Hardly Anyone Showed Up at This L.A. Art Fair. Was It Ineptness or a Scam?

Hardly Anyone Showed Up at This L.A. Art Fair. Was It Ineptness or a Scam?
Catherine Wagley

Update: Thomas Tunberg, who co-organized the fair with Despina Tunberg, was reached for comment. He says they too were disappointed by the numbers. "We felt we were proceeding carefully and that we would get a good result," he says. He says the total number of attendees over the four days of the fair was 1,821, though some exhibitors felt it was less. Tunberg adds that he and Despina did not intend to make money this first year of the fair. In addition, after they decided 18 months ago to put on a show, they worked with two different PR firms that did not meet their expectations, and so they took promotion in house, which Tunberg admits may have been a mistake. The Tunbergs are unsure of future plans for the fair despite the announcements for 2015 that they put on their website two weeks ago. But if they did a fair again, they would certainly handle promotion differently. "It was something new for all of us and it was a risk," Tunberg says. 

The Los Angeles Convention Center hosted the inaugural World Wide Art Fair last weekend with 64 exhibitors from China, Colombia, Pakistan and other places, including greater L.A. The show purported to offer a populist-sounding “art experience that transcends borders and honors the universal pursuit of creative expression”and was in the same hall that holds the consistently lucrative annual L.A. Art Show. It looked pretty good, professional and legitimate. But hardly anyone knew about it and so hardly anyone showed up.

Last Thursday, the night the fair opened with a VIP gala in the Convention Center’s West Hall, the Convention Center closed the parking garage early — later, they issued an apology; the center's administrators apparently hadn’t known about the fair either. Fair organizer Thomas Tunberg apparently told any exhibitors who asked that the closed parking garage was why so few people showed up. There were 500 or so VIP types unable to find a place to park, maybe having not seen the many cheaper surrounding lots.

This seemed strange. Ed Goss, an exhibitor based in Glendale who has never done a fair before, notes, “The gala appeared to be mostly booth owners and their friends.” There was no open bar. Tunberg explained to exhibitor Johan Andersson, who runs the organization Art Unified with his partner Patrick Felder, that he didn’t want people to just congregate around the bar.

Frustrated exhibitors at the World Wide Art fair
Frustrated exhibitors at the World Wide Art fair
Photo by Freza Paro, Courtesy Art Unified

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By the second day, when the attendance that exhibitors had been led to believe would reach around one or two thousand per day remained shockingly sparse, Andersson and others asked the Tunbergs to waive the $20 admission fee — it didn’t make sense to charge the people who weren’t coming anyway, and maybe with no fee, a few curious, art-interested passersby would wander in.

“It was a farce really. I think you’ll find that a lot of people felt cheated,” says Andersson, who worked with his business partner and PR representative to send a press release out to the local media organizations that hadn’t been told about the fair in the first place Friday night. The release lamented the lack of publicity and the feeling exhibitors had of “being locked out of the city's thriving art scene.”

“We felt like guinea pigs, almost,” says Andersson, now that the fair has ended.

See also: 9 New Alternative Art Spaces in L.A. to Check Out Now

Exhibitors, an unusual number of whom were individual artists rather than gallerists who had yet to establish a foothold in more mainstream art markets, had paid at least a few thousand for booths. Prices ranged from $5,069 for 8-by-12-foot spaces to $53,856 for 24-by-48 feet. Fair organizers Despina and Thomas Tunberg have yet to return phone calls on the matter, though Despina did text from the airport on the way to France, saying they were rushing too much to answer. They run a book imprint out of Santa Barbara where artists pay to be featured in volumes with names like "International Contemporary Masters." Testimonials on the "World Wide Arts Books" website, all written in awkward English, say things like, "made my dream to come through" or "find my order for a million books attached — at least I wish a million, because the books are truly so beautiful."

The view of the main doors on Sunday, the fair's final day, and the busiest
The view of the main doors on Sunday, the fair's final day, and the busiest
Catherine Wagley

The Tunbergs claim they ran a successful fair in Crete previously, though it’s hard to find much information on that fair anywhere other than their websites. This was certainly their first major fair in the U.S., and, while they have yet to return phone calls or emails to give their perspective, they have told exhibitors that some slack needs to be cut for a first time show and have suggested that attendance was not as low as it seemed. According to their website, they are already accepting applications for 2015.

“I don’t know if they were inept or if it was a scam,” says Goss, who represents work by his late son, Bryten Goss, and his daughter, photographer Shalon Goss, and mostly works out of his Glendale home. He prefers to believe it was ineptness, though it's suspicious that so many of the exhibitors there had never shown in fairs before and thus were likely less equipped to identify a scam when they saw one.

See also: How Bert Rodriguez Escaped From the Art Gallery System

Anne Jensen, a Norwegian-born painter who is based in Houston and has not done a fair before, says she “was promised attendance from collectors, designers and galleries” when she signed on. “They didn't say any numbers, but I got the impression that a big crowd was expected.”

She started to get a bad feeling at the opening Thursday — there was no music, no snacks even. “I just became angry, frustrated and disappointed,” she says. “I think it is important that we who were there do our best to [ensure] these people who were in charge of this fair never are allowed to do this again.”

“I see it all the time, artists being taken advantage of,” says Andersson, who co-founded his company largely to avoid the shadiness and elitism of the fair and gallery world. “Artists need a more transparent and honest platform.”


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