Do Gallerists Pick Artists for Their Personality or Their Talent?

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…

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