The following post is part of a series of interviews with influencers in the contemporary art world.
Jessica Silverman is the founder of the Jessica Silverman Gallery. The gallery specializes in discovering emergent artists whatever their age and connecting them to an international audience. The gallery is known for its strong concept-driven roster that spans a wide variety of genres and mediums.
Jessica Silverman launched her initial concept for the gallery while completing her MFA in Curatorial Practice at the California College of the Arts. Since then the gallery has expanded to represent a global roster of artists. Works by the gallery artists have been acquired by notable public collections including the Tate Museum (London), Museum of Modern Art (New York), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hammer Museum(UCLA), the Whitney Museum of American Art and the British Arts Council. The gallery has participated in many art fairs, including Art Basel (Switzerland and Miami), Frieze (London), FIAC (Paris), EXPO (Chicago), and the Armory (New York).
Brett Wallace: What inspired your love for art?
Jessica Silverman: One of the earliest memories that inspired my love of art was my grandparents collection of FLUXUS objects that was recently donated to the New York MOMA.
I recall seeing not only FLUXUS objects around the house but also works by Duane Hanson, Lucio Fontana, Janine Antoni and an extensive collection of Joseph Beuys. A FLUXUS work I most vividly was AY-O’s wooden boxes that you could put your finger inside of. Within them they held various textures I would explore. One, which was covered in black tape to prevent me from playing with it, had a needle inside.
These objects had an early impression on me and have recently been donated to MOMA in New York.
BW: What led you to start your own gallery in 2006 while still in grad school?
JS: I began studying at Otis College in LA to be an artist, but I was not able to get my ideas across as clearly as I wanted and my interests led me to be more collaborative. Instead of critiquing my own work, I would host an open studio and ask other artists to participate in it. I was interviewing other artists and enjoyed curating more than creating my own work for them. Around the time I was at Otis, I worked part time for Michael Ovitz’ curator, Andrea Feldman Falcione.
In 2005 I joined the curatorial program at the California College of the Arts.
CCA was great because it showed me that curating went far beyond traditional museums and building shows every few years. I was driven to build something more fluid and I always wanted to be on the business end of the art world.
During my time at CCA, I was one of the only people with a car so I would pick up curators from SFO when they were in town and show them around. In one encounter, I picked up Lars Bang Larson and his then wife, Chus Martinez to go shopping followed by sushi. At the time, I was writing my thesis on Martha Rosler’s Library, a project that traveled to many cities including Frankfurt. Summer of 2006 I participated in a residency at the Frankfurt Kunstverein where Chus was the director and I was able to visit lots of open studios, meet emerging artists as well as curators. After that supper I came back to SF ready to make a move.
I opened up my my first gallery in a basement in Dogpatch, San Francisco while still in school.
BW: Looking back, was this a smart choice to launch early? What did you learn from that decision?
JS: Since I opened my gallery in San Francisco while I was still in grad school it allowed me the opportunity to move slowly, build a program I felt confident about and grow my business without being under (too many) inquisitive eyes. I always knew I wanted to work closely with artists and build a strong collector base with curatorial support and that this would take time. We tried a lot of things out, many of which, are not part of the current program. Looking back, I would not have changed a thing. For me, building a program should not be a premeditated or easily resolved quest but rather, a thoughtful and inquisitive one that takes time.
BW: What was your first opening like?
JS: Our first opening was “Me and My Rhythm Box,” a title pulled from the movie “Liquid Sky” and it was a really fun party. At that point we also sold ephemera, magazines, books, artist editions etc. which we carried into our second space in 2008. We eventually phased that part of the gallery out because it became too difficult to do the shop and the gallery intelligently. I hope that in a few years, I can bring that aspect of the gallery back into the folds of what we do.
BW: What is your focus area as a curator and dealer?
