All contemporary art dealers have to make peace with a certain level of risk, but for artist/publisher/framer/photography dealer Stefan Kirkeby, risk is a co-pilot, if you will, on a really amazing ride. When he wasn’t surfing with Sam Francis’s family in Hawaii and Japan as a teen (Kirkeby’s mother is an esteemed San Francisco art dealer), or taking photographs around the world (including Perestroika Russia in 1990), he was making a string of don’t-look-back decisions. “The core of risk is a sense of human interest and curiosity – of not leaving a thought undone. My mother and father would say: ‘Don’t become an artist – I’ll break both your arms and legs.’ That’s the worst thing you can say to me, because I’ll want to do it.”
Kirkeby, 52, will be the first to admit that his parents’ lives take the prize for most interesting. His Danish-born dad was a teen resistance fighter in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. As an adult, he became a scientist who engineered components used to split the atom. His mom has owned Smith Andersen Gallery in San Francisco since in 1969. Both parents (despite their injunction) encouraged Kirkeby to follow his photographic passions. His mother bought him prints by the likes of Jerry Uelsmann and Berenice Abbott as birthday presents. His father bought him numerous Rolleiflex cameras and rolls of film. After he learned to convert closets and bathrooms at home into darkrooms, Kirkeby became a lifelong photographer, often focusing on man-made interventions in the local landscape (power lines, handball courts) á la the New Topographics photographers. After high school, Kirkeby found numerous ways (manual labor, food service, surf shops) to support his photography, as well as his college studies, which he eventually completed at UC Santa Cruz, with a BA in anthropology.
At 26, fed up with surfer culture, Kirkeby pulled up roots and decamped to Europe, landing an ostensibly temporary job at Denmark’s Louisiana Museum, where he stayed for ten years, under the mentorship of legendary director Knud Jensen. He traveled the globe, overseeing exhibitions by such contemporary artists as Cindy Sherman, Lewis Baltz, William Eggleston, and Jeff Wall.
A decade later, burnt out but better for it, Kirkeby made another hard decision – to come home. “It was a big risk,” he says. “I had such a good job. But all of a sudden I had 10 years of knowledge of the international art world, and I returned to a San Francisco that was home to so many of the top art collectors.” Among Kirkeby’s main projects since then: organizing more than 25 shows of artists from the Golden Decade (1945-55) at his gallery Smith Andersen North, which he’s run since 1996; framing for most of the major San Francisco collections; publishing in copper plate photogravure for Nobuyoshi Araki, Daido Moriyama, and Malick Sidibé; and last but not least, opening a new contemporary art gallery in San Francisco’s new Minnesota Street Project space with former Stephen Wirtz gallery director Julie Casemore. Casemore/Kirkeby, which is scheduled to open in March, is not something Kirkeby regards as a risk. “It’s like the culmination of all my roots,” he says. “I just walked into a new life. And that is exactly what I want.”