Jessica Silverman’s Secret to 10 Years of Success as a Gallerist? Hustle Harder
Portrait of Jessica Silverman while building out her gallery at 488 Ellis Street, San Francisco, in 2013. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery.
Talk to just about anyone in the art world, and they’ll tell you San Francisco gallerist Jessica Silverman never stops hustling. Wherever she is in the world—whether it’s a work day at the gallery, the middle of an art fair, or on vacation in Hawaii—she’s tapping away at her phone, emailing the artists, collectors, curators, and journalists who all need something from her.
For Silverman, there’s little distinction between work and life—but she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The thing is, I like what I do. It’s so much a part of who I am,” Silverman said, sunken into a green velvet couch in the back of her Ellis Street gallery. “I was sitting by the pool yesterday, but I was emailing. But it doesn’t bother me!”
As the gallery celebrates its 10th year, Silverman, 35, and those around her cite her work ethic as a key factor behind her success. It combines with her intuitive grasp of contemporary art, which took root early on as a child in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan. A frequent visitor to her grandparents’ famed Fluxus art collection (which now mostly resides at the Museum of Modern Art, the Israel Museum, and the Detroit Institute of the Arts), she grew up poking her digits into artist Ay-O’s finger boxes and admiring Lydia Benglis’s bronze dildo. That triptych of hard work, business instincts gleaned from her family’s real estate background, and artistic precocity has made her one of the art world’s most visible figures on the West Coast, and increasingly internationally.
“The superpower is that she works incredibly hard, and can talk to anyone, but she also has this really deep, in-her-DNA art historical understanding,” said Julian Hoeber, a Los Angeles–based artist who met Silverman when she was an undergraduate art student at the Otis College of Art and Design. He had been invited to guest-critique her senior project—a hanging of other students’ work—which he remembers as a clear sign of where her career was going.
“She was couching it in Pictures Generation language—that she was making the images she wanted to make by organizing other people’s images—but I thought, ‘You’re going to be a curator or dealer,’” Hoeber said. “I didn’t say it then, but it seemed so obvious to me at the moment.”
Portrait of Jessica Silverman at her basement gallery in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood in 2006. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery.
While still in graduate school for curatorial studies at the California College for the Arts, and working as a curator at San Francisco’s Jewish community center (she used air quotes when describing the center’s “gallery,” which was more of a vitrine), Silverman opened her first project space in 2006. A basement under a coffee shop in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, it got no natural light and rented for $200 a month. One of her earliest shows featured her best friend from high school, Job Piston, who was then working as a photographer. She remembers selling works for $400 “and feeling like that was kind of a lot,” she said. Although nothing in the show was more than $800, it garnered a review in Artforum.
Fast forward a little over a decade, and the gallery still seems to be punching above its weight. With a full-time staff of just four in addition to Silverman, the gallery represents 23 emerging, mid-career, and established artists including Hayal Pozanti, Judy Chicago, Hugh Scott-Douglas, and Nicole Wermers; participates in six to eight fairs each year; operates a 3,000-square-foot space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district; and has steadily grown its international reputation.
Larry Mathews, a San Francisco real estate developer and art collector who has been a fan of Silverman’s since her basement-gallery days (he bought one of Piston’s photographs from that early show), said none of this surprises him.
“I thought, you’re going to be a curator or dealer. I didn’t say it then, but it seemed so obvious.”
“She was serious from the first day, with the [Martin] Margiela suits and the Dries [van Noten],” he said. “It’s not like she came up off the turnip truck. I’ve never seen her not camera-ready in every way.…She’s always very passionate and eloquent in the way she speaks about her artists.”
Mathews, who has an acrylic Hoeber work he bought from Silverman above his fireplace, also credits her with raising San Francisco’s profile in the contemporary art world.
“We travel quite a bit, and when people hear we’re from San Francisco, they always ask about her,” Mathews said. “People are really impressed by what she’s doing, and the footprint she’s made.”
