The Ace is Wild 

The Doug Chrismas story

Thursday, Oct 9 2003
Chrismas photo by
Bonnie Schiffman

One of the great mysteries of the art world is how Doug Chrismas keeps on doing what he does. As director of Ace Institute of Contemporary Art, he’s provided a home for some of the world’s most demanding art since 1966. That makes Ace the longest-running gallery in town. Chrismas has the biggest gallery, too. Since 1986, Ace has occupied the entire second floor of the Desmond’s Department Store building, a grand old Art Deco structure that fills an entire block of Wilshire Boulevard’s Miracle Mile. Inside, Ace has 30,000 feet of vast, cavernous gallery space worthy of Albert Speer.

In 1990, Chrismas opened Ace/New York, and that gallery is housed in the former Longshoreman’s hiring hall, a mammoth building measuring 20,000 square feet. Two years ago, Chrismas took out a 10-year lease on a former bank building in Beverly Hills, and in May he unveiled a second L.A./Ace there with a show of gigantic canvases by the late Sam Francis. This new gallery provides Ace with 17,000 additional feet, but it’s not big enough for Chrismas. He’s now working with Frank Gehry on a redesign that will expand the gallery and add a suite of condominiums on top of it. There’s an Ace curatorial office in Berlin, too, and in 1998 Chrismas launched Ace/Mexico City. (That space suspended its exhibitions program a year ago, but he plans to maintain an office there.) All told, Chrismas has 67,000 square feet of gallery space. A football field is 57,600 square feet.

Chrismas’ galleries aren’t just big, they’re beautiful. “Everyone is always bowled over by Doug’s great sense of theater and presentation,” says artist and gallerist Cliff Benjamin. “It’s like entering the Vatican when you walk into one of his galleries — you can’t help but say wow.”

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“Wow” doesn’t come cheap. The rent on the Desmond’s building space alone is $39,811.50 per month, plus $42,000 per year for an additional space Chrismas rents on the 11th floor. Given the size and location of his other galleries, one assumes those rents must be comparable, which raises the obvious question: How on earth does he pay for it all?

A trip to L.A.’s Hall of Records suggests that paying his bills has never been easy for Chrismas. Going through court archives dating back only to 1976 turns up documentation for more than 55 lawsuits brought against him. He’s been sued by artists, dealers, collectors, private investors, service industries, landlords and former friends. He’s been sued under three different spellings of his surname and nine different business names — and this is just in L.A.

Richard Serra’s Delineator
at Ace/Venice, 1975

The subject of dozens of rumors alleging that he stiffs artists, has produced and sold unauthorized fabrications of sculptures, poaches artists from other dealers, and occasionally sells artworks that he fails to deliver to the buyer, Chrismas has become something of a local legend, partly because nobody really seems to know much about him. He’s a secretive man who flatly declares, “I don’t do interviews,” when contacted about the possibility of a profile. When several weeks pass and Chrismas learns the article is proceeding without his participation, he instructs his artists not to cooperate. He then begins calling regularly with various strategies conceived to kill or at least stall the article. He first attempts to make the case that he’s of no interest, then promises a scoop sometime in the future.
When neither approach bears fruit, he finally agrees to a breakfast meeting at a
mid-Wilshire café.

Like most good businessmen, Chrismas plays things close to the vest. It’s difficult to get direct answers out of him, and he often responds to questions by scribbling incomprehensible diagrams and floor plans on scraps of paper. He seems nervous — he barely touches the bowl of fruit he orders — and admits as much. “My staff is paranoid about this article, because we run on a very thin wire,” says Chrismas, who’s somehow managed to be a prominent art dealer for 40 years without ever having been the subject of a profile. “The artists are upset, too, because they think it will cost them.” It doesn’t seem to occur to Chrismas to ask himself why a legitimate businessman should be horrified at the prospect of free publicity.

At 59, Chrismas is beginning to thicken at the waist, but he’s still youthful for his age. He dimples sweetly when he smiles, and it’s easy to imagine what he must’ve looked like as a child. Though his hairline receded ages ago, he keeps the gray hair he still has closely cropped and sleek, and his personal style is in keeping with the aesthetic of his galleries: He tends to wear simple clothes in dark colors. He’s not unaware of his reputation, and when I recount one rumor circulating about him — that artist Richard Serra had to pull a gun on him to get him to pay a fabricator he’d hired on a Serra project — he says the story is untrue, but looks amused and rather pleased.

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