s not totally whimsical at the same time.
BOWIE: Yeah. It’s not too pretentious and yet that Fénéon influence grounds it a little bit.
VALENTINE: I mean, I thought Fénéon and his anarchism touched on the fact that we take art very seriously, but the lightheartedness of Felix the Cat, and the felicitousness of the word seemed to touch all of the bases in the right way.
BOWIE: Any anarchist sentiments between any of you guys?
MORAN: Not currently, no.
VALENTINE: Not yet.
BOWIE: What aspects were you guys looking for in the curation, in terms of representation?
VALENTINE: You mean, in terms of the galleries?
BOWIE: Well, I assume that the galleries are applying based on the artists they plan to represent.
MORAN: So, it was invitation-only. There was no application process.
BOWIE: I see.
MORAN: We looked at a range. We just wanted to get a good range of people, internationally, domestically. I don't think there was ever any one thing we were looking for.
VALENTINE: Part of the fair was born at a dinner with Anton Kern and Tanya Leighton. It was at that dinner that we decided to go ahead and try to do this. These are people, I think, if you look at all the gallerists, what they all have in common is the fact that there’s an actual person, or people, that are running them. People that are profoundly engaged with artists and what artists make and care about.
MORAN: Right, it could’ve been top heavy, could’ve been project space heavy. Part of the attractiveness for the galleries is the price point. It’s something that’s just very affordable for everybody. It shouldn’t be tough for people to turn a profit or at least get themselves out there and show their artists. We didn’t want to just have twenty big galleries. We wanted to get that range of some small spaces that we really respect, but then also have the anchor with certain gallerists like Anton or Tanya, that have really robust programs as well.
BOWIE: Are the gallerists also staying in the hotel?
MORAN: That’s up to every gallerist, but some people are staying in their own rooms, some people are getting an extra room, that depends on the staff they have. There are a number of people staying in their rooms, which I think is the spirit of the fair.
BOWIE: That sounds like a lot of fun.
BOWIE: What made the three of you decide to team up and start a fair?
MORAN: That’s a good question. I mean, we’ve been good friends for ten years or so, and after that dinner, we walked into the gallery and just started firing off ideas. My brother and I are pretty entrepreneurial, and Dean has a great history. We’ve always respected working with him. Al is really close friends with one of the owners of the hotel, so we brought up the idea of doing it at the Roosevelt, and there was never any other option.
BOWIE: This hotel has such a rich history. I mean, it was the first location of the Academy Awards—
MORAN: Yeah, we knew that, and in terms of grounding Hollywood in the last hundred years, this was a special place. We thought, if we could bring that type of energy back to this place, it would be really special.
VALENTINE: Yeah, the hotel itself has become more of a character in our sort of fair drama since it began. It’s such an interesting place. It has so many nooks and crannies. It has its own life, you know? We were really very fond of the place and its history and its design. I just can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.
MORAN: We’ve seen every nook and cranny, and every special room, every ballroom, every banquet hall. You’d be shocked at how many things are possible in this hotel.
BOWIE: Which aspects of organizing the fair have come most naturally and which have been the most difficult?
MORAN: I mean, really, getting the galleries was the most natural part. He’s been talking to a lot of these galleries for years, a lot of them are friends of mine. The hardest part was limiting it to the number of galleries we have. We had a lot more people who wanted to be in this fair, but that to me, was a good sign.
VALENTINE: The hardest part has been the logistics.
MORAN: The devil’s always in the details.
VALENTINE: Yeah, it’s the details. All of a sudden, it turns out that in certain rooms there’s a headboard that occupies an entire wall and it’s screwed into the walls. So, that’s a wall that a gallerist would otherwise have to show art, and so it was like, “What do we do about that?”
MORAN: And that’s a big difference from the ‘90s fairs. You cannot touch the Gramercy Hotel. You couldn’t take a thing out of it, you couldn’t hang onto the wall; you couldn’t do a thing. We’ve been blessed with good partners at the hotel—
VALENTINE: —They’ve been amazing.
MORAN: They’re allowing us to drill into the walls, we’re building walls in the cabanas because they need an art wall, we’re moving beds. It’s all kind of wide open.
MORAN: (laughs) But it all makes things a lot more complicated.
BOWIE: I’m sure it’s a logistical nightmare.
VALENTINE: Yeah, each of the forty-two galleries has their own room. Because it’s an old hotel—it’s not like the Sheraton, where every room is the same—each room is different. Every floor is different. The cabanas are pretty much the same. But each person has their own demands for what they want in their room.
BOWIE: It’s well known that Dean, you come from a background in television. You were a media executive, turned prominent art collector, and you’ve also served on the boards of the Hammer and MOCA. And then, Mills, you and Al have said that have no formal art education or training, so what would you say led the three of you guys to being such notable purveyors of art?