That’s due in large part to Silverman’s round-the-clock schedule, which begins at 6:30 a.m. with a trip to the gym, after which she heads into the gallery. Meal times are often double-duty: On the late August day when we met at her gallery, she was headed to lunch with an Italian dealer, and had a dinner scheduled that evening with clients, a schedule she said is typical for her. Even her domestic life intertwines with the gallery: Her girlfriend is writer Sarah Thornton, formerly The Economist’s chief writer on contemporary art and the author of Seven Days in the Art World (2009), with whom she consults multiple times a day on anything and everything to do with the gallery.
Unlike many dealers, who gravitate to the art world as an alternative to a corporate career, Silverman has a knack for—perhaps even enjoys—the business aspect of running a gallery, which she absorbed watching her father, a real estate developer, run the family’s business.
“I didn’t go to business school, but there’s got to be some sort of innate muscle I have that comes from just watching my father and his father build businesses,” she said, adding that she also uses her father—and others, such as longtime San Francisco dealer Anthony Meier—as “sounding boards” when she needs advice.
And where other galleries have perhaps had to learn the hard way to pay attention to the bottom line, Silverman’s real estate background has made her very wary about overleveraging herself. When she expanded in 2013 from her first real gallery location on Sutter Street, she chose the Tenderloin, a neighborhood that might generously be described as “gentrifying,” to keep her rent reasonable (at least reasonable for San Francisco, which has the fifth-highest commercial rents in the world).
Nicholas Party, Window Pattern, 2018. Courtesy of the artist, The Modern Institute, Glasgow and Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.
“It’s also made it so we can just keep being ambitious. If my overhead was $20,000 or $30,000 a month, I would have no staff and would really struggle every month to make it all work,” she said.
Silverman acknowledges she is fortunate to have a loyal base of collectors who support the gallery, many of them, like Mathews, who have been there from the beginning. But she also doesn’t shy away from the fact that money keeps the lights on, going so far as to embrace that dreaded symbol of corporate America: the Excel spreadsheet. She and her team create profit and loss statements in Excel after every show and every fair—all expenses over $20 or $30 get itemized—and review the numbers together.
“If we’ve lost money, we should all look at how that happened, and how we can learn from it,” Silverman said. “Where do we think we can make that up? And how can we be more thoughtful the next time?”
She encourages other dealers to be similarly pragmatic.
“Love art, but don’t succumb to romanticism,” she said. “Remember that your primary job as a dealer is to make a long-term livelihood for your artists.”
“If my overhead was $20,000 or $30,000 a month, I would have no staff and would really struggle every month to make it all work.”
Take, for example, the high-risk, potentially high-reward decision of which art fairs to attend, during an era in which fairs account for nearly half of galleries’ sales, as well as an increasing share of their costs. In her early years especially, Silverman hewed to fairs in a region where she knew she had clients who were excited to support it. She also commits to attending a fair at least twice to establish a meaningful presence in a region, and usually only travels with one colleague. Nonetheless, she warns, “there is no way to ensure a fair will not be a financial disaster.”
The caution with which she approaches business strategy enables her to be a bit of a gambler when it comes to programming. For that, she relies heavily on her intuition, an approach she inherited from her grandparents, whose collecting style was “totally instinctual,” she said. She cited, as one example, the significant financial investment involved in digitizing and reprinting of an early body of work by British photographer Isaac Julien for the 2016 show “Vintage.”
Installation view of “Vintage,” an exhibition of photographs by Isaac Julien, at Jessica Silverman Gallery, 2016. Courtesy of the gallery.
“That was a huge risk, but I believed in the work and in Isaac and in the context of that work in San Francisco, and knew it was the right thing to do,” Silverman said. “When you take a risk, you work hard to ensure its success.” The show received major press and led to museum sales; the following year, leading London gallery Victoria Miro held a show of one of the three series Silverman had reprinted, “Looking for Langston.”
