An Interview with Keith F. Davis, Part 1: It’s Not a Normal Job
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
Keith F. Davis is the Senior Curator of Photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. For 26 years, he was responsible for developing and curating the world-renowned photography collection of Hallmark Cards, Inc. In 2005 the company transferred the entire 6,500 piece collection to the Nelson-Atkins Museum, where Mr. Davis continues to oversee and add to the holdings. I spoke with him recently about his career and the many facets of the collection he curates.
Tim Greyhavens: How did you become interested in photography?
Keith F. Davis: In high school, I was the photographer for the school’s newspaper and yearbook. That hooked me. Then I studied for two years at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where we had incredible access to New York City. We’d go in on the train almost every weekend.
I saw lots of exhibitions at some of the early photography galleries―Witkin and Light galleries in particular―and most of the shows that John Szarkowski did at the Museum of Modern Art. That was really the beginning of my own understanding of and enthusiasm for the medium.
Those experiences convinced me I should transfer to major in photography. In 1972, I went to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and studied with Charles Swedlund and David Gilmore. Chuck had been a student of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind in the 1950s at the Institute of Design, in Chicago, and I now can see that I got their (Callahan’s and Siskind’s) teaching philosophy in a second-generation way through Chuck. In part, however, Swedlund was special in that he genuinely loved photo-history — the vernacular history, the material-culture history of the medium, as well as its art history. He was a wonderfully inspiring and fascinating guy.
I got an undergrad degree in photography, but even then I knew I was most interested in its history. In early 1976, I began in the master’s program in photo-history at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. The faculty then was remarkable: Beaumont Newhall, Van Deren Coke, and Thomas Barrow were all there at the time. There was also a great peer group and a very lively intellectual environment. Keith McElroy and Sarah Greenough were PhD candidates there at the time, as well as a number of others who became curators.
From there, I went to the Eastman House for a yearlong internship, in 1978–79. That, too, was an amazing experience — a deep and amazing collection, and a peer group of young people who loved the medium. In May or June 1979, I met Dave Strout there — he was a member of the House’s board of trustees who worked for Hallmark. He was involved with the Eastman House because he had known the director, Robert Doherty, for many years. Dave was an extremely smart and interesting guy who knew a lot about art and photography. He had been a professor at Kenyon College in the late 1940s, the period when he first met Harry Callahan.
With my year’s internship ending, Dave hired me to come out to Kansas City for a six-month temporary assignment to catalog the existing Hallmark photo collection. He had purchased 141 Callahan prints in 1964 for an exhibition in the old Hallmark gallery store at 720 Fifth Avenue, in New York City. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dave went on to acquire other bodies of work by Edward Steichen, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, László Moholy-Nagy, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Lewis Hine, and a variety of other major names.
When I got to Kansas City in August 1979, the collection included about 650 pieces by about 35 photographers in the collection. I was fascinated by what was there. I loved the Callahan group in particular and was really excited about the potential of the entire holding. Within a few months a curatorial position was created; there hadn’t been one before, so essentially it was designed for me.
Things took off from there and that six-month temporary assignment is still going nearly 40 years later! I had amazing and genuinely unique support from the higher-ups at Hallmark. Donald J. Hall, in particular, was very enthusiastic about the company having a profile in the art scene of the time — in whatever way was appropriate and on whatever level was appropriate. In his quiet but determined way, he backed my activities with the photo collection and is still doing so all these years later. And William A. Hall, head of the Hall Family Foundation, has been just as supportive — I’ve reported to Bill for just about 30 years now, and it has been wonderful.
It sounds like your serendipitous encounter with Dave Strout was the turning point for the Hallmark Company’s involvement with photography.
It resulted in a wonderful synergy, that’s for sure. Enormously interesting things were possible, and I found myself in the right place at the right time. It’s important to remember that Hallmark had a track record with contemporary art — it had begun acquiring contemporary paintings in 1949 and toured some exhibitions of contemporary art in the 1950s. In that context, the idea of starting a photography collection in 1964 wasn’t completely crazy, but it was definitely unusual. There was no “trend” in collecting photography at that time, but the photo collection became a logical part of this larger notion of the company being involved in the visual arts. But it was Dave Strout’s personal interest and knowledge of photography that got Don Hall’s father, J. C. Hall, to give a personal go-ahead in regard to photography. J.C. retired in the late 1960s, and then Don officially took over the company. It’s his enthusiasm and commitment that made my activities possible.
Was there an intent to use the photographs on the greeting cards, or was this entirely separate―a corporate art collection?
