Stories on Building a Collection

Cao Fei
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006, Single channel color video with sound, Promised gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2007.

It was mid-afternoon and I was already woozy from too-much-information. My eyes, on autopilot, scanned the packed room one more time as I marched down row after row of booths, looking for visual connection. Wait, what was that? The man on the high-up monitor floated above the crowds, body focused in precise, graceful movements as he passed through the aisles of some kind of empty manufacturing lab. I was mesmerized by his gestures, his dance completely at odds with his own surroundings, yet even more so with mine, the frenzied scene of Art Basel Miami Beach. The images transported me; all hubbub disappeared as I stood closer, intent on that screen. What followed was 20 looped minutes of one of the best contemporary art videos I had ever seen: Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia, made a few months earlier in spring 2006 by one of China’s rising art stars.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large
Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large

It happened to be (dear friend, museum supporter, and art collector extraordinaire) Jeanne Klein’s birthday and, after taking a deep breath, I called her and asked if she and Mickey (ditto the above) wanted to mark it by purchasing the video for the museum. (Cheeky me!) At my insistent request, the good folks at Lombard-Freid Gallery had put it “on hold” for us for just a few hours so that I could try to wrangle some funds with which to purchase it. And by the end of the day, after flight-controlling a flurry of phone calls to Mickey and Jeanne and the gallery director, who was at that point at one of those late-night South Beach dinners that follows the day’s sales (as was I, probably just a few blocks away with an Austin entourage), the deal was clinched and the last available copy of Cao Fei’s editioned work was procured. During the following year, Whose Utopia would be featured in the Carnegie International, both the Lyon and Istanbul Biennials, and several other important contemporary art exhibitions, even as it entered the collections of a few enviable museums worldwide, including the Guggenheim, the Tate Modern, and ours.

How do the works of art in the Blanton’s contemporary collection get here? I had the pleasure and privilege of leading that process from 1996 until roughly 2013, with a few meaningful additions since. Now our astute curator of modern and contemporary art, Veronica Roberts, leads that charge. As collection curators we’re often asked which are our favorite works: an impossible question, because the potential replies are so various. (It’s like being asked to choose a favorite child.) But on the occasion of my retirement from the museum, I thought I’d share with you some of my favorite acquisition stories, like the one above.

What made that acquisition so special? So many factors, here are just a few:

  • Whose Utopia’s unexpectedly poignant window onto one of the most complex social issues of our times—the individual in relationship to the newly globalized economy.
  • I’m grateful for the nimble, always passionate commitment of our patrons, especially the Kleins, who repeatedly put their faith in our judgment and regularly help the museum acquire important works for the collection. “For the students,” as Mickey and Jeanne like to say. (See La linea continua, our current exhibition of works in the Judy and Charles Tate Collection for another superb example of collection-building assistance.)
  • And of course, there’s no surpassing the urgency of the discovery scenario itself: the thrill of first encounter with the artist’s masterful storytelling; the split-second yet highly choreographed negotiations that lead to the financial deal; the unplanned but hugely fortuitous acquisition of the very last available copy of what would later become one of the most sought after works of 2006. Curators, especially contemporary curators, have to be on constant alert for opportunities to build collections that will stand the test of time. That was a day when I felt like I’d done a really good job!

Most visitors to our impressive collection galleries probably don’t know that the Blanton does not have recurring funds for acquisitions. We curators spend much of our time cultivating gifts—bringing selected works to patrons who might find them compelling enough to buy for us, and building relationships that might yield gifts from already established private collections. However we can, we search for cash: our colleagues and we write grants to foundations that sometimes make funds available for museum purchases, and we frequently steward affinity groups whose membership dues help us buy works of art directly. Only the most well endowed museums have ample budgets for curators to spend on acquisitions, though even for those lucky institutions and their staffs, the prices of today’s art market can still stun and surprise.

Louise Nevelson
Louise Nevelson, Dawn’s Presence – Two Columns, painted wood, 116 in. x 67 in. x 31 in., Purchase as a gift in memory of Laura Lee Scurlock Blanton by her children, 2005.

Curatorial vigilance and resourcefulness aside, occasionally an amazing, unforeseen opportunity occurs; one of mine came during the year preceding the opening of our new building in 2006. The children of Jack Blanton Sr., the museum’s new namesake (what a wonderful man he was!), had offered, through their family foundation, to underwrite a “major acquisition” that would bolster the modern and contemporary collection. Such a boon! For several months I searched high and low, calling art dealers I knew and trusted in Texas, New York, Los Angeles, Cologne, and London, trying to find something special that would befit the unique occasion and fill a gap—any one of many!—in our still-forming collection. Sculpture was a great love of Jack’s and his late wife, Laura Lee, and we certainly needed three-dimensional works to complement our fine paintings and prints, so that seemed the best focus for my search. Further, I knew the work should be beautiful and timeless. But the circumstance of how the final selection transpired is, in my mind, forever tied to a precise, historical moment: On the morning that Al Gore conceded the presidency to George W. Bush (I saw the televised press conference at my Southwest Airlines gate), I flew to Houston to make my presentation to the Blantons at River Oaks Country Club; our director, Jessie Hite, was already there. I don’t think any of us had slept well the previous night; the weight of our national fate hung heavy over all. An elderly cabdriver and I talked politics as we drove over from Hobby, and I arrived with a mind appropriately clear on life’s priorities. How can publicly held works of art help enrich our lives? By communicating values that are necessary and true. I had assembled images of a dozen masterworks from around the world to show the family group, each extraordinary and potentially transformative for the museum’s collection. At the end of a brunch that I certainly did not eat, the Blantons made possible the purchase of not one, but two exceptional sculptures: In honor of Laura Lee, Louise Nevelson’s Dawn’s Presence—Two Columns, 1969-75, and in honor of Jack, Richard Long’s Summer Circle, 1991. These two majestic sculptures are on view in our collection galleries today, standing among our most prized works, embodying the fine spirits of those they honor.

Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer, Sternenfall [Falling Stars], Mixed media on canvas, 183 in. x 208 in., Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas B. Martin, Jr., 2009.
Sometimes works of art find their way to us through moments of pure serendipity. Acquiring Anselm Kiefer’s Sternenfall,1998,—first on long-term loan, and ultimately as a full gift to the collection—felt like that (even though transporting the work requires two 18-wheelers, so there’s nothing spontaneous about it!). Back in 1999, when we still showed our collection on the first two floors of the Ransom Center, I called a former colleague, an art dealer from New Orleans with whom I hadn’t been in touch for several years. For the life of me I can’t recall what small matter led me to call her that day, I don’t actually spend much time on the phone and prefer to catch up with colleagues face to face during my frequent travels. But, I called Donna Rosen that day and we chatted, filling each other in on our respective, comparatively new cities—New York for her, Austin for me. As soon as I reminded her of my current position, she got quiet and said, “Hmm, that’s interesting. I’ve been working with new collectors in Austin who’ve just bought a large painting that’s too big for their home and they need a place to loan it until they can create just the right space for it. It’s an Anselm Kiefer, and I was just about to call the Fort Worth Modern to see if they might want to house it, given their interest in the artist and proximity to Austin.” “We’ll take it,” I said as calmly as I could. I’d seen the painting abroad, and knew it was magnificent. What Donna didn’t know at the time was that neither did the Blanton have a likely space to show such a monumental construction (more than 15 feet tall and 17 feet wide). But our new building was in the planning stages and that was our moment, so it was a phenomenal thrill to grab it, so to speak. (We ended up showing the Kiefer in the stairwell of the Huntington space at the Ransom Center until it took its rightful pride of place in the new building. And the owners generously gave it to us as a full gift at that time, recognizing its power and that it needed to be shared with the public.) Hard to believe but it’s actually true that Luis Jimenez’s Progress II, 1976, another knockout work of art on view in the second floor galleries, came to us in a similarly serendipitous manner. I loved hearing composer Graham Reynolds say awhile back that those are his two favorite works in the collection.

Oliver Herring
Oliver Herring, Patrick, 2004, Foam core, museum board, digital c-print photographs, and polystyrene, 42 in. x 18 in. x 27 1/2 in., Partial and pledged gift of Jeanne and Michael Klein, 2005.

Miraculous days aside, the bulk of my collection-building time was spent constantly canvassing works of art by emerging artists in their studios, in gallery and museum exhibitions, and starting in about 2000, at art fairs (though most all curators will complain about the fairs as venues for seeing and considering art). Some advantages—and the very real excitement—of this labor-intensive search for the relatively unknown are that early work is often expressive of artists’ formative ideas, the prices are more affordable at the early stages, and if we choose well, we establish our institutional acuity and heighten our reputation in the field, enabling more partnerships with donors and colleagues. Two of the many contemporary masterworks that came to our collection that way include Emily Jacir’s From Texas with love, 2002 and Oliver Herring’s Patrick, 2004. Other great works arrived through exhibition projects, like the signature works we own by Fabian Marcaccio, Paul Chan, and Matthew Day Jackson.

David Reed
David Reed, #476, 2001, Oil and alkyd on linen canvas, 34 3/16 in. x 110 1/4 in., Michener Acquisitions Fund, 2002.

And sometimes the long working relationship a curator builds with an artist leads to an institutional determination to add a significant work of theirs to the collection; case in point, our brilliant abstract painting by David Reed. David accepted my invitation to serve as a visiting scholar in the collection of modern and contemporary paintings after we got a grant from the Henry S. Luce Foundation for an extended study of the Michener Collection holdings. I went to his studio several times over those years to see his new works before they were shipped out to solo exhibitions in Europe. In those days David’s studio was in downtown Manhattan, on the edge of Chinatown, and my most unforgettable visit to see new works in formation was directly preceded by the tragedy of 9/11. I recall being stopped for identification by police officers on my way to meet with him that early October evening; the haze of particulates from the implosions were still floating in the air, lending the whole neighborhood a surreal, anxious air. #476 was the work that I felt compelled to select from the many he was working on: its saturated greens and pale pinks reminded me of new life, even as we all struggled to make sense of the carnage nearby. Art works that way. It’s been a privilege to spend my days at the Blanton engaged with such matters.

Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, Curator at Large

The Blanton announced the retirement of curator Annette DiMeo Carlozzi at the end of this month. Annette joined the Blanton in 1996 as the museum’s first curator of modern and contemporary art and served thereafter as the director of curatorial affairs, deputy director of art and programs, and most recently, as curator at large. She has played a critical role in helping to build the Blanton’s contemporary art collection and program. Annette has been a leader at the Blanton and within the art community for many years. The museum’s diverse audiences have all benefitted from her passionate and thoughtful approach to engaging with art and her dedication to the visitor experience. She leaves behind a wonderful legacy at the museum. To read more about Annette’s tenure at the Blanton, please visit our website.

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