When David Kordansky arrived in Los Angeles in 2000 to attend CalArts, he had an ambition to be a performance artist. But, like many eminent art gallerists who came before him, he discovered after earning his MFA that he was better at promoting artists than being one. In the 16 years since founding his eponymous gallery, he has played a key role in LA’s rise as a capital of the global art world. Today, in the midst of a huge expansion of his Mid-Wilshire space, Kordansky is poised to wield even more influence.
“If you were to follow the growth of the gallery, it really does align itself with the growth of the LA art world,” says Kordansky, who opened shop in 2003 at age 24 in what he describes as a “hole in the wall” in Chinatown. By contrast, he is now building a dazzling and unconventional compound suitable not only for multiple shows but also for performances, panel discussions and film screenings.
While many galleries have extended their reach with national and international satellites, Kordansky has chosen to double down in place with his LA-centric roster of artists, including painters Mary Weatherford and Jonas Wood. The respect he’s helped attain for the city’s art scene was no doubt a factor in Frieze’s decision to establish an LA edition of its art fair this past winter; Kordansky served on the committee of advising gallerists.
As his gallery has grown, Kordansky has taken on an intergenerational cross section of significant voices, among them visionary ceramicist Betty Woodman, who died last year at 87; acclaimed conceptualist Rashid Johnson, whose feature film directorial debut, Native Son, was just snapped up by HBO ahead of its Sundance premiere; and most recently, Lauren Halsey, winner of the 2019 Frieze Artist Award, a major commission for an emerging artist, which will be shown at Frieze New York this month. The dealer has also helped revive the careers of such overlooked African-American pioneers as abstract painter Sam Gilliam and Light and Space artist Fred Eversley.
“That was sort of a dream—to help refocus the conversation around Sam’s work,” says Kordansky. A painting by Gilliam achieved a new auction record for the artist when it broke $2 million at Christie’s New York last November.
The current gallery opened in 2014 and was designed by the LA-based architecture firm wHY, which repurposed a structure that, Kordansky notes with a laugh, had served as Jackie Chan’s stunt double’s martial arts training facility and before that, a queer pornography studio. “It’s a total LA story,” he says. The architects retained the original bow-truss ceilings in the two expansive gallery spaces and wrapped the site in a fractured ivy-covered wall that visitors have to circumnavigate to enter the building from the back, a distinctly LA touch.
wHY is also designing the expansion, renovating two separate buildings adjacent to the gallery and building out a third to create an intimate campus enclosing an outdoor courtyard for events and the exhibition of sculpture. When it’s completed this fall, Kordansky will gain more than 2,000 square feet of gallery space and 4,300 square feet of art storage. He envisions eclectic programming, letting artists curate shows and creating unexpected juxtapositions of exhibits.
At first glance, the 41-year-old dealer might seem an unlikely candidate for an art world power broker. He describes himself as “the only Jew born in Biloxi, Mississippi,” where his father was in the air force. The family moved to Hartford, Conn., for Kordansky’s formative years, during which he was most focused on skateboarding, music and alternative comics. At Hartford Art School he discovered performance art—“not so different than what I’m doing today,” he quips. “I finally found this thing I just lived and breathed.”
Reading about LA artists including Evan Holloway (whom Kordansky now represents), he felt drawn to California for grad school. “Before there was the Broad museum, before there was Hauser & Wirth and all these galleries moving here, there were the schools and a small community of artists that chose to teach there,” he says.
Kordansky opened the gallery as a six-month experiment after graduating, showing artists including his CalArts professor William E. Jones, Lesley Vance and Aaron Curry—all still in his program today. “None of these individuals had careers—just educations and a lot of potential,” says Kordansky.
He followed his gut and his eye. “I loved art then, and I still love art now,” he says. “We’re incredibly ambitious, but I’ve kind of winged this thing from day one. There’s no template.”