Art Curator Haley Fonfa Is Turning Personal Tragedy Into Empowerment

After experiencing the loss of both her brother and father within two years, she continues to strive for greater meaning in the art world
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Haley Fonfa is by no means new to the Los Angeles art curation scene. Her rise in this cutthroat world began when she was another fresh face in the industry—but one grasping at the opportunities being presented—despite tragedies that struck as she was finding her footing. And now, Fonfa is flipping one of the devastating life events to ensure that her career has a deeper meaning.

Fonfa’s path into the art world was unconventional, to say the least. Unlike those who fell into the typical routine of the artist—hone talent, art school, apply for galleries, repeat—Fonfa had spent most of her life in a more conventional manner. She grew up in Las Vegas and lived a life that was anything but difficult—there is no tale of trauma, no brush with illness, and certainly no unfamiliarity that would undoubtedly cast her into the artist’s life.

“I was given a lot of things, gratefully, and I’m super happy that I had a wonderful childhood,” Fonfa reflects while speaking with LAMag.

It wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles roughly seven years ago to attend Loyola Marymount University that she delved into her creative path. Fonfa was studying to be a nurse, in order to have a “good start” in the world in a solid profession. But she was unsatisfied, so she began to focus on language—specifically, a foreign language. Studying Chinese brought her to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. There, she found aspects of culture that she had never witnessed.

Exhibitors help out up pieces at one of Fonfa’s shows. (Photo by Haley Fonfa)

“I learned a lot about the religion, their thought process, their appreciation of architecture, and the preservation of ancient art and artifacts,” Fonfa said. “Funny enough, with Chinese, I was drawing mostly with the characters. So, the language is pretty much all different brushstrokes. I felt it was an art and just in general, l appreciated language and cultures.”

With this newfound appreciation, Fonfa began gathering with groups of creatives across the city; soon enough, she had formulated the launch of a collective of all-women artists, named Bellatrix. Though that group fell apart quickly in 2017, it served as a foundational project for many of her future endeavors in curation, where she has become known for a strong focus on giving underrepresented groups a platform.

After the collective fell out over a lack of member coordination, Fonfa began to draft plans for a new exhibit based upon the same principle: “15 artists, all women, and maybe a couple of musical artists.” She had $2,000 to her name and a dream of uniting the art world. At that point, her own pursuit of the arts had left her frustrated; she was often catching glares from her male counterparts and never really breaking through in the L.A. art scene.

“Everything I do is under the notion that not only women, but marginalized voices, and all communities that didn’t feel like they had a safe space in the art world would have one,” Fonfa says. “It was something that I thought about, and it pushed me further to want to revisit Bellatrix and the whole thing because I wasn’t taken seriously because I was a woman artist.”

Things quickly began to heat up as Fonfa sculpted out the rawest edges of her plan. But when she first began to receive recognition for her work in 2018, her life was hit with tragedy—this was when her sidekick, confidant, and brother, Brett, died unexpectedly; he was 26. On the verge of tasting an artist’s ultimate success—creative freedom— a massive obstacle was before her—she had never experienced such a personal loss and found herself deeply distraught.

Her brother’s March 8, 2018 death occurred two weeks before she had another show scheduled, “Herstory.” It would be a celebration during Women’s History Month and a space for work from historically oppressed artists to be displayed. Despite the tight calendar and essentially no time to mourn her brother, Fonfa persevered. Her show went on as planned.

An old photo of Haley Fonfa with her two brothers, Evan (L), and Brett (R).

“I had never lost someone that young and it was unbelievable,” Fonfa said. “But as far as how it relates to pushing me with art, he was the single credible, creative dude. I noticed when people were around him they felt empowered and felt like they could do things.”

Fonfa then continued to host art shows—it was what her brother would have wanted, she says—curating 12 between the time he died and when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. While simultaneously celebrating her success and mourning his death, she was met with another loss; her father died in July 2020.

Fonfa’s first show as the pandemic was winding down was a hit, tallying roughly 3000 visitors entering the space throughout opening night. By September, Fonfa hosted just one other show—but it boasted the name Chloe Cherry, the young actor who stars in HBO’s Euphoria and is also a budding artist. Cherry had gone to Fonfa for her earliest entry into the art world, which for her, had been an occasional hobby. Her presence certainly helped increase attendance on that occasion, with at least 100 fans crowding around the star’s exhibit and waiting for a chance to ask about the work.

Now, Fonfa is returning to the L.A. art scene with her biggest exhibition yet. On September 9, “All That ‘90s” will open at  Not only will it again host work from Cherry, but it is also by far the largest rented-out space she’s used yet, at 20,000 square feet. The show will hone in on a true 90s kid experience, with an array of sets that reminisce on that decade.

Expect oversized gadgets, thematic pieces, and live avant-garde work as well. Fonfa has found balance in seeking out disciplined artists as well as those putting their first pieces onto gallery walls; her eye is providing her shows with a variation that many exhibits miss.

However, the show also comes with a major announcement: Fonfa was approved for a federally recognized nonprofit established in memory of her brother; she has named it the Brett Fonfa Foundation, or BFF.

She says that she hopes to establish a headquarters that will house all of her future exhibitions, host art therapy classes, and employ a staff psychologist to work hand in hand with art teachers. Together, they will innovate means of coping with grief and mental illnesses, Fonfa says with a smile.

“If my brother could see this,” she continued, “I don’t know the exact words he would say, but I could feel him giving me a huge hug.”

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