At the very beginning, there was a very modest effort to use some of the images on product. There was a 1967 Harry Callahan calendar that is now a collector’s item. It is a really elegant fine art calendar, but it couldn’t have sold very well. I know of no further effort to ever use works from the photo collection on product.
The collection really needs to be understood as a reflection of the Hall family philosophy. It was never intended to be geared toward product use or profit-making. From the beginning, it was essentially a charitable activity, a reflection of both a personal and a corporate philosophy.
Exhibitions were a key function of the collection from the beginning. In the 1960s and early 1970s, for example, Hallmark would loan the Callahan works to university art galleries and other venues for exhibitions. When John Szarkowski did a big Callahan show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1976, he borrowed several key pieces from the Hallmark collection. Overall, these shows were a kind of community outreach activity — a celebration of fine art and the role of fine art in, potentially, everyone’s life.
You stepped into your position knowing there was a definite intent of acquiring additional photographs for the collection. Was there a sense then of the scale that you were hoping to create?
The first goal really was to use the impressive resources that were already there. I began putting shows together right after I was given the curatorial position, that is, about two or three months after I arrived. We started small. The very first exhibition was a Lewis Hine exhibition that I did for the Kansas City Museum, a good local history museum in a noted historical house in the city.
In January 1981, the first big Callahan show I did opened at the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. A friend of mine from graduate school in New Mexico — Tom Southall — was curator at the Spencer and made the show possible on a fairly short planning schedule. We had Harry and Eleanor come out for the opening, we published a catalog, and the show went on to enjoy a very nice national tour. From there, things really took off, and new shows were done, and offered for tour, on a pretty regular basis.
Once we were really using the collection, adding to it made enormous sense. The two activities — exhibitions and acquisitions — clearly reinforced one another: we added to the collection in order to use it for shows and publications, and the exhibitions demonstrated that there was public interest in seeing more great photography. That logic was quite clear. By the end of the ’80s we were really very active in terms of the number of shows and new publications, and this led to generous support for building the collection.
You once said that your goal was to have something original to say about American photography both in building the collection and in the exhibitions. How would you characterize what that means?
I’ve always felt that no two collections need to make the same statement. The history that we’re dealing with is so wonderfully rich and nuanced that there’s plenty of opportunities to do interesting things — to not simply confirm what we already know but to add to that body of shared wisdom, and perhaps even to complicate what we think we already know. My goal from the start was to build organically on what was there in 1979, with every bit of new growth providing possibilities for yet more expansion.
The collection has gone through three basic phases of growth. From 1980 to 1995, we focused very carefully on the modern history of American photography, from the 1880s to the present. That core collection provided the basis for my American Century of Photography: From Dry-Plate to Digital books. The first edition came out in 1994, and when that sold out much more quickly than I’d imagined we issued a heavily revised and expanded second edition in 1999. I put years of research into that book, and it remains my basic statement on the subject.
Beginning in early 1995, we made the decision to pick up the first generation of American photographers — the period, that is, from 1839 to the 1880s. As part of that push, I made a very serious and focused effort in the area of American daguerreotypes. I loved the work and thought that it was an acquisition area of special opportunity at the time. That quest was enormous fun and has resulted, I believe, is probably the finest single holding of American daguerreotypes in the U.S.
In about 2005, when we knew the collection would end up at the museum, we began looking seriously at 19th-century European work — with the result that we now have a very good, and increasingly deep, holding of key European works from the 1840s to the 1880s. We are currently pursuing all of these approaches, with an added emphasis on international contemporary work. We have two other curators in the department — April Watson, curator; and Jane Aspinall, Associate Curator — and our varied interests mean inevitably that we look at and talk about a pretty wide range of material.
In looking back on it all from this vantage point, I’d say that all this activity honors the art of photography, with that idea interpreted in a deliberately broad and generous way. The core beginning holding was the great Harry Callahan collection, but we’re looking at the medium as an essential modern mode of vision.
I’ve always made a distinction between “art photography” and the “art of photography.” The “art of photography” includes a subset “art photography,’ but it’s bigger than strictly that. My vision has very emphatically been on that larger definition of the art of the medium, as opposed to only paying attention to a subset of works explicitly created for artistic purposes.
It was also clear to me that there were terrific opportunities at any given time, because the market is always evolving. In addition to getting the best prints by, say, Stieglitz or Strand, I was extremely interested in finding the best works by names that might not have been as famous. So I sought out people like Francis Blake, George Seeley, Kurt Baasch, Johan Hagemeyer, Sid Grossman, Saul Leiter, and many, many more―all of these wonderful artists whose key works were available at relatively reasonable prices.
