Wherever I went, the rumor persisted. “Y’know,” the writer from New York or the dealer from Chicago or the collector from Toronto or the artist from San Francisco would say, sotto voce, often as soon as I came into the booth, “they say the Miami fair is moving to L.A. as soon as its lease is up here in ’09.” That was at the 2006 Miami/Basel art fair — and at the 16 or so satellite fairs it spawned. This year, the only difference was the number of fairs — 23 — and the matter-of-fact tone, as if it were all but a done deal. At least one inside-dope peddler opined, “Yeah, Eli Broad wants it bad. He’s bringing it.” Another: “They could be splitting it between here and L.A. – one year on this coast, one year on that. The collectors here are worn out from hosting all the art dignitaries year in and year out; they’d welcome the break.” The new news: The guy at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, Christopher Kennedy, the one behind that city’s art fair, he’s looking at an L.A. fair. Instead of Basel? In competition? In cooperation?

It’s all credible, and all incredible. Art fairs, for better or worse, have become the most vital organs of the art scene, the nerve and blood and lymph centers that register and disseminate trends and changes and concentrate the minds and bodies of art-world professionals in one place at one time. At this point, you could spend your annual 52 weeks chasing art fairs around the world — they probably average one a week (not counting the myriad concurrent satellites) — and you’d wind up knowing more about contemporary art than if you devoted the same time and energy going to gallery and museum shows and reading art magazines. Your head and feet might even hurt less.

But if you had only one opportunity a year to round it all up in a single trip, your best bet would be Miami/Basel, the franchise operation begun in 2002 by what was then the world’s biggest (and second oldest) fair, Art Basel. The Big Mango affair quickly outgrew, and out-hipped, its Swiss parent and outgunned its rivals — while giving rise to many more of them around the country, and the world. Should the Miami/Basel megafair move to our side of the continent, the whole international art scene, from London to Beijing, would move with it. Think Art Olympics.

Meanwhile, we’re too big and hot and rich and important and self-important an art center not to have an art fair already. So we have two. Or three, if you count photo l.a., which opens January 10. (See Hoopla, p. 74, for details.) Or four, if you count the one that happened last fall, almost below the radar, in Pasadena. And (by design) they occur simultaneously. And not far from one another. And they continue to grow and change and get cooler and more significant and harder for galleries to get into. Neither rivals Miami/Basel in size or resonance, but they’re growing.

After its unexpectedly lively debut several years ago, artLA had kinda run in place. Last year’s event was lackluster and the money was on the organizers packing it in, in favor of its older sister, photo l.a., which preceded it in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. Instead, artLA has burgeoned, pulling in a whole new international roster of cutting-edge establishments (at the expense of many slightly less lustrous galleries which aren’t returning) and nailing itself to the international art map. Such leading avant-galleries as London’s Haunch of Venison, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise of New York, Kurimanzutto in Mexico City and L.A.’s own Regen Projects have signed on for the first time, boosting artLA’s cache no little bit. Expect the trendsetters and trendspotters to cluster here.

Last year, they were sneaking over to the Los Angeles Art Show in the Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar; the once-staid confab, known for its booth upon booth of postimpressionist landscapes and midcentury abstractions, had attracted a slew of contemporary galleries from around the country, dousing the halls with bright colors and trebling the tarp and tent poles.

As anyone knows who’s been to Miami/Basel, Basel itself, New York’s similarly immense Armory Show, or the hyper-fairs, larger and smaller, that now happen in London, Berlin, Paris, Cologne, or Chicago — or, for that matter, Shanghai, Mumbai, or Dubai — the art fairs here in Los Angeles have been worthy but puny, more occasions to skim the art world than dive into it. This year promises to be a bit different, rather more profound, indeed more promising, more tantalizing. It’s as though the powers that be are rising to the occasion of being challenged — or perhaps absorbed — by an encroaching power to reckon with. Even if the rumors turn out to be a bit too fabulous, the homies are getting ready to strut their stuff on a bigger stage.

You can see the home and visiting teams at artLA, in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, Jan. 25-27, and at the Los Angeles Art Show in Santa Monica Airport’s Barker Hangar, Jan. 23-27. Photo l.a. has outgrown the Civic Auditorium, so it, too, is over at Barker Hangar even as you read this, ending Jan. 13. For info on artLA and photo l.a., see www.artfairsinc.com; for the Los Angeles Art Show, go to www.laartshow.com.

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