The differences between New York City and Los Angeles can be endlessly disputed: pizza vs. tacos, MTA purgatory vs. driving, a low-hanging haze of garbage vs. eternal sunshine. What’s undeniably true on both coasts, however, is the growing base of young, hungry art enthusiasts in these urban meccas. Alex Mitow and James Miille, co-founders of the hip, alternative and affordable “anti-Frieze” fair Superfine! have set their sights westward on Los Angeles’ underserved young collector base, bringing their mega-successful riff on the affordable art fair to the good art appreciators of The City of Angels this February. Their plan: to bring their transparency-first model to an art market where no other fair has succeeded before. On an uncharacteristically sunny afternoon in New York (it’s as if the Universe knew we were going to be talking about LA), we sat down with Mitow and Miille over homemade matcha tea to discuss their latest venture.
Mitow and Miille have an eye for many things: art, food, and real estate among many other things. Their ability to seek out neighborhoods that have just passed the “up-and-coming” stage is perhaps as advantageous to Superfine!’s success as it is useful for their image. By choosing Downtown Los Angeles, Mitow and Miille were looking for more than just a trendy venue. They deliberately and calculatingly sought out a destination venue (typical for LA – if you build it, they will drive there) in an area locals still consider “cool”; where there’s shopping to be done, fantastic meals to be had, and trendy places to stay. “We look for a certain level of maturity in an area” Mitow notes about their selection process. “We’re not going for a fully emerging area. We need some sense of legitimacy, safety – we have a 1,500 car parking lot in LA – it helps that we have an Apple store opening around the corner and the NoMad Hotel just opened, the Standard has been there forever and the Ace Hotel just opened up.”
Never known to sacrifice quality in the name of anything, Mitow and Miille aren’t concerned about their venues being located off the beaten path. There are neighborhoods, like Wynwood, where art is cool and the draw for foot traffic is huge – but that doesn’t translate into sales for exhibitors. Spectators turn up to take photos with street art but when it comes to investing in their art collection, dropping a couple of Benjamins isn’t a top priority. With the bulk of Superfine!’s attendees being carefully cultivated and marketed-to young professionals, the focus for Mitow and Miille is and always has been quality over quantity. Miille reflects, “for our exhibitors, they’re paying us to be there and we’re offering them value in return, so it’s sort of a disservice on our part if were in an area that wouldn’t generate that.”
The culture of Los Angeles is intrinsically different from the bustling, disruptive character of New York. Whereas New York City is caught in a perpetual pattern of building and destruction – constantly tearing down and replacing what came before, centralizing the chaos into five relatively-easily accessible boroughs – Los Angeles builds upon itself, preserving and riffing on the culture left behind while sprawling over the hills, into the valley and beyond. This difference is not only recognized by Mitow & Miille, but celebrated and used intelligently as a curation tactic. Alex reflects, “On a cultural and architectural level, I really love that LA has preserved a lot of its history and architecture… it’s got its own unique style. There’s an aura to it that’s captured in old theater facades, blue chip galleries and museums.” Friend and colleague of Superfine! Shepard Fairey weighed in on the cultural ethos of LA, noting “L.A.’s art scene is really unique because it’s a hub where both highbrow institutions and subculture arts communities have an equal platform, which creates a really exciting market for emerging artists and new collectors alike.”
Subculture is a central theme to Superfine!’s LA iteration. Mitow and Miille have always included overarching “umbrella” themes in their exhibitor curation, but the LA fair marks the first time an entire section of the fair is to be exclusively dedicated to the politically-minded representation of galleries that elevate artists who truly represent the zeitgeist of America. Los Angeles is home to huge populations of Asian-, African-American, and Mexican populations. “American identity is something that’s really at play in a city like LA,” Mitow states. “And that’s really what ‘This is America’ is about and why it’s in quotations – we want to show what America really looks like. Not all artists are white Yale graduates.” In addition, Mitow and Miille wanted to specifically curate works by Indigenous artists, who have been notoriously underrepresented as contemporary artists in the past. With ‘This is America’, Superfine! makes it a point to assert that having a platform where these artists are celebrated now as contemporaries is very important.
These curation choices, however, shouldn’t be seen as a rebellion against established art fairs. Superfine may have been called the “anti-Frieze” during Art Basel this year, but Mitow makes it clear: “we’re not an anti-fair; there’s a lot of cool projects like Spring/Break that are a different take on the art fair. We’re not really reinventing the wheel. It’s a scaled and tweaked model.” Tweaks are important when it comes to these models. For instance, Superfine provides grey walls for exhibitors rather than white walls, navigating away from the oftentimes sterile operating room feel of conventional bigwig fairs. Mitow continues, “it’s definitely more intimate – that’s intentional. It’s intimate and mood-lit; we always have a little bit of music so that there’s a baseline ambiance going on.”
This all plays directly into the fair’s approach to cultivating collectors. Superfine! touts itself as “the fairest fair” – and with good reason. Fairness means transparency, and transparency means being upfront about the artwork and it’s costs. Mitow, who as an arts entrepreneur feels strongly about transparency in the market, asserts that “the art market operating on these bizzaro opaque terms are in my opinion very quickly becoming a thing of the past. Nobody likes that feeling of things being unclear. You can go to the nicest restaurant in the world and at least you know what you’re paying for. There’s an odd feeling of going to something purely visual and not knowing the price.” “A gallery that isn’t putting the price up isn’t going to lead with the price,” Miille adds. Highbrow galleries make an assumption that if you’re there, you can afford whatever the price tag may be. But Mitow and Miille are firm that even seasoned collectors appreciate the transparency.
That appreciativeness shines through in Superfine!’s attendees purchase records – 20% of attendees purchase artwork. As an affordable art fair, there’s a place for all levels of collectors at Superfine!. “The zeitgeist is not the fat cats,” Mitow says. “It’s the people who have the means to support it at whatever level they can. It’s the people who can support art, understand it, and buy it. We foster that. We make that happen.” Mitow and Miille want to make art collecting an affordable luxury – like travel. You could afford that $1500 trip to Prague… or you could buy some art. Both help to define you as an individual.
The Superfine! team really has true control over the power of curation, presentation, representation for their fair and collector base. They know their loyal collectors and they even know their collectors who don’t know they’re collectors yet. Mitow and Miile do this through their highly successful collectors events like the Young Collectors Ice Cream + Cocktail Social and Midnight Vernissage, which are educational rather than purchase-centric. And that’s what’s so beautiful about the culture of Superfine! – nothing about it feels patronizing. With the focus on building an educational community, the collecting experience isn’t perverted in any way.
With a tightly curated roster of 75 exhibitors – 30 galleries, 45 artists and 2 pavillions – visitors to Superfine! LA will experience the culture of the LA contemporary art market through pop surrealism, queer art, art representative of the actual demographics of LA and the rest of the country through This is America. Superfine! will run from February 14-17 at the Magic Box in DTLA.