By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
“Take the other shit away, the mind-fucking and all that, and he’s fascinating,” says Roger Herman. “Of course he’s crazy, but he has an interesting criminal mind, and I used to see a lot of him. We both like Hong Kong action films, so he used to take me to movies or Thai boxing matches, or we’d have lunch at some Vietnamese dive. He knows a lot about food and is obsessed with the health properties of food. He thinks it’s bad to eat garlic and onion together, for instance, because that combination is too earth-oriented and inhibits your ability to generate alpha waves, which govern creativity. He’s compulsive about germs and thinks it’s bad to read newspapers because it’s too much information, and it bothers his eyes to read from left to right — he thinks we should read from top to bottom. Sometimes I’d be listening to him talk and I’d think, my god, he’s out of his mind!”
Mallinson never found Chrismas endearingly eccentric, but concedes, “He’s chosen some very good art along the way and had some wonderful shows, so I guess you could say he’s been a positive force in the city.”
Doug Wheeler also regards his experience with Chrismas as too complex to summarize as good or bad. “Despite everything, I kind of like the guy,” Wheeler says with a laugh. “He really loves art, and there aren’t many dealers I say that about. Doug was genuinely turned on by the work I was making, and I think he’s oblivious to the fact that he made decisions that hurt my career. It amazes me he’s still in the game, though, because so many artists have been screwed by him. When I was working with him, I had no idea how he financed his operation, and to this day I don’t know how he does it.”
Why Chrismas does what he does is as mysterious as how he does it. What’s motivating him? Nobody knows for sure, but everyone agrees it’s not money.
“Doug doesn’t live lavishly,” says James Hayward. “I’ve never been to his house — nobody I know has — and I have no idea where he lives. Years ago I drove him to a weird little rundown apartment in Hollywood so he could walk his dog. I don’t know if it was a place he used as a kennel for his dog or it was where he lived, but it wasn’t much.”
Roger Herman concurs. “Doug derives his pleasure from power not money, and aspires to be someone like Tom Krens, who runs the Guggenheim. Doug does museum-scale shows, but he could never work at a museum because he’s incapable of working with people, and he despises curators.”
Mallinson sees something else at work. “I think there’s a big ego operating there that overpowers everything that man does. I never had the sense he had an undying love of art, and looking back on it, I don’t know why he took me on, because my aesthetic isn’t in sync with his. It occurred to me that the only reason he wanted to represent me was because Rosamund was interested.” (Felsen declined to comment.)
Elizabeth Dunbar was working at the Whitney Museum prior to moving to L.A. in 2000 to work for Chrismas, and she agrees with Mallinson. “He’s a selfish, narcissistic man with an enormous ego, and it was all about perception and image with him,” says Dunbar, who’s now chief curator of the Ulrich Museum of Art in Wichita. “If important collectors came from out of town, he’d rent a BMW rather than take them around in the Jeep he usually drives, and he was always making empty promises about building a library and publishing catalogs, none of which will ever happen.”
Chrismas’ life outside his galleries is something people really don’t know about. The general assumption is that he lives somewhere in one of his galleries, but nobody seems to know for sure. His most recent bankruptcy filing lists his address as 6230 Wilshire Boulevard, but that’s a postal service in a strip mall. For the past decade he’s kept company with Jennifer Kellen, a senior staff assistant in the education department of the Getty Museum, but he’s never married or had children.
“Doug’s pretty much a loner,” says Herman. “I always thought he and I were close, but I learned that we are not, and that I was naive to think we were. He once said to me, ‘To the straights I’m straight, and to the gays I’m gay,’ but I don’t think he has any real friends. He certainly always treated his staff pretty bad.”
Elizabeth Dunbar — who quit Ace after six months — will testify to that. “He’s a monster. I saw him berate his receptionists until he’d reduced them to tears repeatedly, and although he keeps the finances of the gallery a secret, I heard the rumblings from artists who weren’t getting paid. We often weren’t able to cash our paychecks, but there was never an apology — you were expected to accept it as part of the territory. He was a total cheapskate, too. You’d have to clock out and take your 30-minute lunch, you couldn’t work overtime, he hires day laborers with no art experience to do prep work for exhibitions, and pays them the minimum he can get by with.”
This article made my blood run cold. This is not ancient history. Douglas Chrismas and Jennifer Kellen are still committing crimes and destroying lives. How do they survive? By conning people.
thank you for the article. Sad that the art world is caught up in so much drama - I suppose it would not matter if it were not for the fact that people really do get hurt in the process. Art, such an important component to our culture and our existance yet fraught with so many mental cases...
in any event, keep up the good investigative journalism.
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