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The collectors

Eleven men and women discuss the tricks that have made them successful art collectors.

Jeff Dauber—How to trust your gut
With his megawatt energy and chest-to-toe tattoos, Jeff Dauber bears little resemblance to an aloof art snob. He’s more like the Tony Robbins of collecting, a zealot who can’t stop talking about his latest acquisition because, to him, it isn’t just a piece of art. “I like forcing people to think,” Dauber says of his collection, which includes work by young local artists like the politically provocative painter Travis Somerville, as well as more senior practitioners, such as revered electronic artist Jim Campbell. “It is about kicking people out of their comfortable ways; it’s about kicking me out of my comfortable ways.”

All that intensity could be off-putting if Dauber weren’t having so much fun: “The prankster has always been a part of who I am.” That explains the sophisticated funhouse quality of his three-story home. This art doesn’t necessarily sit respectfully in the corner or hang nicely on the wall. Local sculptor Walter Robinson’s oversize carved-wood Mickey Mouse lies face down in a stairwell, arms and legs flung out as if in the aftermath of some bizarre car crash. Streaming across the floor and wall, the projected video image of Chicago mixed-media artist Scott Roberts’ Devil Cat (think Felix the Cat, but not as cheerful) contemplates the disaster with his hands behind his back.

Looming above the comic darkness are a video camera and flat-screen TV, all parts of a Lincoln Schatz “generative portrait.” The camera films everyone who passes within its gaze, then spits back images from its ever expanding storehouse of material. The piece would make anyone self-conscious, but for the literally colorful Dauber, who has grown to dislike being photographed without his consent, it is nerve-racking—which is the point. Dauber’s collection is designed to reflect his own complex psyche: dark, intellectually challenging, frequently hilarious, and dedicated to the idea that staring down our fears is the only way to feel alive. Even his third-floor ceiling, a digitally milled pattern of undulating lines created by California College of the Arts architecture professor and artist Thom Faulders, echoes the tattoos that striate Dauber’s body. “If you don’t go to the edges,” says Dauber, “all you’ll know is your inner core.”

Though Dauber’s collection is not for everyone, his approach is easy to replicate. “Just pour what you see into yourself and see what sticks; whatever sticks is something for other stuff to stick to.” When looking at art, he suggests, resist trying to decide what might be cool or repugnant or interesting, or whether the piece fits the kind of collection you think you are trying to create. Don’t try to create anything. “Just explore,” he urges. “If you see a thread you’re interested in, pull on it. There will either be something at the end of it or not.” And after you’ve looked and looked, “If you like a piece, you like it, and if you don’t, well, you don’t have to explain yourself.” How does he know when he likes something? “You pay attention to your first reaction."

Dauber first noticed that feeling—what he calls that “stunning stomach flip”—back in 1989 while looking at San Francisco photographer Nina Glaser’s black-and-white image of two men, one naked, the other covered in a shroud, their necks entwined with a rope. He collected photographs until he discovered a 10-foot-tall Marie Antoinette marionette, with long skeletal hands and a big theatrical skirt, by San Francisco painter and sculptor Timothy Cummings.

It was that gigantic puppet—spotted in the window of a Market Street gallery, the precursor to the Catharine Clark Gallery—that deepened Dauber’s interest in contemporary art. Cummings led Dauber to other artists he liked, and Clark led him to other galleries that shared his sensibility. With 17 pieces, he thinks he may have the largest collection of Cummings’ work, although he says he has outgrown some of the early pieces. “Given time, each extreme is not so extreme,” says Dauber, and he would know.

Didier Hirsch—How to buy art online
Between November 2005 and March 2006, Peninsula-based executive Didier Hirsch bought some 45 paintings, all by modern-day Chinese artists, creating in record time one of the most signifi cant collections of its kind. He answered our questions about this whirlwind of activity via email, which makes sense, given that he made most of his purchases online.

