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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.