My goal was to create a deep, rich collection with the ability to tell a similarly nuanced creative and cultural story. We have great pieces by all the big names, but the collection goes some distance beyond that. I really aimed to put flesh on what I felt were the skeletal bones of our existing histories — by taking a deeper look at the creative names from any given period. Our collection very easily can support an expansive project like the American Century of Photography. We combine big names and well-known works with a spectrum of lesser-known or previously unpublished works — works that really add to our overall vision of what this history can be.
You entered into photography market at a time when things were still wide open in terms of both prices and demand. How did you start to focus your acquisition strategy?
There’s a common idea that the “good old days” of buying photographs were always about a dozen years ago, no matter when you’re making that statement. In 1985, the good old days were the 1970s. In the year 2000, the good old days were the 1980s, and so on. It’s totally true that there were enormous opportunities back then, but I know that there are extremely worthy opportunities today as well. It’s just a matter of being open to what the real possibilities may be.
It’s very true that great works by the biggest names in the entire history of the medium were available at much more reasonable prices back then. But the market — collectors and dealers — was also churning up fresh bodies of work by lesser names, and anyone really paying attention, with the ability to react quickly, could pick from totally fresh bodies of work that now are well-recognized.
In that period, I felt that there was more enthusiasm for exactly this kind of less seen, less familiar, work than there may be today.
When you started, did you have any peers in the corporate world?
In terms of general art collecting, we all drew inspiration from the activities of the Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been collecting seriously since the 1950s. In photography, there were two great corporate collections that were ahead of the Hallmark Collection in terms of their greatest activity. The first was the Seagrams Collection, which was guided by Richard Pare. Richard was a brilliant curator and found and bought lots of wonderful things. He was particularly active in the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Then there was Pierre Apraxine at the Gilman Paper Company collection. The Gilman Company was very active in the later ’70s and through most of the ’80s. Part of the Seagram Collection went to the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal; the rest was sold at auction. And the Gilman collection went to the Met. I took great inspiration from what both of those programs were doing.
How much leeway were you given in the development of the Hallmark Collection?
I had great autonomy. I had a yearly appropriation, and I just had to live within it. There was a tremendous degree of trust. There was no committee or formal review process, which was pretty amazing.
At the same time, it’s profoundly true that when you have that kind of trust you work very hard to live up to it every minute of the day. I tried to be open to anything of relevance. There were always names that I had in the back of my mind, but I was also extremely excited about fabulous images I had never seen or known of before. One of my great advantages was that if I got a phone call from someone, no matter where, saying “I’ve got something you really should see,” I could get on a plane to go see it. I traveled a lot. If something interesting seemed possible, I’d just go. And a high percentage of those trips paid off.
We also had the advantage of paying pretty quickly, and, not surprisingly, that made us pretty popular with many sellers. So, it was a matter of being serious, being focused, being pretty aggressive, and having the wherewithal to do things, when those things needed to be done.
Did you ever feel that because of how aggressively you were growing the collection you were influencing the market?
One never knows. I’ve been told that we did, but the market transcends any one player — although the top half dozen players certainly make a difference. We were able to be aggressive on the things we really cared about, and we certainly played our part in the photo market from the late ’80s until we transferred the collection to The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in late 2005.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art features an elegant display case especially designed for daguerreotypes from the Hallmark Collection. Here Jerry Spagnoli’s contemporary daguerreotype is flanked by four 19th century examples. Photo by the author.
What led up to the transfer to the museum?
When I arrived in Kansas City in 1979, I asked Dave what he thought the ultimate disposition of the collection would be. He said it would probably go to the art museum here in town, which was completely logical. The Halls had and still have a huge commitment to the cultural life of the Kansas City area. They’ve been enormously generous to many cultural institutions in the region.
But their support for the Nelson-Atkins goes way back. Don Hall was on the board of the museum for many years. Both the Hallmark Company and the Hall Family Foundation have been and continue to be major donors to The Nelson-Atkins, so there was never a serious question that it would go elsewhere.
The timing of the transfer aligned with the museum’s well-publicized expansion plans. The planning for the new addition began in about 1999, and at that point we began having discussions with the museum about potential ways to integrate the collection.
The transfer finally happened in December 2005 and I went with the collection to the museum. I spent most of 2006 creating a new department of photography, with a correspondingly new program. (Prior to that time, there had been a single department of prints, drawings, and photographs.) The new building opened in June 2007, and our big 19th-century show was the first show in the museum’s new special exhibition space.