How did you start this collection? I went to Hong Kong in 1993. It was four years after the protests at Tiananmen Square, and contemporary art was just filtering out of China. These paintings were eye-catching and appealing because of the mix of Western-style pop art and Chinese sensibility. I bought a painting there by Yue Minjun.
What took you so long to buy something else? I needed to learn more about the artists and the market. I bought all the available books and catalogs, and when I moved to the United States in 1999, I visited Limn Gallery in San Francisco. Dan Friedlander was the first dealer to introduce contemporary Chinese art in this country. I even visited Dan’s apartment and saw some fantastic work, but I didn’t feel any urgency to buy.
Until you went on a rampage. At Sotheby’s October 2005 auction in Hong Kong, prices for contemporary Chinese art exploded, and people started talking about the next bump up, triggered by the Sotheby’s auction in New York the following March. I realized I had a short window of opportunity when prices would still be in my league.
How did you proceed? I am more attracted to fi gurative painting, so that is what I focused on. I put together a list of artists I wanted. After that it was “Thank you, Google” and all the other search engines. The frustrating part was that I would see all kinds of wonderful work, but most of it had already been sold. Or people were hoarding works to see how that auction would develop.
Where are the galleries you worked with? Most were Chinese and European; one is in Berlin. One of the great works I got was from a gallery in Lucerne, which sent me an email saying they had two works by Beijing artist Wang Guangyi, who’s known for his use of propaganda images from the Cultural Revolution. I sent an email back saying, “Can you give me a discount?” They sent another email saying, “No.”
How did you see the work? I already knew how the artist’s work had evolved because I had seen and read about the paintings in catalogs. There was no difference looking at them in a JPEG.
How can you fall in love with a painting from a JPEG? I get the same feeling as people do in galleries. One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that first you get excited when you see the painting and buy it. Then you have a second, very scary and wonderful time when you open up those packing crates and see the actual work.
How did you know if the galleries were reputable? I may have been lucky, but even on the Internet, one can assess people’s honesty. Also, it is a stereotype for sure, but I know I will never have a problem with the Swiss or German galleries.
What was your fastest buy? The quickest purchase took no more than five minutes. There were sometimes 10 buyers or more, so you had to be very quick. Then I’d wire the funds to the gallery. You take another risk there because you wire the funds before you get the painting.
So you recommend this method? You have to know your risk appetite. Also, this was a special circumstance for which the Internet was the perfect tool. If I had been really good, I would have started collecting earlier, so it’s nothing to be proud of.

Penny Cooper & Rena Rosenwasser—How to support artists
The first prints Penny Cooper bought in 1975, just before she met Rena Rosenwasser, were by art-world titans Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella. When Rosenwasser and Cooper discovered they shared a passion for art, they began visiting galleries and museums, but had no real goal in mind. Then they saw an exhibition of work by Mills College graduate Jennifer Bartlett in San Francisco. Says Rosenwasser of Rhapsody, Bartlett’s massive 153-foot-long assemblage of art history–themed baked enamel plates, the centerpiece of the show, “Here was this female artist doing something so in your face, the way Picasso would do it!” That bigness, that boldness, she recalls, “was the most incredible feminist statement without being overtly political.”

When the pair realized that few Jennifer Bartletts existed—or even had much of a chance to exist, because people weren’t buying art by women—they found their collecting path. “Suddenly, it made sense,” says Rosenwasser. “The way to support these women was to buy their art.”

The task was simplified by the fact that there were so few female artists. “Fewer shows allowed us to focus,” says Cooper. Some of the artists they followed, such as minimalist painter Agnes Martin, were just starting to gain recognition. Almost no one had heard of Kiki Smith then, but Cooper and Rosenwasser were drawn to her craftlike approach, use of fragile materials like linen and tissue paper, and depiction of human organs—all elements that had been dismissed under the rubric of “women’s art.” The couple discovered such artists as Doris Salcedo, the highly political South American sculptor, and Catherine Opie, known for startling self-portraits that display words she has cut into her skin, as they made the rounds of galleries in San Francisco, New York, Europe, Latin America—wherever women were being shown. Many of these artists are now familiar art-world names, and Cooper and Rosenwasser regularly field museum requests to loan their pieces out, as they did for SFMOMA’s Kiki Smith retrospective in 2006.

Closer to home, Cooper and Rosenwasser encourage emerging female artists at Mills College and California College of the Arts in Oakland. They offer financial assistance and hold regular artist salons in their modernist, redwood-and-glass house in the Berkeley hills. They even allowed a Mills class to use their collection to assemble a mock exhibition. In turn, the two have front-row seats as the next generation of female artists comes into its own. Both acknowledge that the notion of the supremacy of the male artist is still thriving. “But what is so amazing,” says Rosenwasser, “at least in America, is that half the gallery shows are for women, museums now show more women, and even at European art fairs like Documenta and the Venice Biennale, there are so many women!”

