There at Creation

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

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.'"

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.

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.

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