Jane Cofer on Collecting Photography

Display of photographs from Jane Cofer’s collection. Top, l to r, Ansel Adams, Grass and Rain, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1948; Edward Weston, Shell, 1927; Harry Callahan, Eleanor. Bottom, l to r, Elliott Erwitt, Versailles, France, 1975; Emmet Gowin, Nancy, Danville, VA, 1965; Susan Paulsen, Block Island, 2000; Oraien Catledge, Little Girl Crouching; Cindy Sherman, Self Portrait as Lucille Ball, 1975-2001. (Photo: John Ramspott)
Display of photographs from Jane Cofer’s collection. Top, l to r, Ansel Adams, Grass and Rain, Yosemite National Park, CA, 1948; Edward Weston, Shell, 1927; Harry Callahan, Eleanor. Bottom, l to r, Elliott Erwitt, Versailles, France, 1975; Emmet Gowin, Nancy, Danville, VA, 1965; Susan Paulsen, Block Island, 2000; Oraien Catledge, Little Girl Crouching; Cindy Sherman, Self Portrait as Lucille Ball, 1975-2001. (Photo: John Ramspott)

 

What’s the number one rule of collecting art? Buy art you love. Ignore the rule, and your collection can become just another lifeless financial investment. Live by the rule, and your collection can be like Jane Cofer’s.

Cofer has been collecting photography for about 25 years. Her first piece was a Berenice Abbott image that her parents purchased for her in 1991. I visited Cofer at her Atlanta home where she lives with her husband, David Roper, and their two children, to talk about her collection. Each room in the house contains only what it needs: the bare minimum of tasteful furniture, and one fine art photograph on each wall. “I hate clutter,” Cofer said. “I tell my kids, please don’t shoot your Nerf guns at the art, but on the other hand I want it to be comfortable. I don’t want to live in a gallery.”

As a collector, art consultant and appraiser, Cofer wears many hats. She can be serious and on point when discussing the legalities of the appraisal process and its oft-misunderstood importance. But when she jumps into collector mode, she dons a metaphoric party hat complete with sparkles and streamers. Her voice rises in enthusiasm when she describes the moment she first laid eyes on one of her favorite pieces, a work by Trine Søndergaard.

For all the exuberance she brings to collecting art, Cofer takes it very seriously. Her credentials as an appraiser and consultant — her company is called Art Matters — lend further authority to her insights about building a meaningful collection. Here are excerpts from our talk.

Caroline Stover: Art is obviously a big part of your life. What are the origins of your focus on art and photography in particular?

Jane Cofer: My mom, Susan Cofer, is an artist.  She does these wonderful drawings, sculpture, and papier-mâché, and has had shows at the High Museum. I always went with her to museums and galleries growing up.  When I was about my son’s age now, around 11, I started taking photographs of flowers, my Barbies, and anything I could. I loved photography because I could hide behind the camera, which helped me be who I wanted to be. In high school I heard about the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and I knew that’s where I wanted to go to college. I wanted to be a fashion photographer like Scavullo. It was a different time; the idea of going to art school didn’t fit the mold when I was growing up in Atlanta. I thought I was the rebel.

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Cofer has been collecting art for 25 years and appraising for 15. The works she has acquired are installed throughout her home. Pictured, l to r, Vee Speers, Untitled #28 from The Birthday Party Series, 2007; Abelardo Morell, Laura and Brady in the Shadow of our House, 1994; Debbie Fleming Caffrey, D Dog in Doorway, 1996.

CS: What was your experience like at RISD?

JC: I was there from 1985 to 1989. Going away to RISD allowed me to get away from everything I knew and figure stuff out on my own, but at first it was very hard to adjust, having  grown up in the South. People thought really differently than I did, I met people who didn’t believe in God, and I couldn’t understand the local accent! But the best thing about RISD was the winter session, when students could go to New York City and do six-week internships. I did an internship with Robert Longo in 1988, and another one with his girlfriend at the time, Gretchen Bender, in 1989.

CS: What was it like to work with Robert Longo?

JC: He was super nice and very fun to work for. One thing the experience taught me is how art is a business. Robert had assistants helping him fabricate the work. It never had occurred to me that that’s how his work was getting done. It was also interesting to see him focused on the Men in the Cities series at that time. It was what people wanted from him, and he was forced to produce what the buyers wanted. After the retrospective, the New York Times  published a scathing review on his show that I think really hurt him. He went to Paris and kind of dropped off the map, but now he is actually on the rise again with his new series about waves and tigers.

CS: After college, did you pursue a career in photography? And was collecting on your radar yet?

JC: I never touched the camera again after RISD. Robert and Gretchen were into video and film at the time, so when I got out of college, I took  that route. When I graduated in 1989, MTV was cool and a lot of artists were doing videos. I really wanted to be in New York City and make money, so I worked as a production assistant. The first time I made $125 a day I thought, Oh my God, this is high cotton! I was very excited to tell all my friends I worked on an R.E.M. video. Looking back now, I regret buying fancy clothes instead of art. That is especially true when I work with people’s collections and hear that they purchased their pieces in the ’80s. At the time, photography was affordable. Now, not so much!

CS: How has the photography market changed over the years?

JC: I think the market changed after the tech lull. People who were buying contemporary art might have suffered a ding in their bank accounts because of the crash in the tech market. People who would have paid a million for a Warhol would see that paying $50,000 for a William Eggleston photograph was a bargain. And then around the year 2000, there was a push to make photography more contemporaryart-oriented. You had Andreas Gursky doing huge pieces that only a corporation would put in their lobby. Contemporary photography  became more about size, and color, and lower edition numbers. Photographers wanted to be included under the umbrella of contemporary art that drove the market. Now I go to art fairs and see something I like and it’s $14,000. Everything seems to be $14,000 and it’s because someone is willing to pay that.

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