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Elizabeth Dee: You’ve done a lot of early collecting of emerging artists, risk-taking artists before they became internationally recognized. You supported many artists that had yet to receive wider recognition. As a former gallerist, you were my go-to collector on interesting artists whose work did not fit the traditional mold. You were a collector I could introduce to the artist early in their experience, and as a result, build those friendships and relationships with artists that have lasted a very long time. And without your early belief and commitment, I don't think we could have pulled off those incredibly ambitious projects, and I am sure other galleries feel exactly the same way.

When you acquire or support a young artist at this stage, how do you see it and what compels you to sign on?

Charlotte Feng Ford: Well, it's mostly an emotional reaction. So, it may sound cliché, but it's really how you respond and obviously, the respect you have for the gallery that is showing this artist. I remember when you showed me Ryan Trecartin’s work at the very beginning and I remember thinking, "Okay, let's take this chance.” He’s a young artist who knows where it's going to lead, and I could tell he had a vision. I was able to provide some of the resources to production and early commitments to works. Just watching what happened was exciting.

Elizabeth: That was a great moment. I was just thinking of Andrea Bowers too, a great artist who has had your complete support. Can you remember that moment you decided to get involved?

Charlotte: I saw one of her works first. I didn't know who she was, but was intrigued by it. After I learned about the artist, I said to myself, "I want to have the most important collection of her work" - that’s the moment that started me on that path. She recently had a fantastic show at Andrew Kreps. I feel honored to have been a part of her journey, and still am. She's also now a friend.  

It’s important for collectors to support the artists they collect. And that means helping to sponsor shows at institutions and underwriting publications, not only collecting artworks. If they need finances for production costs, in the way I did for Ryan, I see that as part of the collecting.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. Collector, co-producer…

Charlotte: Yes. It's fulfilling to watch them and see where they are now, and the success they’ve achieved, because it's difficult. The journey for the artist is very hard. It's much easier for the collector, I think. It's a privilege to own these works but also a responsibility.

Elizabeth: It's almost like on one hand, it's the art of taking a risk or having a leap of faith. And on the other hand, it's the artwork stewardship, a duty and a responsibility beyond that moment, like opposite ideas that normally don't align, but they do in this case.

Charlotte: Yes, I feel that even with established artists. I think it is important for a collector to do that.

Elizabeth: In the years you've been an art patron, what do you observe on how collecting's evolving generally?

Charlotte: It's very fast-paced. There's no time to breathe. It used to be, you could actually see a work of art face-to-face before deciding. Now, especially if it's a highly coveted artist, you only have a nanosecond! I see many collectors acquiring from JPEGs and that's not the best way, especially when you're starting out.

Elizabeth: Absolutely. You need to stand in front of a lot of work by the same artist to know which works are worth having, right?

Charlotte: Yes.

Elizabeth: I totally get that. We talked a little bit about the emotional side of collecting. I wanted to touch on the intellectual and philanthropic aspects as well. For instance, I’m wondering if there is a common viewpoint between Andrea Bowers, Ryan Trecartin and another artist here in your collection, Dorothy Iannone, who’s having a solo show at Independent next week. Is there a common viewpoint that you can share?

A Conversation with Charlotte Feng Ford - Features - Independent Art Fair

Charlotte Feng Ford and Andrea Bowers. Copyright BFA. 

Charlotte: No, it's not specific. It's specific to the artist. And usually they're either starting or they're undiscovered. Like I said, it's just my gut reaction – I fall in love with a work of art and learning about the artist, their practice mostly and what they're trying to do, what they're trying to say in their art. In Andrea Bowers’ case, she was not an emerging artist but really hadn't shown that much outside of galleries. And I just said, this artist is really important and if I'm going to collect, I want to be able to have all forms of her art, media, video, drawings. And now she's doing neon, so that's important too, but it's not specifically that she connects to Ryan Trecartin or anything like that. So obviously my collection is super eclectic.

Elizabeth: Agree. These artists are really occupying very different spheres, different generations, different cultural perspectives. Observing from here, I would say most of the artists you've collected over the years do find an institutional support system, or are bound to at some point.

Charlotte: I never collected with that in mind. As an early collector, I didn't know that was needed. And so being approached by museums to help support these younger artists who I was committed to, who I cared about, my answer was always yes, of course that's natural. Contemporary artists respond to their own lives, current issues and their experiences. Their work captures a moment in time. It’s a responsibility, owning their works and helping them. 

Recently, I wanted to look back. I’m still committed to collecting younger artists, but I have been exploring more established, historical and deceased artists who I believed may have influenced the artists that I already had in the collection. So that's how I started collecting Isa Genzken, Martha Rosler, Dorothy Iannone, Channa Horowitz and others. It’s an instinct that gets confirmed when I hear from Andrea Bowers that Martha Rosler is an artist whom she respects, that makes me feel great.  I love and collect Elizabeth Peyton, and I discovered that she admires Alice Neel, who’s work I have hanging next to her painting here at home.

