There at Creation

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

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.

Pamela Kramlich's private art collection is displayed on flat-screen TVs, not in gilded frames.
Gabriella Hasbuun
Pamela Kramlich's private art collection is displayed on flat-screen TVs, not in gilded frames.

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.

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