MORAN: From my standpoint—it’s always been the relationship with artists that has driven my career, and early on, before we formed the gallery, we befriended artists. We knew artists and that drove everything. So, as a gallery, we’re very artist-centric. Very rarely will I go into a studio and edit somebody’s show, and that relationship, to me, has been able to transcend and build the gallery and the career we’ve grown into. This business is the most relationship-business I can think of. You have to be there for the openings, you have to be there for the dinners, you have to be there for your artists at all times, and I think that’s always driven us. So, once you have those relationships in place, everything else sort of cascades down. But, you gotta have the passion for it. To me, the passion is with the art and the artists and the relationships, and that’s how I’ve grown my career.
BOWIE: It’s an experience-based practice.
VALENTINE: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I was a journalist for twelve years before I was a television executive and I’ve always been around writers and artists, and that’s been the core of my professional life. Even as a TV executive, there were writers, there were designers, there were directors. So, I’ve always been around creative people. I mean, art, specifically, was a revelation to me. At some point I came on the idea that it was a different way of understanding the world through these material metaphors. That it wasn’t just this thing that hung on a wall; it was a language and a way of looking at things, and I became obsessed by it. Once I got obsessed, I guess I had the means to acquire it, but, for me, it wasn’t just about the object, it was always about being part of the art world. Engaging with artists and gallerists. I don’t have an art education, obviously, but my graduate school was working with art dealers. Stuart Regen at Regen Projects, Tom Soloman, Andrea Rose, and Lisa Spellman, those are the people that taught me about contemporary art. So, I value that.
BOWIE: It’s an ongoing discourse.
MORAN: Yeah, and I think, obsession is the right word. It’s almost impossible to be successful in this industry without that obsession. You can’t do it halfway. People smell it from a mile away, if you’re not passionate about it. I think that’s the one thing that ties the two of us together, and Al as well.
BOWIE: Yeah, if you think that it’s going to be a fun way to make money...
MORAN: (laughs) It’s certainly not. (laughs)
BOWIE: What would you say are the hallmarks of an emerging artist with enduring potential?
MORAN: Well, I mean, the way that everything’s been moving in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years, is you have to go to a good school. It’s hard to just appear on the scene without having an education. Whether that’s good or bad, I have no idea, but it’s certainly good for the art schools and some of the art programs. You know, people used to say, “You need to be identifiable, people need to recognize your work,” I don't know if that’s true anymore. I think you need to have a voice, and you need to be unique. You need to bring your own genuine language into the conversation.
VALENTINE: As with anything else, you want somebody that has talent, that has a point of view.
MORAN: Most artists will have downs. All of them. It’s how you manage through it. It’s the things you do during that down time that speaks a lot more than when you’re having success. I tell all my artists, “I want to be able to sell your work now and fifty years from now as easily as we can now.” That’s a goal that someone should try and achieve; to have that kind of longevity in their career.
BOWIE: Yeah, I think that back in the midcentury there was this accepted notion that being an artist wasn’t a career choice, it was an identity.
MORAN: There’s so much more awareness now about artists, especially with people that would’ve normally never paid attention to what an artist was doing. So, that could be dangerous, and to fall into trends, or to fall into market forces, or to fall into what people expect you to make or expect you to say. That, to me, is a pitfall that any artist needs to try and avoid.
BOWIE: We’re seeing the arrival of Felix, and of course, Frieze LA, Spring Break, etc. Do you guys think that February in Los Angeles is going to turn into December in Miami?
VALENTINE: Well, we hope so. I mean Miami’s actually a pretty small town, and it doesn’t take a lot to get its boosters together to keep interest going in this kind of thing. LA’s not a small town. It’s a very big town. It has a lot of other stuff going on and people do all sorts of other stuff. I mean, you’re competing with the Lakers, the beach, the mountains, and all that stuff. It’s hard to focus people’s attention, you know? It’s always been hard to focus people’s attention on anything. There’s just so much happening. So, whether the market’s reached a critical mass is still an open question.
MORAN: I also think the key is, in some way, baby steps. Like, we could have had eighty galleries in our fair.
MORAN: Frieze could have done two hundred galleries in their fair.
VALENTINE: But they’re both small.
MORAN: They’re both manageable.
VALENTINE: And, also, it’s probably right that it’s relative to the size of the art market here. I mean, New York is vast, but there’s also a vast market there - journalists and galleries and collectors. LA is vast in terms of the number of artists. In terms of the infrastructure, it’s still relatively small and developing. So, I think Frieze is doing seventy galleries; that’s perfect. We’ll do forty-two galleries.
MORAN: The key is to provide an experience for everyone. I think that will really help the notion of this process.