(Fragment) Paul Mccarthy. Tomato Head (Green). From Norton’s collection

Norton has always been attracted by the opportunity to promote the public availability of art. In 1988 he organized the Christmas Project, where he invited artists to create works that were later sent to ordinary people as Christmas presents. In this way, about 5,000 works of art reached their viewers in the most direct way possible; now, many collectors desire the works from the series, because they were part of an interesting project. In 2001, under the guidance of Solomon, a considerable part of Norton’s collection was donated to American museums. Before that, Solomon had spent a year traveling around America conducting a study of which works of art from the collection would be most suitable for what museum. Norton has also founded a grant system where artists must pay back their grant only if they have successfully ascended the steps of their career and achieved a certain degree of financial wellbeing with their art. 

The approach of in-depth collecting does have one “deficiency”: when purchasing several works right away, the collection grows in inconceivable volumes. Norton currently owns about 4,000 works of contemporary art, which seems an even more considerable figure when you take into account the fact that Norton’s fundamental interest is in 3D objects. Some of the installations are so big that he has given them specially built rooms at his house. A year ago, Norton turned to Solomon with a request to sell sixty works from the collection at a charitable auction, which will take place at the Moscow branch of Christie’s on November 8 and 9. 

The discussion “What Does Public Responsibility Mean to a Private Collector” organized as part of ART MOSCOW 2011 at the Moscow branch of Christie’s. 

The Relationship Between Russian Art and Collectors

Norton is undoubtedly one of the best examples of a private collector’s support for public collections. Yet the discussion in Moscow was also joined by members of the Russian art market—collectors, representatives of public art spaces, and artists.

When asked whether public responsibility could be found in each art collector’s ethical code, and what was the status of collaborations between the private and public sectors in the Russian art world, a string of fragmented statements was heard. However, it was possible to divide them into two main points, to which the participants returned again and again: a system of support and collaboration; and the quality of private collections.

During the conversations, the participants emphasized the nonexistence of this system as the main problem in today’s Russia. That is, museums work, private collections develop, and artists struggle—but too each independently from the other, too self-sufficiently. Likewise, support from collectors is not developed strategically, but rather more on the level of like/dislike. Perhaps this could be justified by the comparatively recent culture of collecting, said a representative from the Ekaterina Cultural Foundation (Moscow).

A cross-section of the problems was also revealed by the collectors present at the discussions. In relation to donations to museums and art centers, the philanthropist and French banker Pierre Broche, who lives in Moscow, openly admitted that he doesn’t have any motivation to give gifts—as long as the PR of institutions continues to stand in place—and he is often not even invited to the openings of new establishments. Broche is a regular participant in ART MOSCOW discussions. For example, last year he participated in a conversation about new art collectors, where he said that it is characteristic of the art market in Russia that it is precisely collectors who “raise artists into the light,” even before gallery owners have shown any interest. Meanwhile, businessman Andrei Prinev confirmed the lack of a unified system. He indicated that solving the matter would quicken the development of the local art sector, because he personally has financially supported several artists, as well as exhibits and the publication of catalogues, yet there is a lack of a centralized institution to which you could donate money so that it could distribute funds in the form of regular grants.

The other main problem in Russia, which also possible arises from the fact that private collections of contemporary art have, for the most part, been formed relatively recently, is the knowledge base of the collectors themselves. The aforementioned in-depth collecting is a rare phenomenon here. The founder of the AES+F group, the artist Lev Yevzovich, said in the conversation that collectors must follow the growth of artists, acquiring examples from various creative periods, not just one work of art presenting the artist—as is the custom in Russia. What is more, collectors that follow the creative growth of artists in various stages of their career can express a much more professional opinion of the given artist.

At the discussion, a question of how to develop a collector’s “eye” was followed by the self-evident but therefore no less essential answer that one must accumulate a thick layer of experience, go to exhibits, museums, artists’ studios, and learn as much as possible. Peter Norton himself once said that he “learns by looking at art on a daily basis,” which, of course, is certainly helped by the interior of his home, where he wakes up with contemporary art and goes to bed with art beside his pillow.