Friday, June 13, 2008

A Fair Man: Stephen Cohen Talks About the LA Art Scene

Photo Ted Cleve

My interview with LA gallerist Stephen Cohen has been published in the second issue of Fabrik Magazine.

Stephen Cohen casts his net wide. His galleries, the Stephen Cohen gallery in LA and Cohen Amador in New York, represent a staggering number of international photographers working in a wide variety of genres. As if running two internationally renowned photo galleries weren’t enough, he is the founder and driving force behind photo l.a., photo MIAMI and artLA. His fairs have not only been instrumental in drawing attention to the LA art scene, but have broadened the appreciation of photography by serious collectors. Cohen was named one of the “Top 100 most influential people” by American Photography Magazine and included Art + Auctions 2004 “Power List.” He spoke to Fabrik about the evolution of the bourgeoning LA art scene and art fairs while traveling in Europe.

FABRIK: How did you begin your career as an art dealer and how did you choose to focus on photography?

SC: I majored in Art (photography and sculpture) and Theater as an undergrad and went to USC film school for my graduate degree. Art dealing began by accident. I needed to work after graduating from film school, so I augmented whatever film jobs I could get with selling photography books, which I had been collecting since college. Eventually I started selling 19th century prints to dealers in LA. Soon I was doing road trips cross-country selling pieces I had on consignment that dealers in LA and NY considered unsellable. I got a reputation for moving inventory for dealers because I was able to sell them.

After a while I decided I needed to find more clients in LA, so I started photo l.a. which is now in its’ 18th year. My work on the fair allowed me to open a small gallery.

FABRIK: Your gallery has an outstanding artist roster. I’m impressed not only by the quality, but also the range of work you have chosen to represent. It seems that many galleries run the risk of overspecializing. What are the merits of representing such a wide range of artists and what are the potential challenges?

SC: My gallery directors and I feel strongly about our artists. I love vintage work but it’s getting harder to find and it’s very expensive. Contemporary photo-based work has become increasingly desirable for collectors. It is good to have a variety of work to offer them.

We are going through a period of letting some artists go as we add new ones. It is always a challenge to present new work to the public, but it’s satisfying when the response and sales are strong.

FABRIK: LA is quickly becoming an arts destination. At the same time, California galleries and artists often have a regional identity. Do you consider yourself a “California Dealer?”

SC: I am a dealer in California. We work with artists and clients from around the country and the world.

Photo: Ted VanCleave

FABRIK: Tell me about the evolution of the LA art scene and how being a dealer in LA has changed. Do you feel that LA is becoming an international center for the arts? If so, how do you perceive that transition?

SC: LA has a long history of artists coming out here for the weather, cheap rents and the light. The city was a cowboy town and was much more innocent in the past. It allowed artists freedom for experimentation since it wasn’t a center of the art world. Now people recognize that LA was a major force in presenting the work of young artists in the 60s and 70s that are now established in the art world. Ed Ruche immediately comes to mind. The Nick Wilder Gallery was in the forefront of this movement.

Now Los Angeles is back in the art world and stronger. Many established artists call the Southland their home and an increasing number of artists are moving here. It’s hard to pinpoint an LA style because it is a city of immigrants from other States.

Younger galleries have come on the scene over the past ten years and have made a significant impact internationally. Many curators and gallerists come here to grab the young artists at Cal Arts, UCLA, USC and Arts Center before they even have a gallery representing them. LA is hot in that sense.

FABRIK: How did photo l.a. begin?

SC: photo l.a. began in January 1992. I was traveling around the country and had more clients outside of the city than in LA. I initially planned to do the fair for a couple of years, get a good client base and move on. I opened my first small gallery with money from the fair.

As photo l.a.’s fame and reputation spread across the country, we had more dealers wanting to be involved. Eventually our first venue, Butterfields Auction House on Sunset Blvd., was bursting at the seams. After eight years we moved to the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium where we were able to expand the size and scope of the fair. This year we moved to the Barker Hangar, which was a huge step up for the size and quality of the fair.

A local dealer suggested that I start a contemporary art fair, so I started ArtLA in 2004. Over the past four years, the fair has grown in stature and attendance. This year had an amazing group of impressive
dealers. Our committee was headed by Doug Hug, who was just appointed the Director of Art Cologne.

FABRIK: How do you think the art fair scene in LA differs from its New York and European counterparts?

SC: Fairs in New York and Europe have a longer history, not to mention the cache of art collecting in Europe. The fairs are much larger and attract a huge audience. US fairs like the Armory and Art Basel Miami Beach have become bigger players in the world and are anxiously awaited each year. While LA’s art scene is much more active than in the past, it doesn’t have the history of New York City or Basel.

FABRIK: Have collectors’ attitudes changed towards photography in your time as a dealer?

SC: Yes. There are more of them collecting photo-based work. On the whole they are becoming much better acquainted with photography through the photo and art fairs.

FABRIK: What do you have planned for your upcoming season?

SC: We are working hard on photo MIAMI which has become a benchmark for contemporary photography and one of the must see fairs during Art Basel Miami Beach after only two years.

We always have something of interest: new galleries, artists and special projects.

FABRIK: What are some LA based artists and emerging spaces to watch?

SC: Many of the young galleries in Culver City and Chinatown are exciting: Jail, in Chinatown; Roberts & Tilton and Blum & Poe, in Culver City and Acme in Los Angeles.

FABRIK: Do you have any advice for artists that are just starting out?

SC: Keep your day job. There are sacrifices if you are serious about your work and life as an artist. Nothing is owed to you and there are a lot of “outrages and injustices“ over what art becomes popular. I think an artist
always needs to look at other art and be a good editor of their own work.