How Two Laid-Back Dealers Turned $25,000, a Bunch of Unknown Artists, and Sheer Bravado Into the Global Powerhouse Blum & Poe
By: Nate Freeman
In the early 1990s, Tim Blum met a guy named Jeff Poe working at the same Los Angeles gallery as his girlfriend. At the time, Blum was living in Tokyo, immersing himself in the Japanese contemporary art scene, and would fly back to LA when he could and stop by the Kim Light Gallery in Hollywood.
“I’d visit, and say ‘hey’ to Jeff at the front desk,” Blum recalled earlier this month just ahead of Frieze Week, sitting across from me on a stiff-looking bench.
“We were friendly,” said Poe, sitting on the same bench, but not really next to Blum. “He showed up in Christmas of ‘93, and he’s like, ‘Japan’s falling apart, I’m going to move here and open a gallery.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re out of your fucking mind, good luck.’”
Los Angeles was not a big gallery town at the time. The young Poe had managed to strike gold by partnering with Kim Light, who had gained an international reputation for hustling a new generation of LA artists. Wildly ambitious, Light was on the verge of opening a foundation, with family funds, which would give her partner Poe a seriously cushy gig.
“I was gonna rent a convertible Saab—I was on fire,” Poe said. “I was like, ‘Fucking finally.’”
“A convertible Saab!” Blum said, laughing.
But then it all fell apart. In February 1994, Light’s grandfather pulled the money, the whole operation went kaput, and Poe was out of a job. He had no real prospects. Before working with Light, he had primarily played in LA punk bands, most recently one called Blissed Out Fatalists.
“A month later, I was watching this movie Black Rain,” Poe said.
“It’s a great movie about the Japanese mob with Michael Douglas,” Blum added.
“And I was stoned, of course—I smoked pot all day every day at this point in my life,” Poe said. “And I was like, what am I gonna do? And then I was watching, and they’re in Tokyo, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that fucking Blum—that dumbshit from Japan wanted to open a gallery. Well, he must have money!
“I moved back in August of ‘94 and we opened September of ‘94,” Blum said.
And from those inauspicious beginnings, Blum and Poe started Blum & Poe, a gallery that, 25 years later, would not just be one of the biggest contemporary art meccas in Los Angeles, but the one most associated with the city’s rise from an art-world backwater to a major hub in the global gallery ecosystem.
We were chatting during Frieze LA, which would be inconceivable without Blum & Poe front and center, occupying the large corner booth at the entrance of the fair, featuring gallery artists who have ties to the city. (More subtle is the Blum & Poe contribution to Felix, the annual art fair held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, where gallery artist Darren Bader staged a booth of work by artists who don’t exist.) And at the massive 22,000-square-foot Culver City building where the pair opened a headquarters in 2009, they’ve staged one of the city’s more ambitious shows: a revisiting of the landmark 1959 MoMA exhibition “New Images of Man,” this time curated by Alison Gingeras, featuring artists with a long attachment to the gallery, including Henry Taylor, Mark Grotjahn, and Tomoo Gokita.
The gallery expanded to Tokyo and New York in 2014, but it has kept the operation relatively lean. Along with partner Matt Bangser, who runs the New York outpost, the operation is still over seen by Blum and Poe. They are a true duo, not quite good cop, bad cop, not quite Hollywood buddy comedy. Something in between all that. Over the years they’ve developed a clear rapport, but they don’t finish each other’s sentences. They often disagree and fall into some light bickering. They can both come off slightly surfer dude-ish—with many sentences punctuated with a casually tacked-on “fuck, man!”—and together they’ve nurtured the careers of some of the most exciting and famous artists on the planet.
The frenzy of activity during Frieze Week was a far cry from the Los Angeles art scene that existed when the two opened their first space in Santa Monica in the early 1990s, taking over a lease from a failed gallerist who was paying just $1,200 a month.
“There was no art world, per se,” Poe said.
“There was a cluster of… people? There was percolation,” said Blum.
The pair had $25,000 between the two of them, enough to just pay rent for a year and manage their overhead—and that’s it. But there was a plan. First, the gallery would take on the artists who Poe had become close with while working with Light—as Poe recalled, the gallery had gone on a 22-month tear, picking up artists in Cologne and New York at a time when scenes in both cities were hotbeds for new artists.