Steve & Nancy Oliver—How to commission artwork
Steve and Nancy Oliver had always bought art the traditional way: they saw something they liked in a gallery, paid for it, and took it home. But back in the mid-1980s, when news about art was more often in the financial section than on the culture pages, they got disgusted and abruptly changed tack. That’s when they began commissioning original sculptures for display in a particular setting—pieces they didn’t plan to sell or give away, so which ultimately had no value.

The Olivers’ 100-acre sheep ranch near Geyserville provided the perfect location, and East Coast sculptor Judith Shea, known for her “clothes without figures,” was given their first commission. The project had a bumpy start when Shea announced she was changing the direction of her work and told the Olivers they’d just have to trust her. “That happens in commissioning work,” says Steve. “You have this perception of what you want, but you’re better off to commit to the artists and then step back and support them.”

Now the Olivers field dozens of proposals a month. To start the process, a sculptor must visit the ranch three times during different seasons: “That gives the artists a different look at the land, and lets us know whether we want to spend a bunch of time with them,” Steve explains. Many commissions go to artists whose work the Olivers have followed for years, such as multimedia artist Bruce Nauman and sculptor Martin Puryear. Others, less well known, are recommended by close friends.

The projects have lasted from one to three and a half years, during which Nancy takes charge of feeding and housing the artists—the Olivers had guest studios built in 2002—while Steve, who owns and runs an East Bay construction business, plays sounding board and construction helpmate. The couple always consults arborists and botanists to ensure the land and trees won’t be damaged during the work, but that’s just the beginning. Steve once used NASA equipment to help artist Roger Berry triangulate off the sun in positioning his steel sculpture Darwin. He sent miners deep into the ground to test for earthquake faults around Ann Hamilton’s The Tower.

Steve says he’s trying to enable the artists to do “something larger that they might not otherwise have been able to do.” Occasionally that holds true for him as well. When transportation authorities threatened to stall minimalist sculptor Richard Serra’s 12 gargantuan steel blocks (for his Snake Eyes and Boxcars) on their way south from a forge in Seattle, Steve bought Caltrans uniforms for his crew and surreptitiously sped the 28-truck convoy along.

That wasn’t the first time he used his employees on an art project; in fact, so many of his workers want to participate that dozens of people are on a waiting list. Both he and his employees, says Steve, have learned countless lessons. “We are much better because of seeing how these artists solve problems. They do it with so few means to get such a big effect.”

Frances Bowes—How to develop a good eye

When ARTnews, one of the bibles of the art world, periodically proclaims the world’s top 200 art collections, Frances Bowes’ name is often on the list. Whether in her San Francisco home, Sonoma retreat, New York apartment, or compound in St. Barths, the collection Bowes created with her late husband, John—with its museum-quality work by the likes of Richard Serra, Brice Marden, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly—offers staggering testament to what a good eye (and a healthy income) can bring you. What can Bowes tell us about recognizing and finding great art?
Look obsessively. Bowes trained her eye by visiting major museums all over the world, and whenever she traveled, even when her three daughters were small, she went into galleries. She and John would sometimes challenge each other to choose the pieces they thought were best: “That forces you to look at the different pieces more slowly and carefully.”
Talk to everyone. When she was a young collector, says Bowes, her questions—to dealers, professors, curators, collectors, anyone who could teach her about art—were endless: how did you like that show? What was that artist trying to do? Does that painting work? “That’s how your tastes become more educated and sophisticated,” she says.
Don't trust first impressions. When the Boweses saw Gerhard Richter’s Mailand Dom at auction, they found the grainy, streaked, black-and-white painting of a church “hard to like,” Bowes recalls. But the piece kept her tossing and turning all night, so she told John they had to see it again, and, in short, they bought it. “Something stuck with me; that is what a good piece does.”
Be nosy. While Bowes was poking around the back rooms during an auction at Christie’s a few years ago, she found a sculpture by noted New York artist Cy Twombly, a piece she had wanted forever, “just hidden in the back!” The simplicity and the roughness of the piece had caught her eye, as had the way Twombly can make “everyday objects so beautiful.” The piece, a whitewashed lead rendering of what look like stalks wrapped in barbed wire, was not part of the auction, but the Boweses placed a private bid and took it home.
Avoid the merely pretty. Even when challenging or dark, great paintings and sculptures are always beautiful in some way, says Bowes. “Pretty matches the couch.” So what saves February, New England landscape painter Maureen Gallace’s winter scene with a red barn, displayed on a table in Bowes’ living room, from being pretty? “It is so luscious—the white of the snow has that melted vanilla ice cream feel to it.” Other approving modifiers Bowes uses are tender, simple, commanding, moody, strange, lush, romantic. On the list with pretty are such adjectives as weird, kitschy, and cute.
Don't overanalyze. In the end, says Bowes, it’s simple: “I either like a piece or I don’t.”

