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There at Creation 

A video art collector with an eye for emerging talent is now sharing

Wednesday, Oct 18 2006
Pamela Kramlich's Pacific Heights mansion flickers with ghostly figures. Above the massive stone fireplace, the video art superstar Matthew Barney prances across a TV screen in his nightmare guise — a goatman in an immaculate white suit. A tangle of black struts and conduits tumbles down the center of the stairwell, punctuated by speakers, laserdisc players, and tiny TV screens. In a video loop, students forever march on Tiananmen Square, singing hopeful songs, and are forever shot down at the conclusion.

These works are fit for museum collections. But when Kramlich first bought works by video artists in the early '90s, they were experimenters, and their art was available on the cheap; she reportedly bought Dara Birnbaum's installation piece about Tiananmen Square for $20,000 in 1992.

By getting in early, Kramlich amassed an internationally known collection of video art and along the way demonstrated how the tastes of one wealthy patron can help shape the genre. This summer, she made her first major round of donations to three museums, giving works with a collective value of several million dollars. The artworks included in those gifts have taken the penultimate step on the gilded path: They've gone from artist to dealer, from dealer to Kramlich, from Kramlich to museum. The final step into the art history books is a foregone conclusion.

When Kramlich began collecting in the late 1980s, the genre was still in its infancy. She couldn't pick up a reference book to learn about which artists were important; those critical judgments had not yet been made, and those books had not yet been written. "At the time, most private collectors didn't really dare to concentrate on media-based works," says Rudolf Frieling, the SFMOMA's new curator of media arts. "It was not settled in terms of its market value, and it was unclear as to the preservation aspect."

Most mark the genre's beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when artists started using clunky video cameras to record their performances. Over time, artists began to tinker with the context within which the videos were played back, often creating elaborate, sculptural installations as an extension of the work. But in the 1990s, collectors still wondered what it meant to own a piece of art that could easily be copied and distributed, and worried about tapes wearing down and playback mechanisms becoming obsolete.

To Kramlich, the empty field was an opportunity. "I said to myself, 'Wouldn't it be fun to live with masterpieces?'" she remembers. Since the competitive market for established masters in fine art made their work prohibitively expensive, she decided to look for masterpieces in a genre that other collectors were ignoring. The strategy fit the household sensibility: Pamela's husband, Richard, made his millions as a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, seeking out entrepreneurs with surprising new ideas.

A petite woman in her early 60s, Kramlich speaks eloquently about her collection, with the poise of someone who is accustomed to being listened to at dinner parties. When Barney's Cremaster IV film, the one playing over the fireplace, fills the living room with grating bagpipe music, she smiles up at the screen indulgently. The collection, her life's work, has clearly given her much joy. "Being there at the beginning of it, we have gotten to know the artists, and watched their careers grow, and watched the field grow," she says. "I feel very lucky to have stumbled into this, because I fell in love with a couple of crazy pieces of artwork and decided to focus on this!"

Yet she had plenty of encouragement along her path. Kramlich joined the board of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1989, which was then undergoing a growth spurt thanks to the guidance of director Jack Lane and John Caldwell, the forward-thinking curator of painting and sculpture. As the museum launched a capital campaign in 1989 and went on a buying spree, Lane and Caldwell also sought out potential patrons like Kramlich. She had already bought her first piece of video art in part, she admits, because she thought the highly kinetic piece would be fun to show at parties. When Kramlich spoke to Caldwell about developing a video art collection, he immediately put her in touch with an art adviser in New York City.

"She was interested in collecting, and certainly had a great passion for learning, but I would not have called her a collector at that time," says Thea Westreich of Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services, who worked closely with Kramlich for 12 years. Westreich organized private screenings at the Whitney Museum in N.Y.C. to familiarize Kramlich with the genre's brief history, and brought her out to dinner with emerging artists like Matthew Barney, the video artist whose recent installation, "Drawing Restraint," took over SFMOMA's fourth floor this summer.

Like a modern-day Medici, Kramlich's enthusiasm has put money into the hands of artists who were struggling to give birth to a new art form. Barney's trajectory is a good example of her influence, says Benjamin Weil, the previous curator of media arts at SFMOMA. "The extraordinary trust that people like the Kramlichs put in Matthew was very, very important to his career," he says. "They were one of the very few collectors buying his work in the early stage." Now, although Barney has been declared "the most important American artist of his generation" by the New York Times, he still phones Kramlich to tell her about his new projects.

As Kramlich began to delve deeper into the genre, she also drew closer to SFMOMA. The museum had instituted a media arts department earlier than most museums, but was slow to devote serious amounts of money to it. "We had a curator at the museum for video and media art, and there were no collectors! So there was this guy, out there ... waiting," Kramlich explains. She did what she could to fill the void, making her private collection available for museum exhibits, and joining the accessions committee in 1992. When others on the museum's board openly doubted the value of a video artwork, she took up the cause.

"There was an instance in which she really saved the day, actually," Weil remembers. The accessions committee was considering an interactive, site-specific video work by the Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, in which museum visitors would check out headsets and handheld video cameras and wander through the museum, guided by Cardiff's whispered instructions and goaded by the on-screen images that either matched or clashed with their physical surroundings. It is, by all accounts, a challenging piece.

The committee argued for hours over whether the piece belonged in the museum. "Pamela said, 'We're taking a chance, and we have to do it, because this is an important work,'" Weill remembers. "When that wasn't convincing enough, she said, ÔWell, I'll buy it and donate it to the museum.'"

Kramlich is modest about her impact on the museum, and about her influence on the growth of the genre. But the fact remains that the pieces she decided to buy have already ended up in major museum shows, thus boosting the artists' careers. In 1999, SFMOMA introduced the Kramlich collection to the world with a large show of 30 works. One of the pieces included was Stasi City, an eerie video tour through the abandoned headquarters of the East German secret police, by the sisters Jane and Louise Wilson. That piece reappears in SFMOMA's galleries this week, as half of a mini-exhibition of media arts called Charged Space. While no single patron can claim credit for an artist's success, this double dose of buzz and exposure can't hurt the Wilson sisters.

While Kramlich continues to loan works to museums, she has also begun to think about donations — and it's safe to say that several museums are thinking about it, too. While SFMOMA may once have been seen as the expected recipient, the collection eventually outgrew SFMOMA's capacity. "We started to realize that maybe it would be better to share them," Kramlich says, "rather than to put them all in one institution where they wouldn't have the space to show much of our artwork, because it's so spacially demanding."

She had previously started a foundation called the New Art Trust to dole out money for video art education and conservation projects. Now, she invited three of the most important people in the modern art world to join the foundation's board: the directors of SFMOMA, New York's Museum of Modern Art, and Britain's Tate museums. They happily agreed. This August, Kramlich donated 21 works from her collection to the New Art Trust, including names that would make the eyes of any museum director sparkle: Bill Viola, Bruce Nauman, Matthew Barney. For now, the three museums all have an equal stake in these works, and an equal right to use them for exhibitions. If any of the institutions is angling for more exclusive control, Kramlich isn't saying. "I think it's up to them, to see how they want to work with those pieces," she says demurely.

When the works do end up on the museum walls, the words "from the Kramlich collection" will likely be engraved on a small plaque, hardly noticed by the viewers who stop and stare at the flickering screen. But the art history books will be full of the names of the artists whom Kramlich took notice of, granting her a subtle but enduring legacy.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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