Thea Westreich, the visionary US art advisor whose grasp of the system determined the Kramlich Collection's success

She is the bridge between the private collector and the public


New York

Imagine that you want to start building an art collection. You work in an area unrelated to the art world, perhaps as a venture capitalist specialising in new technologies. Although outstandingly successful in your own field, your knowledge of the mysterious protocols that govern the art market is sketchy. Nevertheless, you have a passion for art and the ambition to build a collection. What do you do?

Ten years ago Richard Kramlich—co-founder and general partner of New Enterprise Associates, a new media group in the BaySan Francisco Area—and his wife Pamela were in precisely this position. Ten years later they have assembled the ground-breaking collection of media art due to go on public display for the first time at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA) this month. The exhibition (“Seeing time: selections from the Richard and Pamela Kramlich Collection of Media Art,” 15 October-January, 2000) spans the past thirty years of artists’ work in time-based media, from pioneers such as Marcel Broodthaers, Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, to the more recent and technologically sophisticated work of Mariko Mori and Matthew Barney. Even though the exhibition fills the entire fourth floor of the museum, it represents only a fraction of the total Kramlich holdings: some 145 works by sixty international artists.

So vast has the Kramlich Collection grown that the Silicon Valley couple has been compelled radically to restructure their lives around it. Two years ago they engaged Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron to design a structure that would function both as a home and a place to display their collection. And in a further institutional endorsement of their endeavours, the project for the Kramlich Collection and Residence (projected completion 2000) is currently featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “The un-private house” (until 5 October, 1999). How, in the space of a decade, have the Kramlichs evolved from outsiders into the custodians of one of the most radical collections currently in private hands?

As New York dealer Andrea Rosen points out, “The Kramlich Collection goes beyond being a collection: it has transformed both the lives of its owners and the consciousness of the people in that community. Thea was very savvy and smart to realise that she could tap not only into the business side but also something much greater.”

The Thea in question is Ms Westreich, founder of Art Advisory Services and exclusive advisor to the Kramlichs since 1989. Robert Riley, curator of media art at SFMoMA and organiser of “Seeing time”, confirms that the process which has brought the exhibition to fruition is as much a result of programming policy on the part of his institution as, “…an ecology of interests that exists between the museum, the Kramlichs and Art Advisory Services.” Mr Riley explains, “When Jack Lane came here to become the director in 1986 he reorganised the curatorial divisions creating, among others, a new department of media. He also set about reinvigorating the board with new people who were vital in the local business community, but also interested in art. The Kramlichs were among those people and they immediately saw the dynamic nature of artists working in time-based media. They wanted to get more involved and John Caldwell, [former curator of painting and sculpture at SFMoMA], introduced them to Thea Westreich. She has brought the Kramlichs into contact with some extraordinary work.”

Amid a myriad of individual art advisors and organisations purporting to offer expert guidance through the esoteric, and often murky, reaches of the art market, Thea Westreich and her company of seven full-time staff members are distinguished by energy and ubiquity. Born in New York in 1942, Ms Westreich studied political science and once wanted to work in diplomacy. Upon relocating to Washington DC, where she lived from 1965 to 1985, she found that she had a voracious interest in art, and juggled the raising of her children with art history courses at various universities in the capital. “My course work was not based on any curriculum other than what I thought looked interesting,” she says. “One semester it might be modern art, the next medieval.” Her first foray into the commercial art world was not in contemporary art, but in a DC-based Americana gallery with John Newcomer. (“Weathervanes were just starting to creep into the four and five figures,” she remembers.) However, she decided that working as a dealer diluted the conceptual approach she wanted to have towards art, so she left the gallery and entered the non-profit sector. She worked as a volunteer for a variety of organisations ranging to the National Ballet before securing a consultancy contract from the NEA in the early 80s through a consulting service of her own. Since then she has curated exhibitions from many of the collections she has helped to build, produced artists’ books, and has also edited the collected writings of the late John Caldwell.

The resulting range and diversity of contacts cultivated over these years—dealers, curators, artists and society players—is, in Ms Westreich’s own words, “impressive”. “We are on the preferred list of many galleries,” she claims, “and if we want to get someone onto a board of trustees we can facilitate that.”

Ms Westreich hastens to point out that there are no “commissions or payments of any sort from dealers. I am paid exclusively by my clients on all occasions.” And while she refuses to discuss either the financial details of those relationships, or confirm rumours of her involvement in the purchase of specific works at auction, on the subject of the service she provides, she is animated.

“The first critical step is knowledge of what the client wants to achieve, because very often they don’t fully know what the opportunities are for collecting. That kind of knowledge is reasonably profound in that people’s desires pertain to their personal lifestyles. In that sense my position is not unlike that of an interior designer, but in most cases it is far more important and remunerative in the sense that real art acquisitions give great intellectual stimulation, and they also have an asset value.”

Determining the value of these assets “…is done by adhering to the exact same guidelines as the Art Appraisal Association. We speak to dealers associated with the career of the artist in question [secondary market or otherwise], and refer to auction records. By having such a broad international base, we have the benefit of a much larger pool of information than most other people.” Appraisals are then issued to clients in the form of combined annual insurance updates and conservation reports, and whenever works are accessioned, deaccessioned or bequeathed to museums and other institutions.

Facilitating relationships between collectors and institutions has been a crucial part of Thea Westreich’s service, and what makes her a player in the game between private and public, commercial and non-commercial collections. At SFMoMA, which has become the primary recipient of bequests from the Kramlich’s collection, curator Robert Riley comments, “Often I’ll call her up about a piece I am interested eventually to acquire for the museum and think that she should see, and she’ll say, ‘We’re three steps ahead of you.’”

“We make our clients aware of the many existing opportunities for them to use their art collection in ways that give them a bigger bang for their bucks,” she explains. “Their collecting enables them to enjoy a wealth of opportunities beyond the more obvious aspects of scholarship, connoisseurship and financial investment.”

Ms Westreich is clearly proud of what she has achieved and the Kramlich example certainly seems adequate testimony to her significance. As Andrea Rosen points out, “Given that we live in conservative times and consensus [in museums] creates limitations, collectors are one of today’s most important creative forces. There is always room for people who know something to help people who know nothing but building a collection is as much about building a collector and engaging them in a serious dialogue. In this sense Thea is exemplary.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Give them a bigger bang for their bucks'