Martin Maguss & Mari Iki—How to collect on a budget
In our gotta-have-it-now world, Martin Maguss and Mari Iki seem quaintly old-fashioned. They waited 14 years to buy a print of The Rose, by twin Bostonbased multimedia artists Doug and Mike Starn, and almost as long for The Result of War: Cornucopia Dog, a photograph by New York surrealist Joel-Peter Witkin. “The thing about a budget,” says Maguss, “is that when it is time to buy, we know we love a piece. I wonder if it would be too easy if we had millions to spend?”

The two say they’ve never spent more than $10,000 and have bought many, many artworks in the $200–1,000 range. They did raid Iki’s pension fund for Study for a Bullfight, a limited-edition print by the renowned Irish artist Francis Bacon; but more often they buy something they can afford on the spot, like the $300 collage on cardboard by two Los Angeles mixed-media artists who collaborate under the name Date Farmers. They found the piece at Galería de la Raza, a nonprofit space in the Mission; they also visit smaller galleries in the same neighborhood, such as Queen’s Nails, where up-and-coming artist Julio Morales exhibits work by his peers. Maguss and Iki also seek out venues such as Creative Growth and the National Institute of Art and Disabilities, two Bay Area organizations that sell work by disabled artists, some of whom have gained national recognition.

The pair’s confidence comes from buying only artwork they love—“not because we are thinking that 20 years down the road, a certain piece will be worth something,” says Maguss. Of course, some artists they championed early on are now producing work the couple can barely afford. In 1983, they were able to buy a Keith Haring silkscreen for just $200 (it took them six months to pay it off). Even then, says Maguss, “we had a gut feeling that this artist would ultimately leave his mark on our culture.”

The expertise and friendship of dealers they’ve known for years have been helpful. The Witkin photograph is a “gift print” made by the artist for a Spanish curator. When the curator died, the print landed at the Fraenkel Gallery, where director Frish Brandt brought it to the couple’s attention. According to Iki, “Many collectors believe a print has to be in the limited edition the artist made, or it has to be vintage, or it has to be this or that.” But at less than $5,000, the gift print cost a fraction of what an edition print would. Another time, thanks to their long relationship with gallery owner Stephen Wirtz, they were able to get an unbelievable bargain from New York conceptual artist Cindy Sherman. Sherman offered one of her photographic self-portraits for a mere $200 to anyone who would come pick it up. Since Maguss and Iki couldn’t make the trip, and Wirtz’s wife, Connie, was already in New York, she brought them the photograph.

Clearly, nurturing relationships can bring extraordinary opportunities. That was the case when Maguss envisioned a Keith Haring retrospective at SFMOMA. He didn’t know anyone at the museum, but having collected Swatches for years, he had contacts at the Swiss company, which created a Haring watch in the 1980s. Maguss submitted a proposal, and the company agreed to act as a corporate sponsor and help fund the show. Afterward, the couple was given tickets to a $10,000-a-plate donor dinner, where they mingled with the likes of actor Dennis Hopper and then-mayor Willie Brown. “These were people we wouldn’t normally come in contact with,” says Maguss. “But for one night, all the social levels just disappeared.

Robert Mailer Anderson—How to collect art while raising a family
When Robert Mailer Anderson, his wife, Nicola Miner (daughter of late Oracle cofounder Robert Miner), and their four children moved into their 13,000-square-foot house, it was Anderson’s job to arrange the artwork. That’s when the reality of being a dad with a taste for challenging art set in: “I tend to be somewhat dark, and you can’t have that up with the kids.” So Anderson created his “not-ready-for-prime-time closet,” where some of the edgier paintings go for now. A guesthouse on the property holds other adult and expensive work.

