Do Gallerists Pick Artists for Their Personality or Their Talent?

Daniel Kunitz
Jul 17, 2017 6:40PM

What makes a gallerist choose to begin representing a young artist? It’s a question that has vexed many an MFA grad and which remains opaque to most of us. A few years ago, however, a scene in a documentary about Andy Warhol raised a question that cuts to the heart of the matter.

In the film, Irving Blum, then director of the famed Ferus Gallery in L.A., recounts the circumstances that led to him to host Andy Warhol’s first solo painting show, in 1962. While in New York on a scouting trip, friends directed Blum to Warhol’s studio, where the dealer “couldn’t make head or tail” of the artist’s work. The prevailing style of art at the time was abstract, he notes. Blum didn’t especially like what Warhol was doing; he says in the film that he was “confused by it.” However, he continues, “I was engaged by the guy.” He believed in Warhol’s personality—if not the evidence of his talent—enough to fill his gallery with the entire “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series.  

Blum’s anecdote has stuck with me because it gets at something both trenchant and counterintuitive: that pure artistic talent might count for less than we might assume in a gallery’s decision to represent a young artist. The story hints at other factors that need to be taken into account. Given the substantial investment of time, energy, and money that a dealer will make in an artist who is yet-unproven in the marketplace, she or he might look beyond the work itself—to all those traits that would allow an artist to be stable enough to surf the arc of a career. Character, I imagined, must be key.

Jessica Silverman, of the eponymous San Francisco gallery, explained that the limited amount of work available for prospective gallerists to view means that other factors are sometimes useful in making a decision.

“With young artists you only have the possibility to see one or two bodies of work,” she said, adding that this is particularly true for artists that are fresh out of school. “[They] have just begun making work on their own.”

Even if what you encounter in the studio is fantastic, that’s no guarantee the artist won’t flame out in a bottle of gin or, given success, become distracted by the shiny things money can buy. How then does Silverman forecast what sort of potential these untried artists have? You need, she said, to assess factors like “their personality, level of ambition, and stamina, and use them to gauge whether they might make future bodies of work that will be of interest as well. Because nobody wants a one-hit wonder.”

Maybe not. But Jack Shainman, whose gallery operates out of two spaces in New York City and one upstate in Kinderhook, isn’t so sure galleries can afford the luxury of forecasting. He balks at the notion of focusing on character.

“For me,” he said, “it’s all about the work. The personality of the artist doesn’t really matter.”

Shainman said the art world is very different than it was in the early 1960s. At the time, collectors tended to buy from one or two galleries, and the prices were, relatively, much lower. Today, he said, “You have to believe in the work 100 percent when you put it up on the walls, because generally you have to defend it.”

What about an artist who falls into, or seems likely to fall into, debilitating substance abuse? Certainly not an uncommon problem in the precincts of art. “That we’ve dealt with too,” said Shainman. “It was awful. It’s not always a bowl of cherries, but if the work is great you do what you have to do to keep the relationship and to keep the work in the gallery.”

Still, Silverman has been burned by doing just that. She recalls one artist whose work she admired and believed in but who, as she put it, “wasn’t able to fully commit to his practice. It wasn’t like he was doing bad things; he had a full-time job that did not connect to or relate to his work at all.” Eventually he drifted away from the studio.

In L.A. and Palm Beach gallerist Sarah Gavlak’s view, dealers like Shainman, who sincerely believe in the work on the wall, are an exception—an anomaly even—in today’s art market. “These days most people are unfortunately looking at artists with pretty much purely economic motivations,” she said. It’s less about being a true believer than about fomenting belief in collectors, drumming up sales.

“Everything’s very trendy, and galleries all get on the bandwagon of an artist that starts selling and has a lot of buzz, and they create this market for the work,” she said. “For me, it’s completely the opposite. I work with most of my artists because of their personality: who they are, what they represent, the way they look at the world, what they’re interested in.”

It is often personality that allows her to believe in an artist’s market potential. When she brought the now venerable artist Betty Tompkins—best known for her paintings of pornographically realistic genitalia—into her stable, Gavlak knew the pictures wouldn’t be an easy sell. She believed in Tompkins and in the work, though not in the market for it.

“I was drawn to the challenge that Tompkins presented, to get people to step up and collect the work,” Gavlak said. “And for the first few projects that we did we didn’t really sell much. Then it started, and took off.”

Some, like Candice Madey, who recently closed her esteemed gallery, On Stellar Rays, see belief in the artist’s character and belief in the work as inextricable. In order to defend and then place an artwork well, a gallerist needs to feel she has an intimate understanding of it. Oftentimes, that means artist and dealer will need to collaborate in establishing the right message and defining the proper context for the artist’s efforts, something which Madey said requires this dual appreciation of the artist’s work and character.

Madey maintains the by-appointment Stellar Projects and has represented an array of younger, cutting-edge artists. She said the decision to take a new artists rests on a number of factors that all support a deeper appreciation of the work itself.

“That person’s intentions and character are really important,” she said. “I find that if I believe in the person, I believe in the work.”

Certainty about an artist’s character is, however, no guarantee of success. Of the 32 Cambell’s Soup Can paintings in that first Warhol show, only six sold. So Blum doubled down on his belief in the artist, deciding to keep the set intact by purchasing them all—including buying back those that had sold—for $1,000. In Blum’s case, the gambit worked out, albeit some 30 years later. In 1996, he sold and partially gifted the set to the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a deal reported to then be worth more than $15 million.

That time interval points to the fact that Warhol (who once said that “art is what you can get away with”) was also crucial in shifting in how art is evaluated: From his time to ours context and concept became ever more important, while the evidence of the eye was diminished. So Blum’s anecdote turns out to be a sort of Rorschach test for gallery types. Those who show work that is more conceptual, that relies on ideas and the context of a gallery or museum even to be seen as art, might tend to invest in an artist’s character or personality, since what they are selling will not necessarily have obvious visual significance. Whereas those who place more weight on the optical or aesthetic quality of the work are likely less concerned with who the artist is.

Yet Blum’s anecdote also points to a basic truth. As in concocting a potion, creating value in an artwork requires a magic ingredient: belief, conviction. You can invest it in the work or in the personality of the artist, but without belief no spell can be cast.  

Daniel Kunitz