When supporters of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's photography department were invited to choose favorite pieces from their personal collections for an exhibition — opening Saturday at Duncan Miller Gallery — the response wasn't exactly cohesive. Like the museum itself, members of the Photographic Arts Council have amassed photographs by an international roster of artists made from the mid-19th century to the present.
Former L.A. County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who has had considerable success in his second career as an urban photographer, selected a pale, delicate image of a young woman made last year by Iranian-born artist Sia Aryai. Don Schwartz, a longtime collector who started looking for portraits of Alfred Stieglitz after discovering that they are distant relatives, lent a 1934 Imogen Cunningham and a 1944 Arnold Newman, both portraying the famous photographer and modern art entrepreneur.
"Girl with Flowers," a sensuous color work (circa 1937) by Paul Outerbridge, whose commercial and fine art photography was the subject of an exhibition last year at the Getty Center, came from Anne B. Cohen Ruderman, who has returned to collecting photography after shifting to art glass. An 1887 "Animal Locomotion" image by Eadweard Muybridge and a 1985 picture of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg by Harry Smith arrived courtesy of photographer and writer Sara Jane and her husband, Steven R. Boyers, who bought the photographs as "starter" gifts for their children's collections.
"Collectors' Favorites: Works from the Collections of Members of LACMA's Photographic Arts Council" is an unusual event for a commercial gallery. None of the 50 or so works is for sale. Instead, each is accompanied by a statement about why it appealed to the collector.
"It's fascinating to learn about the collectors' different approaches," says Britt Salvesen, head of the photography and prints and drawings departments at LACMA. "Some specialize in a region or theme or subject. Others are much more wide ranging. It's very personal but not totally different from how a museum might collect, building on strengths."
Gallery owner and council member Daniel Miller, who says he has turned his small West L.A. photography showcase into "a museum with free entry for two weeks," proposed the show to provide insight into how and why the participants collect and to promote the group's agenda. But the project also reflects a growing interest in a relatively young field that commands an increasingly prominent place at museums and in the marketplace.
The museum's photography department, launched in 1984 with a grant from the Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, has a collection of about 6,000 works and photography also is integrated into other departments. Although LACMA's photo collection encompasses the entire field, it has many gaps and is far smaller than that of the J. Paul Getty Museum.
A recent council gift of works by eight emerging artists from Southern California — including Nicole Belle, Matthew Brandt, Whitney Hubbs and Augusta Wood — demonstrates LACMA's dedication to the region, says Salvesen, who arrived on the job less than a year ago. "I am looking forward to strategically building our collection of California-made photography, both historic and contemporary, because this context has produced uniquely experimental and lyrical art," she says.
Museum curators and private collectors have seen a dramatic rise in photography prices over the years and a huge increase in vendors. Collector and dealer Stephen White — whose contributions to the exhibition are his first purchase, a 1952 nude by Bill Brandt, and his most recent acquisition, a 2007 seascape by Nicholas Hughes — says the photography market is still robust, despite the troubled economy, but most of the action is at auction houses.
"What happens in times like this," he says, "is that buyers are more selective. Prices for rare items can be very high and even set records. The less expensive material tends to flatten out because the people who buy it are most affected by the recession."
The Photographic Arts Council, founded in 2001, is the youngest of 10 support groups devoted to curatorial departments at LACMA. With about 100 members who pay $400, $1,000 or $4,000 in annual dues, the photo council offers visits to artists' studios and private collections, curator-led tours of exhibitions and lectures about the care and conservation of photographs.
In addition to funding acquisitions, the council has allotted $30,000 to its first PAC Prize, to be matched by the museum for a publication about a photographer. A book on Ken Gonzales Day, a Los Angeles-based artist who grapples with issues of cultural history and race relations and teaches at Scripps College in Claremont, will inaugurate the series.
Not all members of the Photographic Arts Council are collectors, Salvesen says. Some are photographers who do not collect; others are enthusiasts who want to learn. But the presence of collectors, she says, is "part of what makes others want to join because they are really generous in showing their collections and sharing their stories."
"For those who haven't purchased work, it's intimidating," she says. "To hear people you know talk about their experiences with galleries or art fairs or auctions or flea markets is encouraging. That's great for the museum. We want to foster collecting in the private sector, not only in the expectation of getting gifts and support but because personal collecting increases one's belief in the museum's mission. Museums and individuals are both part of the preservation of cultural heritage and great works of art."
As "Collectors' Favorites" evolved, Miller worked closely with Dennis Reed, dean of arts at Los Angeles Valley College and then-chair of the council, who preceded Gloria Katz Huyck. When the works arrived, Miller had to deal with an eclectic assortment of subject matter, styles and sizes.
Miller says the biggest challenge in putting on the show was the installation. But will he do it again? "I don't know," he says, a few days before the opening. "Ask me later."