Still, art hangs everywhere, including in the kids’ rooms, where Anderson keeps most of it above a certain level on the wall, in frames when he can. He crooks his finger like a small child might. “It’s one rip, and you’re done.” He says he finds himself constantly saying, “Watch the paintings!” but he has also developed subtler tactics. Take the assemblage by San Francisco urban artist Barry McGee hanging in the downstairs hall. It’s made up of several glass bottles joined with wire; one of them appears to have been shattered and glued together. “Normally, that one would have been lying on the ground in pieces, showing a sharp and delicate moment,” Anderson says with a laugh. “We can’t have that with the kids.”

In the upstairs hall, he shows me an image by controversial Southern photographer Sally Mann: three girls playing on a lawn as a house burns in the background. “All the stuff we have has a sense of precariousness or change,” says Anderson, who grew up the working-class child of divorced parents, adding that he sometimes feels out of place in wealthy, serene Pacific Heights. “My children are being raised with a certain kind of privilege, so art is a safe way for them to be exposed to who Daddy is.”

Downstairs, I ask how the painting of two people locked in a kiss, by New York artist Robert Longo, escaped the closet. “Oh, ummm, yeah,” he replies. “But I’m sure the kids are also wondering about what is getting thrown down that well.” He points to a snow globe by the collaborative team of Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz, which sits on a nearby table. “I don’t think the kids look at it closely, though,” he says, holding it up to reveal a man dangling a child over an open well, while a second man holds another child off in the distance. “Once the kids become a different age…” He trails off when he notices Dashiell, his seven-year-old son, standing behind us.

“Dashiell, have you ever noticed that the kids are getting thrown down that well?” Anderson asks.

“Yeah,” Dashiell replies softly.

Anderson raises an eyebrow. “How does that make you feel?”

“Angry.”

“Angry at who?”

“The people.”

Anderson smiles. “Oh, yeah, a little sense of justice there!” he says.

Paul Sack—How to build a themed collection
Paul Sack wasn’t planning to build an art collection back in 1987. He just needed to spruce up his office, and photographs seemed like an easy way to do it. Faced with a daunting universe of images, Sack, a real estate investor, hit on the idea of buying only images of buildings. After learning how difficult it is to maintain color prints, he sought out black-and-white photography, which meant he did not look for work created after 1975, when color became the norm. Concerned about storage, he decided that only the panoramic pictures could exceed 24 inches on the longest side. When they aren’t on display at SFMOMA or the de Young, many of the photographs in Sack’s collection hang on 32 sliding panels in a light- and temperature-sensitive room in his office at 49 Geary Street.

The collection includes images by such heavyweights as 19th-century innovator William Henry Fox Talbot; Edward Weston, known for his sensual, natural forms; photojournalists Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange; and prolific modernist Paul Strand. In an effort to chronicle the evolution of the form, Sack also has photographs by lesser-known artists like Dora Maar, whose work was long overshadowed by her status as Picasso’s model and lover, and Bill Owens, who began photographing Bay Area suburban life in the late ’60s. Part of the charm of this collection lies in finding the sometimes-hard-to-spot sliver of a building in the picture.

Early on, local art consultant Mary Zlot helped Sack, and he has often turned to SFMOMA senior photography curator Sandra Phillips for advice. Sack visits a few New York dealers regularly. Five or six times a year, he says, he gets a call from Jeffrey Fraenkel or Frish Brandt at the Fraenkel Gallery (also at 49 Geary), which Sack calls “the best gallery for photography west of the Hudson, and there is no gallery east of the Hudson which is better.” When he sees a piece he likes, he resists buying it right away. Instead, he has it sent to him with similar options, so he can look at them all for up to several weeks. “At the end of that time, I’ll realize that with one or two, I’ve seen everything there is to see, while the other one will have grown on me. That is the one I take.”

Sack paid $275,000 for Charles Sheeler’s vintage print (meaning Sheeler printed it himself within three months of taking the picture) of Side of a White Barn. But many of the photographs cost closer to $200. Photography is still one of the least expensive arts for collectors, although prices have risen with the soaring art market. Those shifting economics, not to mention Sack’s own collecting prowess, mean that creating a collection like his would be nearly impossible today, because “these pictures are no longer available. But you could put together a contemporary collection,” he says brightly. “You have people making pictures every day."