Collector's Corner

Photographic Memory: Artur Walther Has Built What May Be the World’s Largest and Most Important Private Collection of African Photography

Here’s how he did it


Artur Walther.


In 2005, when Okwui Enwezor, the Nigerian-born curator responsible for this year’s Venice Biennale as well as myriad other international exhibitions, was dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, Brian Wallis, then chief curator at New York’s International Center of Photography, approached him about an unusually ambitious show. “Okwui was looking for an outlet to do exhibitions,” Wallis recalled recently, “and I asked him if he could do a show of contemporary photography from the whole African continent. He thought that was crazy, but I told him, ‘We can put together a budget, and you can travel and take your time,’ and he said, ‘OK—there’s a lot of great stuff.’ Anyway, having traveled around China with Christopher, Artur was immediately up for crisscrossing Africa for four weeks with Okwui.”

Artur is Artur Walther, then an ICP trustee, and Christopher is Christopher Phillips, an ICP curator and Chinese contemporary art expert who had taken Walther on a wide-ranging China trip a couple of years earlier. Walther, already a collector of German 20th-century photography, expanded his purview shortly afterward to encompass conceptual work by post–Tiananmen Square Chinese artists.

The Africa trip, which resulted in Enwezor’s critically lauded 2006 ICP exhibition “Snap Judgments: New Positions in Contemporary African Photography,” sparked a whole new collecting interest for Walther.

These days Walther is looking awfully prescient. At the moment, four New York museum shows include photographs by artists represented in his collection: the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa” and its show of works by South African photographer Jo Ractliffe; the Grey Art Gallery and the Japan Society’s collaborative “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979”; and “Ocean of Images,” an expanded edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s annual “New Photography” show.

Since 2010 Walther has mounted themed shows of works from his holdings in a 10,000-square-foot complex of buildings in his hometown of Burlafingen, Germany, on the outskirts of Ulm. The exhibitions, organized by a parade of well-regarded outside curators, kicked off with a three-year, three-part series on African photography accompanied by a trilogy of beautifully produced scholarly catalogues. A satellite project space in New York presents ancillary exhibitions related to the larger shows in Germany. “Artur has done something that to my mind nobody else has really done,” said Wallis, who witnessed firsthand how this unique collection came together.

At 67, Walther is trim and youthful. On a recent afternoon in his minimalist uptown Manhattan apartment, he was barefoot and neatly dressed in jeans and a spotless white shirt. Though he enjoys talking about his photography collection, there is no art on his white walls. Lining a windowsill in the dining room, though, is a series of photographs of Sixth Avenue, taken in the 1930s by an unknown photographer. Wallis, who left his position at ICP last February and is now Walther’s latest curatorial collaborator, called them a “time capsule of everyday life.”

Born in Neu-Ulm, Walther attended Harvard Business School before going to work on Wall Street. In 1994, when he was in his mid-50s, he retired from Goldman Sachs, where he was a partner; a few years later he began taking photography classes—including a master class with Stephen Shore—at ICP. A turning point came when Walther, who had started to collect photography himself, bought a typology by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, known for their documentation of vanishing industrial structures like water towers and blast furnaces.

He and the Bechers became friendly. “When they talked about their work,” Walther recalled, “it was in connection with the Neue Sachlichkeit photographers Karl Blossfeldt and August Sander.” Pieces by Blossfeldt and Sander, along with more of the Bechers’ typologies and works by Bernd Becher’s students Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, formed the original nucleus of Walther’s collection.

It was during this period that Walther became more involved with the workings of ICP. In 1997, he became co-chair, with Meryl Meltzer, of its newly formed exhibitions committee, a group of patrons who help develop and fund future shows at the museum.

Two years later, Wallis was hired by ICP and charged with assembling a new staff of curators. “The exhibitions committee meetings at ICP,” Wallis recalled with a laugh, “would come in the late afternoons, and there would be a business meeting where the curators would present their ideas like at other museums, but then we’d go to an artist’s studio, spend a couple of hours there, and then we’d go out for a three- or four-hour dinner.”

“I would even go to the restaurant before and taste the food, taste the wine,” said Walther. “It was orchestrated to the greatest degree.”

“Nothing left to chance!” agreed Wallis. “So they were great events. And just from a consensus-building, base-building angle, they were fantastic. Prospective members of the committee would come to one of these all-night events and by the end of the night they would be totally on board. It was very exciting and we got a lot done.”

With an influx of new curators, including Christopher Phillips and Carol Squiers, the ICP began to expand its focus globally. Going global was something Western dealers and curators had flirted with before. In the wake of Jean-Hubert Martin’s groundbreaking (and controversial) 1989 show “Magicians of the Earth” at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the mainstream art world of the 1990s briefly interested itself in non-white, non-male, and non-occidental perspectives. But while publications and exhibitions from that time set in motion irreversible changes in how art is viewed and written about in the West, those changes were obscured—at the time and in the years since—by the rise of international biennials and their international style of festivalist art, as well as the emergence of a global art market, in which fashions for, say, Latin American or Chinese art, may be short lived and superficial.

“There’s actually been a lot ongoing for the past 10 or 15 years, but it wasn’t getting the same attention as other shows,” said Wallis.

But by the early 2000s, globalism had begun in earnest at art institutions, and ICP’s expansion of what it exhibited was part of this. In 2003 it launched the ICP triennial, a showcase for international art, and in 2004 it mounted “Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China,” an exhibition co-curated by Phillips and Wu Hung. “And the most amazing thing to me,” said Wallis, “was that Artur suggested that he go along with Phillips to see what was being selected for the exhibition and what the story was on the ground in China.”