Elizabeth: We talked a little bit about how collecting has sped up. Art fairs have probably been part of that equation for sure. How can art fairs better serve and support the collector and artist relationship? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Charlotte: The initial reaction is less art fairs. Then the artists don't have pressure to just crank out the artwork. Fairs could really facilitate collectors to have more, and stronger, interaction with the actual artists. Because that's what it's all about. You're going to see their work, and wouldn't it be great to also meet them? Fairs do that with talks and panels, but to have more of that, I think would be good. Studio visits are great, but that can be overwhelming to an artist and that’s not right for everyone. Maybe hearing artists talk. But yes, I think fairs contributing to collectors’ learning would take advantage of these opportunities. But I'm not sure.

Elizabeth: When we say fairs, it's hard to put every fair into that basket. We're here because of Independent Art Fair, which is a very different kind of engagement than a typical fair. Do you want to say a few words about Independent and what you think it does in terms of the art world, or what your experiences have been there? 

Charlotte: Yes. Independent was very refreshing for me when it first opened. I think it was a little bit smaller, more focused with more single artists-per-booth presentations. That’s a better experience for a collector because you can see a larger range or bigger body of work. That is always good. I know other people in the art world have had the same reaction, collectors and non-collectors. Independent has been a great experience. The pace is really nice. 

A Conversation with Charlotte Feng Ford - Features - Independent Art Fair

Maitri Farm. Image courtesy Maitri Farm. 

Elizabeth: That’s great to hear! Moving from the ideas of fairs, we touched on this idea of stewardship, but something that I've been talking to you about – and I think we all have interesting viewpoints on this conversation – is the concept of sustainability. I know you've been thinking a lot about this too. I just find it very interesting that you have in addition to the collection, an organic farm in the Hudson River Valley. Can you tell me more?

Charlotte: The name of my farm is Maitri. This is a Sanskrit word, meaning loving kindness and friendship to oneself. Life experiences takes us on our own journeys. I'm so fortunate to have the resources and capability to preserve the farm, the land; and also collect art by incredibly intelligent artists who devote their time and contribute to sustaining the world in which we all live.

Elizabeth: You have an organic farm and you collect; I think both things contribute to this question around sustainability. I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit about those two journeys and how they're different, and possibly where there might be some commonalities – or where they might connect?

Charlotte: Well, they both started as hobbies. Collecting art and then also organic gardening. I started gardening in 1999 to feed my family, so we could have vegetables without chemicals. Now that my children are adults, I'm thinking more about preserving the land, and bringing it back to its original purpose. Land is a place to nourish, to grow. 

Elizabeth: I would say it's a commonality between farming and art, which is an elevated form of collaboration. Very much I see you as a collaborator in your collecting mission, whether it's with artists or galleries or institutions or publishers. And in some ways, you have these relationships with the farmers who you are collaborating with on the land.

Charlotte: It’s also about advocacy. National Young Farmers Coalition is an organization that I endorse. Their mission is to support practices and policies that will sustain young, independent and prosperous farmers now and in the future. I appreciate how these young farmers are choosing careers and lifestyles that contribute to our wellbeing. 

A Conversation with Charlotte Feng Ford - Features - Independent Art Fair

Smith College Alumna: Thelma Golden '87, Charlotte Feng Ford Endowed Curator of Contemporary Art at Smith College Museum of Art, Emma Chubb, Director and Louise Ines Doyle Cheif Curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, Jessica Nicoll and Charlotte Feng Ford '83.



Elizabeth: That's great. Really thinking long term and with the next generation in mind. I guess we should also mention Smith college, which is another important pillar of your work as a philanthropist. You endowed a curatorial position a few years ago. Do you see these three areas - farming, philanthropy and collecting – complete that whole circle in terms of your anchor points between the collection, the farming and the museum community?

Charlotte: Yes. I try to impart the notion that giving back is important for all of us. And when I considered my donation to Smith, a women’s college that I attended, I wanted to have some sort of impact. Living with contemporary art, you can't help but think about things differently. Artists are responding to the world in which they live, to our environment. And the young women going to Smith college are in their formative years – what could I do for them? 

There's a fabulous museum, and I wanted to be one of the first to endow a curator of contemporary art at a 4-year college museum. I approached Smith with this idea, and they loved it.  My motivation was to engage the students and community with contemporary art, opening them up to so many amazing and challenging perspectives. The position would be more than a curator putting on shows; but also hosting lectures and teaching to the students, too. Smith is in a five-college community. This museum attracts a diverse community. Expanding with contemporary art was something that I wished would enhance their programs. It’s been great for the students as well as the community. 

Elizabeth: Great. Fantastic. So final question for you Charlotte, for collectors, or anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps and do more than just merely collect. It seems that what we're coming back to is that great collecting – what you do – isn't an object-driven enterprise. It's really about giving back. It's participating, it's collaboration, it's being broad and taking risks and thinking about stewardship. 

What advice would you have for anyone wanting to follow in your footsteps and do more than just merely collect artworks?

Charlotte: That's a hard question.

Elizabeth: Maybe it doesn't have to be answered today either.

Charlotte: Like I said earlier, there's no right or wrong. I’ve had the privilege of building this collection for 20 years. Being able to share my passion for and love of art with my children has been a deep source of joy for me.There's no right or wrong in collecting, but understand that owning is a responsibility, owed to the artists who put their heart and soul into creating it. So don't be preoccupied with how much a work will be worth in future years.

Collect something that makes you smile!