It seems the last post but one, about principles of collection, is getting some blowback from a subset of our commenters (who are a subset of our readers). I had thought first principles might be the first thing to write about when writing about collecting, but it appears I may need to back it up a bit.
What is a "collection," anyway?
Let's say you like art, and these are the things you have: a Dürer etching on the mantlepiece; a LeRoy Neimann palette-knife acrylic painting of your favorite quarterback from the '70s, Roger Staubach; a Thomas Kincade print for your daughter's bedroom; three pieces of African carving some guy in a dashiki was selling on the sidewalk outside your hotel when you went on a safari vacation; a piece of 3D fabric art by an accomplished local lesbian artist who is sometimes on TV, which you won at a cancer awareness charity auction; a painting by a classmate of your son's from a senior show that you thought was the best thing there; a 19th century trompe l'oeil oil painting in a gilt frame of a vase of flowers you inherited from your great-aunt; a primitive folk painting of indeterminate age you found at an antiques shop; and an original Mondrian that took you four years to pay off, during which time you didn't buy any other art because you couldn't.
Is that "an art collection"? Of course it isn't. It's a motley. It may all be stuff you totally love and that has great personal meaning to you, but nobody, including you, has any need to look at it all together, or would even want to; and there is no reason to think of it as being all of a piece; and there is no imperative that it be kept together rather than broken up; and so forth, and so on.
So what distinguishes a collection from a motley? A collection is something more than the sum of its parts. It's a grouping in which each piece enhances and informs and enriches the others, and is enhanced and informed and enriched by the others in return. A collection puts things in context and brings them out, makes them clearer, easier to understand and appreciate. It also might bring out or make more plain some other aspect of the culture the art belongs to—make some point about history, or the prevailing milieu, or connections or links of some sort, or some other point that can't be made by one work alone.
A good collection says something more than just "oh, look at this. Oh, look at that."
If only as a practical matter, you need some focus, unless you have infinite resources and infinite space. I don't; I doubt many of you do. The two major collectors I can think of in our audience don't. Personally, I'm going to have an extremely limited budget for this process. I certainly can't collect "high points" (the practice of collecting only the acknowledged greatest masterpieces)—I can't afford one high point, much less a whole roomful of them. The way I allocate my resources is going to be a big part of putting together a collection, and my creativity in working around my lack of resources is probably going to have an outsize effect on the success or failure of the venture. For practical purposes, you can't collect everything you like. I don't know anybody who likes so little that he or she could collect it all.
And a lack of focus just breeds diffuseness, and the spinning of wheels. The exercise becomes useless and pointless, the acquisitions conversation pieces or possessions or decor. Do we buy books called Everything That Occurred to the Author All Jumbled Together in No Particular Order? Would you go to a museum show called "A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked"? Doubtful. Organization, direction, and focus have purely practical purposes too.
Anybody can do whatever they like, of course. You can jump off the roof and call it skydiving if you want to. It's all the same to me. But a motley isn't a collection. Hell, I've already got a motley—hundreds of photographs, perhaps—at least many dozens—acquired haphazardly, the detritus of going on thirty years in photography. (It even includes some significant collector pieces, such as an original Nick Nixon and an original Sally Mann, through no particular fault of my own.) What I'm talking about lately is something different, is all. You don't have to follow along if you don't want to.
MikeFeatured Comment by Carl: "I have no objections, but I am left to wonder to what ends this distinction is made? Avoiding willy-nilly purchases maybe.
"Having worked in a curatorial department of a museum, I can say that a very good portion of shows could accurately be subtitled 'A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Really, Really Liked' (see: nearly any works from the permanent collection show, 'highlights' show, or new acquisitions show). I don't see anything wrong with that. Curatorial wisdom also says that too much organization and direction and focus will result in an exhibition that is either boring, tendentious, or both. To be sure, a basic logic to groupings based on formal features, motifs, themes, chronology, geography, media, or any other axis of the curator's devising can lend a show a healthy semblance of cogency. But arguably, many of the decisions ought to be arbitrary. This is what allows the works to assert their own autonomy and 'breathe' as we say.
"In many cases a motley can morph into a collection by construing it as a representation of it's owner's 'taste,' however eccentric or seemingly erratic it may be. In other words, the personality of the collector, based upon inferences regarding collecting habits or taste drawn from the objects within his/her collection, become the axis around which the collection coheres, and garners its status as a 'collection' as such.
"I guess all I mean to say is that 'ooh look at this look at that' isn't necessarily a bad collecting logic at the end of the day, because the alternative usually involves acquiring works based on how they fit within a popular present context or framework, which is almost assuredly going to be completely different a generation later.
"That is one my favorite Dürers."
Mike replies: Thanks for the good comment Carl. You might be amused to learn that my latest formulation of my Principles of Collection is, "It gets me, and I can get it." (Sounds simple, but there's a lot of thought behind that.) Some photographs simply get me, such as this one by Cosmin Bumbutz that I featured on the blog in 2005. Of the ones that do, only a small subset are ones that I can get. The cover photograph of Danny Lyon's recent retrospective is another one that gets me, but I'm sure I can't get it. So it doesn't fit my criteria, by definition.
Speaking of a "Bunch of Stuff" show, I remember a show John Gossage curated at the Corcoran in the '80s. He wanted to be able to feature an unrelated half-dozen or so photographers, and he wanted a title that would be intriguing and enticing and yet be vague enough to give him freedom, so he called it "The Future of Photography." The tactic backfired. In my circles—I was a student at the Corcoran at the time—the individual artists were more or less overlooked as people argued obsessively about the title: why were these photographers the future of photography? What did they have to do with the future of photography? What was the show saying that the future of photography would be? Who could predict the future of photography anyway? Etc. ad. inf. Rather than allowing the work to breathe, the weight of the idea (in four little words!) smothered the art in the show. It would have been much better to call it "Six Photographers." That's indicative of the power that the right or wrong "principles of collection" could have.Featured Comment by Maggie Osterberg: "Would I go to a museum show called 'A Bunch of Stuff the Curator Liked'? Don't you mean 'The Whitney Biennial'? And apparently, people do go to that."