Early shows were given to Anya Gallaccio, Kim Dingle, and Dani Tull, all artists who were influenced by the generation of Los Angeles artists featured in the landmark Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition “Helter Skelter,” which was a sensation when it opened in 1992, the same year as Kim Light’s space. In the years that followed, Blum & Poe would give shows both to local legend Paul McCarthy and to a trio of very young budding Angeleno art stars: Sharon Lockhart, Laura Owens, and Frances Stark.
The second part of the equation was to bring artists from Japan that Blum had met during his four years living in Tokyo. “There was an international thing happening” in the art world, “but there was no Asian element,” Poe said.
Local critics and collectors didn’t immediately react well to the new Japanese artists they started bringing over—if they reacted at all. “It was a brutal time because we were hard people, and we wouldn’t put up with any shit, but we didn’t have anything to back it up with but bravado,” Blum said. “New York didn’t give two shits about LA.”
A breakthrough came in July of 1995, when they gave the first American solo show to an artist named Yoshitomo Nara, who had support in Tokyo, but at the time was completely unknown in the US. He was an artist who Blum had become passionate about while in Tokyo, drawn to his playful depictions of kids embracing their budding punk-rock sociopathy, which was all filtered through Nara’s obsession with H.R. Penck and Walt Disney.
Most collectors simply did not get it.
“We had to actually educate people,” Poe said. “Some curators and collectors understood, but there was an enormous amount of resistance towards us, and we were looked at like fucking idiots. I’m not kidding. We were completely dismissed by everyone. Not only our peers, but also older established New York and European galleries. It was hard. But we stuck with it.”
Last year, Sotheby’s sold a Nara painting for $25 million.
1999 was the year that “something broke,” as Blum put it. At the start of the decade, he had met an artist named Takashi Murakami who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. They stayed in touch, and after dipping his toe in the New York gallery scene (with shows at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Feature, Inc.) Blum and Poe convinced him in 1997 to give the then-struggling LA a shot. While there was little to no attention from local tastemakers, the gallery doubled down on Murakami. When Blum & Poe scored a Statements booth at Art Basel in 1999, it decided to show the art world cognoscenti even more of the Japanese artist, who was associated with the “Superflat” movement.
Once again, the world wasn’t ready.
“There were a lot of guffaws and chuckles and chortles and snorts about that whole show,” Blum said.
And yet a few collectors bought work from the stand—enough to convince the two young dealers that they were doing something right. Don and Mera Rubell, the software pioneer Peter Norton, and the late management consultant David Tieger were all early supporters.
“Murakami was ushering in a whole new aesthetic, which had its roots in pop, but it also and it had its roots in a whole deep Japanese history that people had to be educated on,” Poe said.
The duo now had some confidence and a little money in the coffers—and they immediately tried to bet it all. They wanted to leave Santa Monica, and they wanted a bigger space to stage more ambitious shows, so they looked around for a building to buy. The natural choice was Chinatown, where a cluster of galleries had settled, but instead of following the crowd they opted to go off on their own. While driving around on New Year’s Day Poe came across a large building in an otherwise not-so-happening stretch of La Cienega.
“When we opened up in 5,000 feet in 2003, it was like fucking huge statement for a young gallery to make,” Blum said. “It was a hard run, we were fucking broke forever.”
The two took salaries of just $1,500 a month for years, but the bet paid off. And, soon, other galleries followed. Dealers Javier Peres and David Kordansky moved their spaces to Culver City and, by 2007, the New York Times was parachuting in to talk about how the art kids in La La Land were gallery hopping in Culver City and then hanging at the Mandrake, a bar next to Blum & Poe.
But more than just a cool scene, it also marked the arrival of some serious business. The spaces were big, the dealers were ambitious, and suddenly there was a place in Los Angeles to show international artists who were selling for higher and higher prices.
As dealer Joel Mesler put it in an era-recapping essay for ARTnews, “Suddenly everyone wanted to be in Culver City, and Chinatown regressed by about 10 years overnight.”
The shows Blum and Poe were staging as they approached their 15th year of the gallery displayed a keen eye toward the market, albeit one that never strayed from the vision that guided their choices. In addition to the budding superstars from Japan—Nara and Murakami, but also Tatzu Nishi and the Superflat artist Chiho Aoshima—and their longtime LA artists—Dave Muller, Matt Johnson, Sam Durant—there was a young man named Mark Grotjahn, who used to just hang out in the gallery and check out shows without ever letting on that he was making his own work.