Since the opening of the space in June 2007, we’ve done a very regular series of exhibitions, publications, and programming. In terms of personnel, we have the biggest department at the museum, which is appropriate given the size of our collection and our curatorial activities. A lot of our activity is being funded directly by the Hall Family Foundation. The foundation is being very generous with its ongoing support for publications, our on-going programs at the museum, and key acquisitions.
When you look back over the collection and your ongoing acquisitions, are there individual photographers that you can say you discovered?
There are a lot of unique and little-known photographers in our collections, from both the 19th and 20th centuries. I think my most important contribution has been in the quality of the depth and range of our holdings. I’m very proud of the fact, for example, that in the late 1980s we made a major purchase of 90 Dorothea Lange prints at a time before there was much market interest in her work. We got this outstanding group of prints directly from the holdings of the Lange family, so the provenance is particularly nice.
We definitely have the best Homer Page collection in the world. I was the first one to delve into his body of work in any major way at all. We have over 100 prints, and we did a book and traveling show back in 2009.
We have a number of other deep holdings. We began acquiring daguerreotypes in 1995, and I was very active in acquiring them before that market heated up. I think we have the finest holding of American daguerreotypes of any museum in America. Overall, there are quite a number of bodies of work either by individual artists or along a particular theme that are unique. Those are points of pride, in addition to our broad coverage of the major figures.
How are you keeping up with the rapid expanses in technology as it affects the quality and size of images? Now we’re getting photographs that take up a large wall in a museum. Where there would have been once 10 or 15 images now there’s one. How is that affecting your ability to continue to grow the collection?
The big scale of contemporary work is an interesting recent problem. These works can be expensive to buy, they cost more to ship, and they take up lots of storage space.
On the other hand, there are great vintage works of very modest size that can be just as interesting and important. We try to pay relatively equal attention to the entire history of the medium from 1839 to today. In principle, I’m interested in every decade equally — the 1850s just as much as the 1950s, etc. We try to be open to good opportunities along that entire historical spectrum.
With the move to the Nelson-Atkins, we’ve made efforts to fill at least some of our previous gaps. It’s a matter of trying to build logically and organically on what we already have but also of taking advantage of interesting opportunities that we might not have thought about ten years ago. We have no delusion that we can do everything, but we’re trying to keep the collections alive and growing well into the 21st century.
How does the changing taste of the audience influence what you’re able to do and want to do? On one hand, you have a sophisticated audience in terms of viewing photography and interacting with it. On the other hand, you have a whole new audience who thinks photography is just something they have in their pocket all the time. As we move forward in time, I’ve come to realize that every generation has to rediscover historical figures on their own terms. That’s why we have Walker Evans shows or Robert Frank shows every 15 years or so.
Every generation needs to encounter both the work of its moment and the legacy of the past in some fresh way, in a way that’s relevant on their own terms. We want to be sensitive to things that are happening right. We are also cognizant of the idea that Gustave Le Grey or Paul Strand or Harry Callahan are “new” to every first-time viewer, and we want to do justice to that all-important first encounter. So, we try to be attentive to the richness of history and to the energy of the present moment. That’s a lively challenge, but a worthy one.
Are you seeing an upsurge of interest in photography because of the museum’s reputation as an internationally important collection?
Our photo galleries are visited by a very high percentage of the people who come into the museum every day. We know the photo galleries are popular, and we love that. There’s a broad, general audience for photography, and that audience is certainly an important part of the terrific growth in visitor numbers that we’ve seen in the last decade.
What do you still want to accomplish?
I’m going to be involved for a while, certainly as long as the Hall Family Foundation wants me to be. I take great pride in the history of what we’ve done, and I have a great personal investment in the quality and the longevity of what has been done.
It’s not a normal job for me — it’s something much more personal and deeper than that. At some point in the future certainly I will retire, but for now I remain enthusiastic about the challenge of building the collection, and all the varied projects that we have up in the air.
When I think about the future I’m reminded of Robert Doherty, who was the director of the Eastman House when I was an intern there. It was Bob who gave my name to Dave Strout when he was first looking for someone to work on the Hallmark Collection. Everything that’s happened to me has followed from that one connection. I think about that every time I buy a photograph or write a book or put together a show. One little connection can change someone’s life, and I hope some of the connections I make now will continue to change someone’s life for the better many years from now. If that’s not too much to hope for, that would be a fine legacy.
This is the first in a three-part series about the Hallmark Photography Collection and the photographic legacy of the Hall Family of Kansas City. Read more in Part 2 and my profile of the Hall family’s philanthropy.