Working in an art gallery without being tempted to buy art is akin to working in a chocolate factory and never getting a sweet tooth. As gallerists develop relationships with artists and travel the world to see and sell art, they often become major collectors in their own right. Their appetites become more voracious as they solidify their places in the industry and their wallets (and wall space) expand. On the whole, gallerists purchase with a unique passion and verve, supporting their art community with their own capital.
Art is pricier than bonbons, of course, and anyone who wants to advance in the art world faces significant structural barriers. It’s no surprise that many of the gallerists below developed a love of art early on, often from relatives and family already deeply immersed in the nuances of selling and collecting art.
Yet no matter their backgrounds, the following gallerists all share a belief that collecting is a lifelong journey, and living with art is an undeniably enriching experience. In recent months, as galleries have shuttered around the world due to COVID-19, personal collections have offered some dealers their only opportunities to experience art in real life.
Principal, Jenkins Johnson Gallery
“The artist’s needs must come first,” said Karen Jenkins-Johnson, when asked about the unique responsibilities of simultaneously collecting and representing artists. In the past, she’s given up the opportunity to own work by a gallery artist so that an esteemed institution could buy it. In 2018, Jenkins-Johnson mounted a solo exhibition of work by Deborah Roberts and put a reserve on a mixed-media collage titled Baldwin’s Promise (2017). But she relinquished her family collection’s claim on the piece when the Pérez Art Museum Miami expressed interest in acquiring it. “It has since become one of her seminal works,” said Jenkins-Johnson.
The gallerist has always had an intimate, supportive relationship with the artists she collects. At 26 years old, she bought her first artwork: a piece by conceptual artist Andrea Smith, who was her neighbor in Maui, Hawaii. The Jenkins Johnson Collection now focuses on emerging and mid-career artists of the African diaspora, with the gallery occasionally serving as an appraisal site. Jenkins-Johnson recounted how a terminally ill woman once walked in with a beloved 1982 Romare Bearden collage, Tidings, which she’d bought for $2,120 at an early exhibition. After the woman died, her partner contacted the gallery, and Jenkins-Johnson bought the work for her own collection at market value.
Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times (1997) or School of Beauty, School of Culture (2012). “They both represent positive images of Black life. Timeless paintings!”