'I am always thinking about where I personally can make the difference'
Beginning a new series of ‘Conversations with Collectors’, Pamela Joyner spoke to Frieze.com about social justice, why she doesn’t fund exhibitions and Four Generations, the newly published catalogue of her collection.
Frieze.com You have recently put together Four Generations, a catalogue of your collection, with contributions from everyone from Mary Schmidt Campbell, to Phillipe Vergne, to Jessica Morgan. What was the genesis of this project?
Pamela Joyner It started with an interview in 2014 with Mark Godfrey, Mark Bradford and Jack Whitten. It was such a rich conversation, we realized that a book of this kind – with the voices of scholars and curators and artists in dialogue - could be a way to tell the history of abstraction by African Americans. That’s the focus of our collection: we collect works by several generations of artists who deserve recognition but have been overlooked; whose stories aren’t necessarily known but deserve to be. Those are the stories we are trying to tell. In this way, the book only “happens” to be the story of our collection.
Frieze.com How did you go about selecting the voices?
PJ When we started contacting potential contributors, I was stunned that virtually everybody we asked to participate did take part! Which is why the book grew... We thought the best way to expose the collection and highlight its historical importance would be to create a book that could tell these artists’ stories from an institutional perspective. The contributors are not necessarily specialists in this particular field – but when you put, say, Nicholas Cullinan in front of a Sam Gilliam, he can’t help but respond. It’s a fresh perspective, and the participation of someone like Nicholas, in this case, helps put this work in the full context of the canon.
The book for me is also a testimony to the enthusiasm and dedication of the institutional community. It is not so much to promote our own efforts as collectors, but to encourage the rigorous attention of curators and museum directors and shine it on these artists.
Frieze.com Given that enthusiasm, how to you go about delineating the area you want to shine a light on?
PJ We have a narrative, or the start of one. We create tributaries, really, into and out of the mainstream. Six or seven years ago we began to buy work from the global African diaspora: South African artists, say, or artists of African descent who were born in South America. There’s a question about the limits of this methodology - how far back in time to go, for example. But what’s helped guide us in collecting, and also in the process of the book, is the desire to be disciplined. It has to be a “value added” narrative: we have to see what we could bring by telling a story.
Frieze.com How did that shift towards a more global picture happen? Was it a conscious, “academic” decision, or more intuitive?
PJ It was definitely organic. It was where the story led. Some of these artists who are not American have parallel stories to African American ones - their experiences intersect in quite obvious ways, there is the same potential for being overlooked. What’s always been at the heart of the project is the practice of the avant-garde: that’s what we wanted to celebrate and support. So how do you delimit that? In a way, what we did was cheat - to focus on African American abstraction narrows the field for us. This means stepping around some areas: if you look at the Black British avant-garde, for example, it’s figurative: Yinka Shonibare, Lubaina Himid, Isaac Julien, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. With each layer of this story, there’s always another layer underneath.
The substance of the art, the caliber of the practice, is what we look for - the decision we have to make is ‘is this work in fact avant-garde’? When I look down on the collection from 35,000 feet as it is, I see that race is a really bad lens through which to view art.
Frieze.com So is your focus on "righting wrongs", in that sense?
PJ For us it comes from a place of being committed to excellence - and equality. As I say, race is simply not a good lens through which to view art. But when the quality is there and has been overlooked, that’s where our mission comes in: the attempt to re-frame art history, to put these excellent works into the full context of the canon. If that’s a quest for social justice, I’m guilty of it.
Frieze.com But primarily, the story is about the art.
PJ It’s all about the art: it’s only about the art. When we were preparing the book, we looked at existing ones in which collectors share their collections. And so many of them - almost all of them, it seemed - pictured the collectors. We very consciously did not picture ourselves in Four Generations. We really view ourselves as stewards of the careers of these artists. The work is only passing temporarily through our hands. It’s going to institutions - it already has, in the case of many works. I am old enough now to be thinking about what happens to what remains in our hands at the end of the day - we want it to be in careful hands. I don’t know what form that takes yet. But we’ll get there, that I know for sure.
Frieze.com You are forthright in the Q&A at the end of the book that you are not so interested in supporting exhibitions, but rather focus on the accession of works into public collections.
PJ There is a lot of care and knowledge that goes into the process of building a collection - you have to think about what’s enduring. It’s not that we don’t all remember great exhibitions from 50, 60 years ago, but you have to pick the place you feel you can have the impact. Lots of people do exhibitions, but there aren’t always a lot of collections willing to underwrite a work’s permanent presence in institutions. I am always thinking about where I personally can make the difference.
Frieze.com It’s strategic.
PJ Yes - because I am a business person, after all.
Frieze.com So, if you could only live with one piece from your collection, what would it be?
PJ One piece? That’s really hard. Even to live with only one piece for a year… That said, there are artists and artworks that bring together many aspects of what it is we’re trying to accomplish. Norman Lewis has meant a great deal to us. In our house, we call him "Adam" - as in the first man. He’s the genesis of the collection. There’s a monumental work of his called Afternoon (1969) made 10 years before he passed away. That work is the entry unit to the collection.
Frieze.com What was the first piece you acquired?
PJ It was not terribly daring - a Jacob Lawrence. It felt like a safe choice. I wasn’t really sure then what it meant to collect - so I picked something that I loved. But then the door started opening, my eyes started opening. I still have it! I’ve never sold anything, actually. I’ve traded a few things - with the consent of the artist or the artist’s dealer. It’s not that I have a philosophical bias against it, but I tend to be thoughtful before going in - so I don’t change my mind. I’m going to have to have a really compelling reason to sell.
Frieze.com If there was any piece in the world that you could add to your collection, what would it be?
PJ That’s pretty easy - though it doesn’t obviously fall into my sweet spot. It’s an artist who is so important and would be completely in dialogue with the collection, though of course he’s not abstract, which is why I missed taking a position on him. It’s Kerry James Marshall. I am really sorry I did miss him. There’s one of his in the Met with the artist in his studio [Untitled (Studio), 2014]. Like all of his work, it’s laden with references to art history; he situates himself so strongly in art history in this piece. We’re trying to do the same thing, just taking a different path.
Frieze.com What are you looking forward to seeing here at Frieze London and Frieze Masters?
Frieze.com And what else is on your agenda for the week?
PJ Meetings, a lot of meetings. And then I’d love to see some shows: ‘Abstract Expressionism’ at the Royal Academy and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s show at Corvi-Mora is stunning. She’s only getting better and better.
Frieze.com And - despite you’re not tending to focus on supporting exhibitions - the collection is going on an exhibition tour in 2017, starting at the Ogden Museum in New Orleans.
PJ Yes, and of course we’ll support that exhibition! Why is it important to do that exhibition? Again, we are trying to be a catalyst for additional scholarship around this movement, and display helps. I do believe that the culture is better off the more stories that collectors tell: stories around feminism, regional stories. That enhances the whole global culture. I said before, the book is a kind of testimony to institutions - the heartwarming thing for us is how readily they participated, and how they open up the art – open up to the art. The art world is a community of learners. The collectors have to learn in order to buy; the curators have to learn to be relevant; the museums have to learn to inspire audiences. Finally, philanthropy is really important to us. And that’s why the works on the wall are important to us. We want them to be a road map.
Four Generations: The Joyner Giuffrida Collection of Abstract Art (ed. Courtney J. Martin) is out now from Gregory R. Miller & Co.