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Hot Spot

Photo by Anne Fishbein

So what exactly do art dealers do, anyway? Work weekends, for one thing. Tim Blum and Jeff Poe were already into the daily business of running the Blum & Poe gallery on a recent Saturday morning. As an assistant busily sawed away at some wood outside the back entrance, Blum chatted with a collector before German artist Florian Maier-Aichen’s large digital landscapes. Poe, meanwhile, was at one of the computers instructing another assistant while yet another assistant watched. I asked for a cup of coffee, but after we went to the back office to discover no joe, Poe offered me tequila or beer from the fridge. When I miraculously declined, he playfully barked at another staffer to fetch us some espressos and pick up a bag of coffee. All four assistants now had tasks.

Both Blum and Poe looked as though they could probably use a cup of coffee themselves. Blum, with his dark tousled curls and a week’s worth of stubble, was wearing flip-flops; Poe, equally scruffy, wore his usual untucked white button-down shirt with jeans and worn-in leather sandals. Of course, they were worn-in Italian leather sandals. He kicked them off for my inspection, then said, smirking, "You probably can’t afford them — I got them at Barney’s." For Blum and Poe, dishevelment comes at a price, and it says a lot about their nascent success.

Blum & Poe gallery just might be the most happening art space around, but few in L.A. seem to know it. Until recently, they had a relatively low profile, tucked away in an alley in Santa Monica off Broadway. But their relocation to sleepy Culver City a year ago ironically put them in the limelight, as numerous other galleries followed their lead to create a thriving new complex there.

Why Culver City? Was it a strategic move? Not necessarily. The gallerists, who’d been in and out of escrow on two other locations already, had been desperate to move for more than a year. On New Year’s Day of last year, said Poe, "I got in my car and just drove — forgot about Hollywood, forgot about downtown. It was like, fuck this. I saw this space [on La Cienega between Washington and Venice], called the landlord on the 2nd, and by the first of February we had signed the lease." As soon as Blum & Poe moved in, the scene followed. Anna Helwing is just next door; Sandroni Rey, her neighbor. A block down is newcomer Lizabeth Oliveria Gallery, and about two blocks away on Washington is the Suzanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects. New in the trendy neighborhood are Western Projects and two New York galleries, the Project and Brooklyn’s artist-run Champion Fine Art.

But location isn’t everything, in spite of its reputation to the contrary. In fact, Blum and Poe’s sights were set far beyond Los Angeles. "When the gallery opened," said Poe, "it was always this idea that we were going to push internationally, that it wasn’t just going to be about L.A. It doesn’t have to be this provincial local trip."

Although both are native Southern Californians, they climbed their art-career ladders on opposite sides of the Pacific. Blum, 39, holds a political philosophy degree from UCLA. Poe, 43, is more the rebel. He attended film school in San Francisco, then became a local rocker playing with the Blue Daisies and the Blissed Out Fatalists. "We were a disaster," he admitted. That would be in the late ’80s when Blum and Poe were still strangers and their six degrees of separation were closing in. Poe knew Blum’s wife, Maria, in the art circuit where he was skipping around from being in the fabrication biz through Fred Hoffman Gallery, then working with the auctions through the Robert Berman Gallery, finally ending up as art director for the Kim Light Gallery on La Brea.

Meanwhile, Blum, who’d always had a fascination with Eastern culture and speaks fluent Japanese, was flying back and forth to Tokyo, where he had friends. He wound up moving in 1990 and spent four years there, running a gallery with a partner and operating a private museum. "It was an amazing time," said Blum. "That was back when everybody was fearful of this rising power in the East, like when the Japanese were coming to America and buying all this property, and paying inflated prices at art auctions. It was the bubble economy."

Blum and Poe had discussed the possibility of one day teaming up with their own gallery. Through the years, they kept in touch — and kept a keen eye on the art scene. The opportunity came with the closing of the Kim Light Gallery. Poe picked up the phone and called Blum and asked if he was ready to come home and start a gallery together. Blum responded, "Yeah, why the fuck not."

And so Blum & Poe was born in Santa Monica one month later in September 1994. "When we opened the gallery, it was this idea that [Tim] was coming from Japan and I was here in L.A.," said Poe. "Working for Kim had allowed me to go to Europe, see this international presence — in terms of an art fair and in terms of how business was run — and to think, wait a minute, it could be international." British artist Anya Gallaccio got their first show, followed by the Japanese pop-artist Takashi Murakami and then his countryman Yoshitomo Nara.

And that’s where the success lies for Blum & Poe: The former has the Eastern hemisphere covered, and the latter the European front. It’s a revolutionary way of dealing art in America. Dealers don’t wait for the buyer to show up at their gallery door. "This is the big difference in the art world in the last seven years. Not only do people come to us, but we go to them. We literally travel, and we go to museum shows and art fairs," Poe said.

Blum stresses the importance of the fairs. "They’ve been critical to the success of our gallery. It’s very difficult to get in them. There’s only four galleries from L.A. that participate in Basel, Switzerland. In the beginning, it took all our money to go to these fairs."

The young dealers adopted this dedicated all-or-nothing approach with their artists as well. "All these artists, by and large, we have taken and developed over many, many, many, many years," said Blum. "We went through years of drought, when no one gave a shit, nobody understood it, nobody gave a fuck. And it wasn’t about having a gallery where you’re waiting for such and such an artist to become known, and then you go, ‘We should show them.’ This is why we’ve been successful. We committed to it, and we stuck with it because we believed in it, and we kept doing it and doing it, pounding at it. And it worked out."

Take the superstar Murakami, whom Blum knew as a student in Japan. He and Poe showed him first, and Murakami has been with them ever since. He’s been called the Japanese Andy Warhol, with his 60 or so assistants, and he’s done very, very well. "Murakami’s sculptures, editions of three, sold for $25,000 each," Blum exclaimed, sounding as if even he can’t believe it. "They were selling at auction houses for $560,000. Do you know what that means? We just had a $6 million show!"

And it’s not like the gallery is hurting with the rest of its lineup, which includes such high-profile names as Sharon Lockhart, Sam Durant, Bruce Yonemoto, Mark Grotjahn, Jennifer Bornstein and Dave Muller (currently showing through December 4). Out of 22 artists, 10 are from foreign countries, and most show in the prestigious biennials — the Whitney and Venice. "And now," said Blum, "we’re in a position where we can do it again. We have a group of 30-year-olds, and they’re all wildly in demand and wildly successful." Time will tell, of course, but a betting woman would not doubt these two.

So who needs Culver City? Apparently not Blum & Poe. But their neighbors are happy to have them around. It’s a tight little community. And when Truman, Anna Helwing’s Chihuahua, pops by Blum & Poe, they might not have a bowl of water to offer, but they’re sure to have a shot of tequila.

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