Despite her growing stature, many of the works Silverman sells are relatively accessibly priced, with drawings and other works by younger artists starting at $2,000 to $6,000. Prices go up into the mid–six figures for works by the feminist icon Judy Chicago (the Julien photographs in the “Looking for Langston” body of work were £10,000 to £30,000, depending on size). Matthew Angelo Harrison—whose sculptures combining African sculptures with resin and acrylic were featured at the New Museum’s triennial, and whose work has been acquired by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Miami—has pieces available for $15,000 to $18,000 at EXPO Chicago in late September.
“There will be a point when we raise those prices,” Silverman said of Harrison. “But at 28, he has his whole career ahead of him.”
Silverman cites “patience” as one of the biggest lessons she’s absorbed in her career (she’ll happily wait, she says, for a museum acquisition committee to plod through its procedures if it means securing an artist’s legacy), and one she tries to pass on to her artists.
“I tend to encourage artists to be slow. There’s a tendency with younger artists to move on from a series very quickly when they think the world has seen it, when maybe not even 200 people saw it,” she said. “The world is really big.”
Ten years on
Installation view of “Kinship” at Jessica Silverman Gallery, 2018. Courtesy of the gallery.
Perhaps because of that patience, the 10-year milestone feels less like a crossroads and more like a moment to pause and celebrate the people who have been with her along the way. Silverman said she has no plans for massive expansion, or even to do anything particularly differently. Instead, she toasted her first decade in business by bringing together work by 35 artists, some of them represented by the gallery and some part of the gallery’s extended network, for a show called “Kinship.” There was a duo of paintings by Hoeber, as well as two photographs by his wife, Heather Rasmussen; a photograph by filmmaker John Waters and two 1981 collages by Lynn Hershman Leeson, both of whom live across the street from Silverman; a print by Grayson Perry, a friend of the gallery; and a diptych of silver silkscreen on an adobe surface by N. Dash, a New York–based artist and friend of Silverman’s.
“As a queer woman, the idea of an extended chosen family is very important to me,” she said.
Even her collectors feel, in a sense, like part of the gallery’s wider family. Silverman said her colleagues are consistently surprised by how long many of them have been buying from her.
In the decade Mathews has known her, he has come to trust Silverman’s business sense to the point that he even occasionally asks her to visit the studios of young artists, not necessarily to represent them, but simply so they can benefit from her experience and perspective.
“She’s just someone that I think of as someone young artists should talk to as they begin navigating their careers and the commercial world,” Mathews said. And as a collector, he said, “I never feel pressured or hustled by her.”
“You could tell that she was one of those dealers that would not just sustain a career, but be one of the leading international dealers in the world.”
Others in the art world seek Silverman’s advice, too: She sits on the board of the San Francisco Arts Commission, the board of the Tenderloin Museum, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Curators Circle committee. In 2014, she helped EXPO Chicago curate its Exposure section of young galleries, and subsequently joined the selection committee for the fair’s main section, where Tony Karman, president and director of EXPO Chicago, said she brings “fairness and global perspective.”
“She is ambitious in the most positive way,” said Karman. “You could tell that she was one of those dealers that would not just sustain a career, but be one of the leading international dealers in the world.”
Portrait of Jessica Silverman at her 804 Sutter Street, San Francisco gallery in 2009. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery.
Portrait of Jessica Silverman at her 804 Sutter Street, San Francisco gallery in 2009. Courtesy of Jessica Silverman Gallery.
A focal point of Silverman’s booth at EXPO Chicago this year will be a Pasadena Lifesaver acrylic painting by hometown favorite Judy Chicago; Silverman believes the work hasn’t been seen since it was made in the 1970s.
Chicago, who has been represented by the gallery since 2016, has her own “Jessica never stops” story. She and Silverman attended a gala at Washington, D.C.’s National Museum of Women in the Arts, where the two of them were seated at a table with several collectors. By the time the dinner wrapped up, Chicago said, Silverman had sold tickets to another gala at SFMOMA to two of the collectors there.
“It was amazing to watch her,” Chicago said. “She’s always working.”
Silverman credits her artists with keeping her going strong.
“As hard as I work, they’re right there next to me working just as hard,” she said. “We work hand in hand.”