Embracing Artistic Risks

Mike Davis stands with a painting by Pat Steir from her recent exhibition, "Painted Rain," at Hauser & Wirth in West Hollywood Photo: Courtesy of Mike Davis

Mike Davis, who runs the West Hollywood art gallery of Hauser & Wirth, says UCI connections are critical to his success

By Greg Hardesty

Mike Davis considers himself a risk taker.

“And I owe that to my father,” says Davis, a studio art major (B.A. ’08) and now a senior director at the internationally recognized art gallery Hauser & Wirth.

On Valentine’s Day 2023, Davis, 39, opened Hauser & Wirth’s West Hollywood gallery, cementing him as a key player at one of the top names in the global contemporary and modern art gallery world.

Back when Davis was entering UC Irvine and mulling what to major in, the Mission Viejo native recalls a conversation with his father, Michael Robert Davis Sr.

“What do you love?” Davis’ father asked him.


“Then you should do it. Trust yourself.”

Recalls Davis Jr.: “My father inspired me to not take the normal path and to follow my heart.”

Key CTSA Connections

After he graduated from UCI, Davis worked for several months in the hospitality industry, unsure of what path to take.

“I always felt this pull back to the art world, and it never let me go,” he said. “I knew I wanted to do something in the arts, but I didn’t know what form it would take.”

When Davis was a student, three key UCI Department of Art faculty members — Kevin Appel, Monica Majoli and Mara Lonner — were critical to his eventual success as a creative leader in the art world, illustrating the power of students forging connections at the Claire Trevor School of the Arts.

“My relationships with UCI Art faculty totally changed the course of my life,” says Davis, who lives a short walk from the Hauser & Wirth gallery he helped open.

Room to Grow

At Santa Margarita Catholic High School, art class was always Davis’ favorite part of the day. With a mother and a sister who both played the violin, Davis grew up with what he calls “an openness to the arts.”

He was 7 when he got a Bob Ross oil painting kit. He would draw and paint family pets and objects around the house.

“I was very cognizant of dimensions and perspectives and things like that,” Davis recalls. “I loved it — it just felt easy for me.”

In high school, he knew he had talent, but he also realized he had a lot of room to grow as an artist.

A scholarship landed Davis at UCI.

Class Inspiration

Majoli, who remains a professor in the Department of Art at UCI, recalls Davis taking her advanced painting class when he was a senior.

“He was unusually stylish – he wore white jeans to work in the studio,” says Majoli. “His charm was as memorable as his wardrobe. His painting was less developed.”

Davis also took art classes from Appel, a professor and current department chair and executive director of University Art Galleries at the CTSA.

“His unwavering energy and dedication, not only to his own artistic growth, but also to the growth of his peers, was inspiring for our entire class,” Appel recalls.

His unwavering energy and dedication, not only to his own artistic growth but also to the growth of his peers, was inspiring for our entire class.

While working at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach after graduating, Davis reached out to Appel, who hired him as his studio assistant.

“He was the best I’ve had and hard to replace — and hilarious,” Appel says. “There was never a shortage of laughter. What struck me most was Mike’s sensitivity to my painting techniques. He understood my methods intuitively, becoming one of the very few people I trusted to work directly on my paintings.”

Image: Davis with Japanese contemporary artist Takash i Murakami in 20212
Photo: Courtesy of Mike Davis

‘Totally Floored’

After working with Appel, Lonner — a specialist in drawing, painting and 3D design who had Davis in many of her drawing classes when she was a lecturer at the CTSA — put him in touch with Mark Bradford, an acclaimed contemporary artist whose work Davis first saw when Lonner took him and other UCI students to an L.A. art show.

Davis recalls being “totally floored” by Bradford’s work and credits that experience to igniting his desire to learn everything he could about the business of art.

Bradford thought Davis would be a great fit at a gallery, rather than in his studio. Davis landed an internship at Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and after seven months there he got hired as an assistant to Tim Blum, co-founder of pioneering Culver City gallery Blum & Poe (renamed Blum last year).

Davis considers his time at Blum & Poe Gallery as his "grad school" where he learned everything about the creating, exhibiting, and buying and selling of modern and contemporary art.

After three years at Gagosian, Davis worked for seven years at Matthew Marks Gallery before joining Hauser & Wirth in October 2021.

All along, he’s kept up with his painting, switching from acrylic in large formats to watercolors in 2013. When he needs inspiration, he turns to a favorite subject: Kermit the Frog.

“You can really distort his face and it still looks like Kermit,” Davis explains. “He’s the perfect composition to paint when I’m not feeling it.”

Titans of Art

Lonner, who started teaching in UCI in 1995 and retired in 2017, says Davis possesses all the tools to succeed as a professional in the art gallery industry.

Image: One of Davis' watercolors of Kermit the Frog.

“I’ve witnessed him interacting with both collectors and artists: He treats all of his professional relationships with the same respect, good humor and seriousness,” she says. “Mike also values the importance of art in our culture and society. This attitude comes through in everything he does.” Majoli agrees.

“He occupies multiple positions at once, which makes him unique and invaluable to our field,” she says. “As an artist, Mike’s practice continues in a contemplative mode of making. His watercolors are sensitive and explicit, personal and social.

“His commitment to making art, despite the professional pressure he’s undoubtedly under, continues to be inspiring to witness.”

Also inspiring, says Davis, is the invaluable help he got from UCI art faculty members when he was an undergraduate.

He urges all CTSA students to seek and cultivate mentors.

“As I’ve spent more time in the art world,” Davis says, “I’ve come to realize how pivotal UCI, and especially the art department, was formative for me and how many incredible titans of the art world have come out of those doors.”

He doesn't say it, but Davis is shaping up to be a formidable creative leader in the art world himself – thanks, in large part, to the CTSA.

See more art by Mike Davis on the Gavlak Gallery, Los Angeles, website at www.gavlakgallery.com.
To learn more about Hauser & Wirth and their international collection of exhibitions, visit www.hauserwirth.com.

Please visit our secure direct giving page and make a gift to support CTSA today!

Make a Gift

CONNECT - Spring 2024

Jump to Story