Friday, March 18, 2011

Top 10 Photo Collectors in ARTnews

While ARTnews has been producing an annual list of top collectors for quite a few years now, the March issue of the magazine digs down into our own world of photography and selects The Top 10 Photo Collectors (here). My first reaction to such a list was a mix of curiosity and outright skepticism. Could they really get such a list "right"? And what criteria would they use to choose the names?

According to the article, the list was selected via a process of consensus gathering; in short, ask enough dealers, auctioneers, collectors, museum directors, and curators until a pattern starts to emerge. Here's the list they came up with:

David Dechman
Randi and Bob Fisher
Sondra Gilman and Celso Gonzalez-Falla
Daniel Greenberg and Susan Steinhauser
Michael Jesselson
Elton John
Andrew Pilara
Lisa and John Pritzker
Thomas Walther
Michael Wilson

While this is clearly a remarkably esteemed list, a couple of things stick out for me. One, there is zero overlap with the names on the overall list of top art collectors, so there really isn't any way to compare the activities of photo specialist collectors and broader contemporary art collectors who collect photography as one part of their activities. Two, there are some major photography collectors, with jaw-droppingly impressive collections, who are not on this list.

The article goes on to say that the names "were selected based on how active they are rather than on the size or value of their collections". So in some ways, this explains the omission of some vast and comprehensive collections; perhaps they have become less "active" as their holdings have increased.

So then I started to parse this word "active". How might we actually define it? A simple way would be to use it to highlight those collectors who spent the most money on photography in the recent year. The problem with this definition is that a single collector who bought half a dozen very high priced works might be deemed most active. But that then leads to the following conundrum: is a collector who buys 2 $500K photographs more or less active than a collector who acquired 200 $5K photographs? To my mind, the effort and work required to intelligently select and purchase 200 works far outweighs that of purchasing 2; so in addition to quality, quantity must somehow be considered as a meaningful part of this equation.

I think that the major intangible here is the voracity of the searching that a collector exhibits. I'm sure that for some collectors, the two efforts of searching and buying may be roughly equivalent in size. However, I've certainly experienced with our own collecting that over time, we've seen our searching and learning effort expand exponentially, while our end buying has remained relatively constant; we just spend a lot more time looking, reading and thinking than we used to, and our searching and selecting has become much more targeted. As such, a couple of the names on the list above stand out for me based on this intensity of activity; of course, they are buying photographs on a regular basis, but what makes them important is not the size of their wallets, but their overflowing passion for both the art form and the never ending process of hunting.

In the end, I suppose that whether this list is perfectly representative or not is really beyond the point. The fact that ARTnews went to the trouble of trying to figure out who the top collectors are is real evidence that photography is becoming more and more of a central part of the artistic dialogue, so much so that those avid photography supporters who have quietly amassed museum quality collections are now being recognized as the leaders they have always been.


Todd Walker said...

"I think that the major intangible here is the voracity of the searching that a collector exhibits."

By ARTnews' criteria, it seems one could come to be viewed as "active" and thus "important" without actually ever buying anything.

Anonymous said...

These lists can not help but end up looking random since the criteria are so slippery. As you point out, it is very difficult to define what "active" means and to whom.

I will point out that 3 of the 10 on the list are from the little town of SF. While blessed with a rich photo history and a first-tier collection and program at SFMOMA, that is still a pretty strong showing on a per capita basis....