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Mills Morán: Redefining the Modern Art Fair

By Daisy Lin
July 26, 2021
(Left): Mills Morán (standing) and Al Morán (seated). Photo by Stefan Simchowitz. Courtesy of Morán Morán. (Right): Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel’s poolside cabanas where Felix LA will take place.

Entrepreneur and gallery owner Mills Morán talks about his vision for Felix LA, an innovative art fair that features Los Angeles artists and galleries at the Hollywood Roosevelt.

Contemporary art shows are usually held at large convention centers, but Mills Morán and his brother Al decided to break the mold and bring high art to a more intimate setting. They founded Felix LA, an art fair that brings together top artists, galleries, dealers, and collectors to the historic Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The brothers, who emigrated from El Salvador, have been making waves in the art world ever since they opened the Morán Morán gallery in West Hollywood. The idea for the fair came up during a dinner party conversation with collector Dean Valentine, and together they launched the event.

This year’s fair will be a special all-local edition taking place July 29 to August 1 at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Artists like Calvin Marcus and film director David Lynch will have solo booths at open-air, poolside cabanas. Twenty-nine prominent local galleries, as well as international galleries with an LA presence, will exhibit artworks, including Michael Benevento, Château Shatto, CLEARING, Grice Bench, Tanya Leighton, Nicodim Gallery, Blum and Poe, Gagosian, François Ghebaly and David Kordansky Gallery. Felix LA 2021 coincides with LA Art Week, which will celebrate the local arts community with a series of events and presentations.

“We decided to focus on LA galleries because we wanted to throw a spotlight on the amazing concentration of galleries here and the incredible creativity of the artists who live in Los Angeles,” Mills Moran says.

Many of these galleries had to close their doors to the public last year, and this will be a chance for the arts community to come together safely in a celebration. East West Bank will be hosting an exhibitor dinner to kick off the fair, joined by Agnes Lew, East West Bank’s senior vice president and head of private banking.

We spoke with Mills Morán about the inspiration for the fair.

How were you able to be successful and make a splash in the art world without having had formal art training or education?

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Both my brother and I have an entrepreneurial spirit. We knew artists, and we wanted to help them get their work seen. There was never a “let's get into the art world” conversation because we were pretty naïve, and if we broke it down that way, I think it would have been a lot more intimidating.

An artist is the epitome of an entrepreneur—you're literally betting on yourself and your creative talents. We're looking for the artists that express themselves and define our contemporary times. I've always looked at this as a very entrepreneurial venture and getting into the art fair was the same thing. We partnered with someone that we trusted, Dean Valentine. He brought certain strengths, and we brought certain strengths. He's looking at how a collector can experience an event in a more positive way, and we were looking at how galleries can benefit from something that traditionally is a slog. So, we decided to look for an environment that can make it more interesting for everybody, and that's how Felix LA began.

As entrepreneurs, you could have gone into any number of industries. Why art?

I just love to work with artists and to help them realize a project. It just gives me so much joy.

There are definitely times where this feels like work. When you run a gallery, your revenue is not linear; it’s very staggered. There's no seasonality—it's not like you know you're going have a better third quarter than you did the second quarter. It really all depends on your exhibitions.

The rest of the time, though, it just doesn't feel like working. It’s a very natural way to spend my day. I would never give up any of the sacrifices that you make in terms of not knowing how much money you're going to make a certain year, because I just love what I do.

And then, we have this passion for being part of this community. Sometimes it's challenging, some people aren't easy to work with. But you surround yourself with good artists and they become friends, and you get another family, and vice versa. It's a very rewarding job. So, I don't really complain about the budgeting, it's just the more of a reality, you know. It's a passion for us, and I don't think I have much of a choice, just like an artist doesn't really have much of a choice to be an artist.

What’s different about Felix Art Fair, and what will we see there this year?

Art fairs are traditionally trade shows, and often they're in convention centers alongside car and boat shows. For us, the more we grew in this industry, the more we looked at history. We were fascinated by a series of art fairs that began in the early 1990s that were at the Gramercy Hotel in New York. We did a lot of reading on that, and tried to understand what the charm was and why it worked. We wanted to pay homage to that era; it was post-market crash, and it was about keeping things simple, about going back to your roots, slowing down the ladder of spending and the overproduction of art.

Then there was a shift in the market, as everything got bigger and more expensive, and people were shipping large works to Switzerland, Miami and New York. We thought that it was time for an alternative option for these galleries. And it became very appealing, with the relationship that we have with the owners of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, who are huge art lovers, and were willing to take a chance on us and our vision to back a project that initially might not have completely made financial sense for everybody.

We have some of the top galleries on board, and they represent the top artists. We're keeping the quality high in a very relaxed environment, and that’s how we're differentiating ourselves. This year, we wanted to keep the carbon footprint lower during the pandemic, so we invited local galleries only. The fair is about half the size that we usually do at the Roosevelt, but it’s a new level of intimacy and, being around a pool, you can relax, get a drink and go swimming if you want.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs?

You’ve got to take a risk, whatever your dreams are. You’re going to have to risk something. Whether that's a secure job, alienating your family—whatever it is, at some point you’ve got to make sacrifices and get rid of your safety net. You cannot be focused solely on the financials, because that's the worst way to start something. You need to believe in it so hard, and you’ve got to have the faith that it's going to pay off. Surrounding yourself with good people you trust is as important as anything else, because you're just going to need as much help as you can get.

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