In 2001, Grotjahn started flipping his canvases vertically, with colorful lines coming out of the center in thrilling, robust thrusts. These were the first fully realized works in his now famous “Butterfly” series, many of which were shown at the Santa Monica Blum & Poe space in 2002, and then again at the La Cienega gallery in 2005
By 2007, the Butterfly paintings were selling for more than $900,000 at auction, making the young artist a human embodiment of the fast-rising LA art scene and market.
Grotjahn is now one of the most sought-after painters on Earth, with the world’s top collectors at each other’s throats to get their hands on his primary market work. Because of this, Grotjahn often deals with his collectors directly, rather than through dealers—Blum and Poe included. And yet there is a staggering, menacingly colored Grotjahn painting Untitled (Dragonfly No. 6 Face 48.98) (2017) currently hanging in the Blum & Poe show in Los Angeles. The painting is arguably the most significant work shown anywhere at all during Frieze Week, simply because no large-scale “Dragonfly” works from 2017 have ever been seen before—they all went straight to private homes, without being shown by one of Grotjahn’s galleries, which include Gagosian and Anton Kern.
And on the secondary market, Grotjahn’s works have sold for $16.8 million at auction and apparently for as much as $25 million privately. When asked about Grotjahn, Poe said, “I wanna go to the unicorn store all the time, that’s just not the way it works though.”
As success came for Blum & Poe, in 2009 they once again decided to bet the lot and expand to a new building across the street at 2727 La Cienega—a space more than four times the size of their current building, spread across an acre of land.
“It was another all-in move,” Poe said. “It was tough; we didn’t take a paycheck for over a year, because we had staff.”
The opening in October 2009 was such a to-do that Artforum called it a “shock-and-awe affair” and gave the dealers credit for revitalizing the entire scene. The collector Alan Power called the new gallery “MOCA West.”
“This was like a thunderclap, it was a major announcement, as we were still considered a young gallery,” Blum said. “It really changed the game.”
The new space was such a hit that Blum had to admit, reluctantly, that it might have influenced the gigantic spaces that European galleries would go on to establish in LA over the next few years. Spruth Magers opened its first American gallery across from the LA County Museum of Art in 2015 and, the next year, Hauser & Wirth opened an entire complex in the downtown arts district.
Two years later, Frieze confirmed rumors that another edition of its fair-in-a-tent would grace the grounds of Paramount Pictures Studios. Despite initial skepticism from Blum and Poe—“We were convinced it would never work, it’s just too far-flung of a city,” Blum said—the first two editions have been pretty much embraced by everyone.
LA might be ready for its closeup, but the attention comes at a time when Blum & Poe’s influence has gone global. Look no further than Murakami, who last year left Blum and Poe soon after having a show at the Beverly Hills outpost of Gagosian.
And the Upper East Side townhouse home to Blum & Poe New York is a vital part of that neighborhood’s scene. Take the September 2019 opening for Henry Taylor, which the gallery now co-represents with Hauser & Wirth, which no doubt has global plans for an artist who was the out-and-out star of the 2019 Venice Biennale. At the opening, not only did Taylor bring out a who’s who of the city’s artists, but Kehinde Wiley was there painting on the walls— “Kehinde, tell your boy Barack to get at me!” Taylor shouted in Wiley’s ear—as Metropolitan Museum of Art director Max Hollein walked around with a smile plastered on his face, no doubt wishing he could acquire work from Blum & Poe to add to the collection of the country’s greatest art museum.
As my conversation with Blum and Poe wound down, we realized how much we actually hadn’t discussed. They are doing thrilling things with the estate of Robert Colescott, a deeply important artist just now finding success at auction. In recent years they’ve devoted shows to the Japanese Mono ha movement and staged a deeply academic and universally acclaimed survey of the postwar European movement Cobra… while also giving the gallery over to Kanye West, who installed a sculpture of 12 celebrities done up in silicone inspired by his song “Famous.”
And then we circled back to how it all started, at a small Santa Monica space that they’ve carried with them over the years. Like, actually, they took the space with them—one room in the gargantuan La Cienega gallery is the exact same specifications as that weird space in the row of beachside office buildings.
“We really had a rough go at the beginning,” Blum said. “But hook or by crook, we are very authentic. There’s no script.”
Would they ever imagine that they would be here, 25 years later—a citadel in the middle of a global capital, one of the biggest galleries in one of the world’s biggest art market towns?
This happened at the exact same time: “Yeah I did,” said Blum, and Poe said, “No, I for sure didn’t.”