Over the past 15 years, Los Angeles–based dealer François Ghebaly has established himself as a major player. He represents some of today’s most important artists, from Farah Al Qasimi to Candice Lin; expanded to New York two years ago; and opened a second LA space earlier this month. Even still, he never considered pursuing a career in art until he moved to LA in the mid-2000s, when he was in his early 20s.
Ghebaly grew up in Saint-Louis, France, on the other side of the French-Swiss border from Basel. Growing up in a suburb of Basel, Ghebaly regularly took advantage of the “world-class culture” the city had to offer, from its esteemed museums and musical offerings to Art Basel, the marquee art fair that has taken place there since 1970.
“I had a business degree by default because it’s something that runs in the family—I had a job waiting for me in a bank in Switzerland,” Ghebaly said. “No one in my family was connected to the art business, so it was not the kind of business I thought I could do.”
Shortly after landing in LA, Ghebaly started working at the Brewery Art Colony, a former 16-acre Edison power plant in the city’s Lincoln Heights neighborhood that was converted into artist lofts in the 1980s. “I very quickly ended up being surrounded by a fascinating community of artists, some of whom became my dear friends. The community that I came across in LA was so fascinating that I wanted to apply my skills in business for artists,” he said.
In 2006, Mihai Nicodim, who had also recently arrived to LA from Europe, opened up his own gallery, then called Kontainer Gallery, in Chinatown, and one of his first hires was Ghebaly, as an intern. By his third month on the job, Ghebaly was a director.
“I’ll always be indebted to Mihai for giving me that first shot,” Ghebaly said. “It took another European expatriate to give me a chance.”
“I could tell he was very ambitious—it was clear he going to have his own gallery,” Nicodim told ARTnews recently. “He has a very good eye. Very early on, he developed a very strong conceptual program. I think he’s done something special, which must have been even harder because LA back then, 15 years ago, was very provisional.”
Around this time, Ghebaly was working on his own curatorial projects, and by 2008, he was ready to venture out on his own. At the time, some people told him that his gallery wouldn’t last three months. “I think probably they were right,” Ghebaly deadpanned, before adding, “I was way in over my head and it’s a hard, expensive business to run on. I had no money, but somehow, I’ve been able to pull through and build something.”
What Ghebaly has managed to build over the past 15 years is one of the most closely watched gallery programs in the country. Among the major artists he represents are Kelly Akashi, Genesis Belanger, Neïl Beloufa, Meriem Bennani, Sayre Gomez, Rindon Johnson, Maia Ruth Lee, Kathleen Ryan, and Christine Sun Kim, whom Ghebaly, pointing to the scope of the program in general, described as “one of these artists who has changed the way we look at the world.”
He continued, “I fundamentally believe that the world is a complex place, with a lot of different and mechanisms that we don’t always fully understand, so the program is sort of a way for me to understand this dynamic world. I learn a lot from my artists. Each artist brings a different window and point of view. They are very engaged in art history, different types of politics and histories. I think that’s fundamental to what art is—what good art is.”
But since almost the beginning, it would have seemed to a casual observer that Ghebaly was clearly going places. An early show, in 2009, the first with his name on the door, was for Beloufa, whom Ghebaly has represented ever since. That exhibition was widely praised by critics.
“No one had heard of him—I was no one,” Ghebaly said. “People were like, What’s going on here? And from that show, Neïl went on to have the great career that he has now.” Beloufa has since had solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art, the Palais de Tokyo, and other internationally renowned institutions.
Another important moment for the gallery came in 2013, when three artists Ghebaly represents—Beloufa, Channa Horwitz, and Andra Ursuta (co-represented with Ramekin Crucible at the time)—were included in that year’s Venice Biennale, organized by Massimiliano Gioni. “The gallery was four years old then, so that was an amazing moment for us,” Ghebaly said. That year, the gallery also moved to its current space in Downtown LA.
He added, “I’ve been part of this development of LA in a way, and maybe even symptom of it also, being a foreigner coming here and being attracted by the city.”
The expansion to New York two years ago came about via one of the gallery’s directors, Blaize Lehane, who is now a partner. Lehane had found an opportunity for it to set up shop in the Lower East Side.
“Los Angeles is still the mothership,” Ghebaly clarified, but with the New York space, he and Lehane “were interested in the idea of starting the New York location out similarly to how the gallery started in LA—a small, humble operation that gives artists the opportunity to do shows in a different way. There’s more freedom in a way when you have a smaller space.” Even still, Ghebaly said that the New York operations are growing, and the gallery is already considering moving to a larger space in the city.
The addition of a second LA space—a 3,000-square-foot exhibition space across town, just off Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood—comes from a keen observation of a trend going on in the larger art world, one that is specific to Los Angeles. New York and European galleries have been setting up LA branches, often in Hollywood, at a regular clip. Ghebaly said he wanted to stake a claim for LA-grown galleries like his own: “We can measure our program up to that of those galleries, and I think it’s important for us to be next to them in order to show that our artists and our programs is of that level.”
Ghebaly said he would have opened the second location elsewhere in the city if the space had been inspiring. “I have a bit of a real estate addiction, like many of us, so I am always looking a little bit out of curiosity.”
But with this second space, Ghebaly’s trajectory as a dealer is also coming full circle, as its inaugural show is by LA-based installation artist Patrick Jackson. In 2008, it was Jackson, fresh off finishing his MFA at USC, whom Ghebaly convinced to work on a show together. The two have never looked back.
“Because we grew up together—he started a gallery right when I finished grad school—we both had our blinders on. We’re just like, Let’s take everything we’ve got and throw it into the show. And he’d always say, ‘Yes, yes, yes,” Jackson recalled. “François’s core is really about supporting artists—installation art is obviously not the most sellable work.”
Jackson has had this exhibition, titled “Liquid Clay,” on the backburner for over a decade, waiting for the right space to show it. When Ghebaly officially got the space, he immediately asked Jackson if he would be interested in realizing the exhibition, as the inaugural show for the second LA space. Jackson agreed almost immediately. It’s all part of how Ghebaly wants to do business: “When I start representing an artist, the idea is to work with them long-term. It’s about building careers for the long haul. What defines the program is this real interest to go all the way with artists’ practices and make shows that are fearless, ambitious in scale, and pretty radical.”