JS: My focus is a balance of thinking through conceptual ideas in relationship to artists practices which vary from painting to video to sculpture, etc.. I also focus on adventurous work that pushes the boundaries of genre and medium. For instance, Sean Raspet’s upcoming solo exhibition will have a fragrance formulation of the gallery in the form of a “scratch n’ sniff” that will be sprayed onto our gallery walls. Visitors will be able to scratch the walls to release the scent. During the show, as scents are released, Sean will use equipment to capture the smells which he will transform into a cleaning product. This cleaning product will eventually be used to clean the “scratch n’ sniff” off of the walls at the end of the show.
Jessica Silverman inside of the new Jessica Silverman Gallery at 488 Ellis Street during construction. Photo credit: Margo Moritz.
BW: What is your process for working with artists?
JS: I have a slow and deliberate process when working with artists that is based on seeing the seriousness of their practice, having conversations and also trust. My mission is to “build careers”. My process usually beings with 3-4 studio visits to meet the artist and view the work. While I’m interested in their current work, I’m also looking for the potential of the artist and how they will expand beyond a singular body of work. I do look for artists who are wiling to push the boundaries of contemporary art and who are not easily swayed by every trend that comes and goes.
Once I identify an artist that I am interested in, I start by introducing the artist in a group show and keep some of their work in the back room to show collectors. It’s a bit like dating – I like to start slow and build trust before launching into a solo show with an artist. Once we do get serious (today we represent 14 artists), I take a very tailored approach for sharing their work with collectors, museums, board directors etc.
BW: You work mainly with emerging artists. What is your definition of emerging?
JS: Our roster includes artists that range in age from their 20’s to 70’s. So, I don’t define emerging by age. I define emerging based on the point they are at in their career. For instance in November, 2013 we presented Amikam Toren’s first solo show in America at the gallery. He is in his late 60’s and we have since curated a solo booth at Frieze New York in May 2014 and have had a tremendous response to the practice. In May 2015 we will present an exciting solo exhibition by the “Grandfather of the Vancouver art scene,” Ian Wallace who is in his 70’s. I am so excited to include Ian Wallace in our program.
BW: How do relationships matter in your business?
JS: I grew up in Michigan and if you know other people form the Midwest you may be familiar with the fact that we are pretty friendly people. The people I most enjoy working with are honest, passionate about and love what they do. In this expansive and culturally diverse art world I enjoy trustworthy relationships because they make working with other dealers, museum curators and collectors more enjoyable.
BW:What’s it like running one of SF’s most contemporary and well known galleries amidst the background of technology in this area?
JS: San Francisco has a rich history of philanthropy and a lot of support for its museums and arts institutions. We are also in the midst of new collectors who come from various VC and technology sectors.
Education is important with new collectors because it helps them build a strong collection and stable relationship with the gallery ecosystem. Working in SF has often influenced our curatorial agenda as well. For example, we opened a new show this past summer called “The History of Technology” that explored themes of nostalgia and futurism, obsolescence and transcendence.
BW: What’s your advice for emerging artists?
JS: The first thing I tell artists is to make sure they are developing a critical narrative in their practice. As a dealer and curator, I work very hard to promote my artists and expect the artists we work with to be serious about what they do while enjoying and growing from it. I also tell younger artists to be part of their scene – if you live in SF, make sure to show up to gallery shows and try to be part of the community. It usually gives a lot back and can lead to interesting conversations with new people.
BW: Who inspires you?
JS: Paula Cooper is an incredibly important New York dealer with an amazing program and impeccable eye. Other than her gallery space she also owns a nearby bookstore where talks and signings are hosted regularly. She has always inspired me.
Anthony Meier, who is a dealer in San Francisco who has always been very generous with his time. Early on, when I had questions about artists, curators, collectors etc., he would give me honest and straightforward advice, which was hugely appreciated.
BW: What are some of your favorite brands?
JS: I love the image and style of the brand Maison Martin Margiela – everything from their stores to their label, tailoring, colors excites me. Swiss industrial designer has an amazing design sensibility. I wear the UP24 band, use the Soda Stream and sit in his Sayl chairs at my office. Life would be bland without them! Lastly, I crave green smoothies from from Jane cafe here in SF. They have two locations – one on Fillmore and the other on Larkin.