Thinking About Caretaking

Thinking About Caretaking

Vault Owner Chris Campbell on his holistic approach to working with collectors and their artworks 

Collection management is all about observing and listening.

Not observing and listening in a social context; I’m not talking about conversations at art openings or big events, but this is about talking to someone at home, one-on-one, looking at artworks and listening to them, trying to sleuth out what problems they might have and what might they not be thinking about. You have to always be a step ahead, looking for the problems, planning for them so they never happen.

I don’t really spend much time revisiting what we’ve done. Maybe this sounds arrogant, but I think once we’ve installed a work, it’s safe and good there, so I don’t need to go back. Instead, I try to go to all the job sites, to be present and to make a plan for any potential

future issues. The thing is, when someone buys a work of art, they are entering into an agreement for both the short-term and the long-term care of the piece. To buy it, to own it, that’s one thing. But to take care of it is a whole other thing: you have to be really proactive.

I guess you could say that I got started in this line of work when I was a kid, tinkering with my grandpa’s tool chest. We would build and take apart radios. Later it was skateboard ramps. I just always thought, why can’t we build that ourselves? I did some light construction work. Later, I became a ceramicist, got my MFA in ceramics, and worked at UT as a tech in their ceramics studio. Most ceramic studios aren’t bought straight out of a box, they’re built to specification for how they will be used, so I was always troubleshooting how to make that kind of space really functional. For several years, I worked as a prep guy at AMOA and I learned from the head preparator. He had this wonderfully extreme notion of how to be in these houses where we were installing or deinstalling objects on loan: I remember, he would always take off his shoes before he entered a space! I learned a lot from him (although I tend to leave my shoes on).

I work on a regular basis with clients who are buying work outside of this part of Texas, people who go to Miami or Europe or Mexico or New York. Often the gallerists or consultants working outside of Texas are surprised at the environmental conditions here, so they aren’t able to predict the conservation needs we have. It’s amazing how quickly objects can deteriorate because of this heat! I always tell clients when they travel, if they want to call me or send me photos of an object, I can send them research about how it will handle the specific climate of Texas and what we’ll need to do to protect it. Those are the hidden costs of a collection, the things people sometimes forget to plan for.

One of the most interesting surprise projects I’ve ever had actually happened recently. We got a call from a long-time client who needed help moving between 7,000 and 10,000 pounds of gym equipment. I thought, are you kidding me? That’s not what we do! I figured they wanted us to oversee the project so it wouldn’t damage an Ai Wei Wei sculpture installed nearby. But when I got there, I realized the sculpture was nowhere near the gym. And when I asked them about it, they told me: “Look, Chris, here’s the thing. Your company is used to working in this kind of environment, and we need you to oversee this so the new house doesn’t get damaged. The movers aren’t trained in how to do that kind of precision work.” In this case, the work of art was the house!

When we first started Vault, I think we had a different idea of what collections management would be. I thought it would be something like making a database, recording where all the work is, where it’s traveling to, managing the related accounting. Actually, what we’re doing, though, is thinking about the specific object in the specific place where it will live and working with the client to take care of it, there. Really, it’s caretaking of objects and people.

Moving forward, I’d love to see Vault consulting for people who are building new homes or buildings, when they’re doing repair or construction. You have to look at a space, always thinking about access and egress. How can we look at a building in progress and make recommendations that will take into account the potential art collection there? How can the architecture be designed in a way that is beneficial to the art collection? How can we trouble shoot from the level of architectural design?

One of the things I love about this kind of work is that when you’re there, in someone’s house, you have these amazing interactions with the collectors, because they are excited about this new thing that they’ve bought. They’re pulling it out of the crate for the first time, or seeing it at their home for the first time. You think about how you’re going to talk to them, how you’re going to plan with them, how they’re going to live with this interesting and beautiful thing that they love. These are intensely focused experiences: you’re catching them at the best possible moment – the grand reveal, and it’s such a thrill.

Read More About The Author:

Laura August, PhD 

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