Overheard outside of Alexander Salazar Fine Art: “Alexander Salazar is really nice. If you met him on the street, you'd have no idea what he does.”
The man was on his cell phone. He was grinning and speaking quickly and excitedly—like a schoolgirl with a crush. He was part of a group of people that had gathered on the sidewalk to watch Salazar answer questions for a television news crew.
The sentiment behind that snippet of conversation seems pretty common for those who meet Salazar. He isn't exactly what one might envision when they conjure up the image of an art dealer. For one thing, at age 37, he could probably pass for 25. His almost shoulder-length hair and tan skin look like they might belong to someone who spends his days on a surfboard. He's down-to-earth, approachable and ridiculously friendly. At his openings, he spends as much time socializing with the teens and pre-teens that seem to flock to his gatherings as he does chatting-up potential buyers and the media.
On a typical weekday, Salazar can be found in the gallery's office, making calls, chatting with gallery patrons and working with his interns, Meg Bradford, an SDSU student, and Alex Thomas, a City College photography student. The diplomas on the wall in his office—master's degrees from Boston College in sociology and art history and from Harvard in theological studies and art history—provide a layer of serious credibility to the gallery, where Salazar seems to breeze through the brokering of everything from a Picasso to a Warhol to a Banksy.
Yet, when Salazar steps out of his office, his sweet disposition makes it seem like he'd be better suited as your favorite schoolteacher and not a high-end art gallery owner. In fact, Salazar did serve some time in schools. In Houston in 2001 to 2002, he taught English as a second language, U.S. history, English and photography for a group called the Association of Advancement of Mexican Americans. From 1997 to 1998, he was associate director of a program for at-risk middle-school students. Before that, he worked for a math and science immersion program for minorities at an elite private boarding school. He even did a stint as a middle-school counselor.
“I miss being around kids,” he says. Salazar still has a soft spot for children. At his last opening, he donated 15 percent of sales to San Diego Youth Services, a nonprofit offering critical services and programs to children and young adults throughout the county. And in the six short months the gallery has been open, Salazar and his artists have donated to a long list of other kid-friendly charities and nonprofits in town.
“I think it's something I learned as far as good business practice—to always give back,” he says. “And, over the years, I've seen the more you give back, the more you get.”
But underneath Salazar's persona (he often says “I love you” to people he barely knows), is a serious art dealer who'll drop F-bombs when necessary and go head-to-head with big-time art folks. Salazar worked at Madison Gallery, a high-end La Jolla shop, for nearly a decade. By March of this year, he'd finally decided to strike out on his own, but he didn't want to stay in familiar stomping grounds; nor did he want to stick to the methods of a traditional gallery.
“I like being Downtown,” Salazar says, squinting into the afternoon sun beaming into his glass-encased new gallery at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Broadway. “The guy who was just in here is homeless, and he just wanted to look at some art. I really like being down here. It's cool.”
Because of his time served in La Jolla, Salazar has a long list of art-buying clients and connections to some big international names—a combo that can make for an easy sell. But, lately, he's been challenging himself to strike deals with San Diego artists and introduce new art to his longtime clients.
In the last few weeks, Salazar started representing Andrea Rushing, a painter who specializes in large-scale realism; Dan Camp,
a portraitist who does a mix of illustrative and abstract oils; and Michael Amorillo, an urban artist whose paintings are a mix of graffiti and bright, bold graphics.
It's hard to pinpoint Salazar's personal taste in art, because his exhibitions have yet to show a clear preference for any one style. If you walked into his gallery during the first two weeks of August, you were greeted by a room filled with traditional, fine-art sculpture by Fred Briscoe (another local Salazar now represents). But on a wall in the back by Salazar's desk and on a tiny sliver of wall in the front of the gallery, graffiti-inspired canvas prints by local artist Skem One (yep, Salazar represents him, too) gave you a sense of the gallery's broader range.
When Salazar isn't busy sniffing out local talent, he's figuring out ways to get his gallery noticed. In September, which has been dubbed San Diego Arts Month by numerous local arts organizations, he'll put on an alternative art fair, showcasing local artists who either don't have representation or whose regular galleries couldn't afford booths ($2,000 to more than $5,000) at the Art San Diego Contemporary Art Fair, which will happen at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront the first weekend of September. Salazar's fair, dubbed EASEL: San Diego Art (af)FAIR, costs $50 per work for the artists and will be held Sept. 1 through 7 in a vacant building just down the street from his gallery.
“I wanted to help local artists who wanted the fair experience, you know, but couldn't,” Salazar says. “The EASEL fair is about a group of artists coming together to collaborate on a show under one roof without the prejudice of qualifying…. This is my neighborhood, and I want to invest in my own neighborhood,” says Salazar, who lives a block away from the gallery.
Salazar is a nice guy, but his ultimate goal is to sell art.
Since opening the doors to his new gallery, a steady stream of artists have either walked into the gallery or submitted their work via e-mail. “I look at all of them,” he says. “I give everybody the time they deserve; if they take the time to come into my gallery, I take the time to talk to them.”
But, eventually, he gets down to business. “I am a selling gallery, and I only carry artists I can sell,” he says. “I am a business. I'm trying to make sure the artists get paid and we both make money because that's what I'm in it for. Art is a business.”