Walther and Phillips were in China for several weeks. “But,” said Walther, “I didn’t buy anything on that trip. And the reason was that I couldn’t tie it in to me. I was sure of the work. I knew it was special. But having before only really bought Sander, Blossfeldt, Becher, and so on, it was, from a collecting standpoint, very difficult for me [to make that leap].”

After the success of the Chinese photography show, Wallis said, “The question then became, what else is going on in the world? What is interesting, or could be interesting? How can we widen our approach?”

That was when Enwezor entered the picture. Enwezor had already organized a number of innovative shows of material from Africa, including “In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present” (1996), with Octavio Zaya for the Guggenheim in New York, and “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994” (2002), for the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.

“I had known of the ‘In/sight’ and ‘Short Century’ exhibitions, and I said, ‘We should look at this,’” Walther said.

Enwezor’s exhibition was an unmitigated critical success for ICP. In the New York Times Holland Cotter called “Snap Judgments” “fantastic—stimulating, astringent, brimming with life.” For Walther, his trip around Africa with Enwezor jump-started his journey into African photography. He now has what may be the largest collection of African photography in the world.

“This is where Artur’s program really stands out,” said Wallis. “It’s one of the few places to see this incredible stuff. Take someplace like South Africa, for example—it’s unbelievable the range and quality of the photographic work produced there over last 20 or 30 years.”

In 2004, Walther began to think about finding a dedicated place to show his collection. He already had the space—formerly his photo studio—in Chelsea, but needed more room.
“My father was dead and my mother became terminally ill, and I was flying from New York to Ulm twice a month for two years,” he said. “I started to connect with the city again. Then my mother died and there were three houses that I didn’t know what to do with that I thought I could use for storage and exhibition space.”

The compound in Burlafingen consists of four modestly sized buildings: the White Box, and the Green, Black, and Grey houses. “I didn’t want to create too massive a structure in this neighborhood of single-family dwellings,” said Walther.

Wallis’s first show for The Walther Collection, “The Order of Things,” opened earlier this year in Burlafingen. It picked up on a central focus of the collection: the photographic series. With works—all from Walther’s holdings—ranging from motion studies by pioneering 19th-century photographer Eadweard Muybridge to documentation of a 1996 performance by Chinese artist Song Dong, and from Richard Avedon’s 1970s portraits of the American political establishment to anonymous mug shots, the show examined how we represent ourselves and are in turn represented.

Preternaturally organized, Walther has the next four years of exhibitions in both his New York and Burlafingen spaces planned. A show of photography by emerging artists from Africa, the first of three, opened this fall at The Walther Collection’s New York project room. Titled “The Lay of the Land,” it focuses on architecture. The following two exhibitions there will take as their subjects social networks and the body, respectively. (“It’s ‘Snap Judgments’ plus ten years,” Brendan Wattenberg, the director of the New York space and, with Walther, co-curator of the shows, told me.) And then 2017 will see a major exhibition of the artists in the New York shows opening in Ulm and the publication of a catalog.

“In 2018, in Burlafingen,” Walther said, “I want to show the Chinese [art in my collection] and produce a catalog of that. And then, for 2019, Brian and I are working on a history of vernacular photography.”

The 2019 show is likely to include commercial, forensic, and ethnographic studies as well as personal archives. It will further the ideas introduced by Wallis in “The Order of Things”: that vernacular photographic series may reveal much about a society’s internalized values; that their meaning can be analyzed; and that they have the potential to be repurposed by artists to construct new social orders.

“The idea behind ‘The Order of Things’ was that the work of many artists—especially younger artists—is less about creating than organizing, or sorting, or selecting and repositioning,” Wallis said. “And there is a whole logic to organizing images and information that I think has been inherent in photography from the beginning—photography creates these units that can be rearranged, building blocks of knowledge about social structures. So Artur is now adding things to the collection like 19th-century mug shots.”

‘The chronology we are talking about, what Artur is describing, is his own autodidactic training as a curator and an art historian,” Wallis told me. “At the beginning, he was learning, learning, learning, first what things to acquire, then how to organize them, and then how to create a place to display them. But now he’s completely on his own. He chooses the work, he organizes it, he displays it. He’s basically a one-man show, with some other people coming in, providing commentary.”

Wallis calls The Walther Collection “a very light-on-its-feet institution.” “The beauty of [the collection] is that there are just one, or two, or three of us, and our communication is very straightforward,” Walther said. “The beauty is that you work sometimes in a way that is unbelievably crazy, but you work directly. There is no delegation. That makes it very effective. I can put things by these younger artists up now, whereas a museum would require a longer lead time.”

I asked Walther if he has any interest in expanding the collection further—perhaps into photography from the Middle East—and he sighed. “I would have a lot of interest,” he said, “but this has to be manageable, and I always feel that there has to be critical mass. To do something as a one-off doesn’t make sense to me. Would I be interested in expanding into certain regions? Yes. But what I am trying to do is grow what we have.” Then he brightened. “But if there was a Middle Eastern artist that fit into this sphere…and, actually, there are one or two…”

“Après Eden,” a sampling of Walther’s holdings curated by Revue Noir cofounder Simon Njami, is currently on view at La Maison Rouge, a private foundation in Paris.

Images from the collection follow below.

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