The Education of a Collector, or Jeff Dauber Explains Why Tech Bros Don’t Buy ArtAugust 18, 2014
If I had Bill Gates’s money, I’d fund arts education in the public schools. Every single penny of it.
Jeff Dauber is a brash, outspoken, and abundantly tattooed collector who also happens to work in tech. He’s been deeply engaged in both sectors for over twenty years and immersed in art since childhood. By trade, he is an electrical engineer who has long worked in Silicon Valley. He manages large production teams, a well-paying position in a flush field. During his career, he’s worked for more than one major company in the South Bay, as he does currently, though when I interviewed him about his collecting practice, his one stipulation was that his current employer remain unstated. It’s corporate policy, he says, and we’re here to talk about his private collection, not one that represents his industry. Collecting art, however, is difficult to separate from the factors that make it possible. More on that later.
I had seen Dauber’s collection before, back in 2006 when I wrote about the renovation of his Potrero Hill home by architect Thom Faulders, who created a stylized, futuristic ceiling because Dauber put a premium on wall space for his art. I recall paintings by Travis Somerville and Chester Arnold, and outlandish, grotesquely oversized fake flower and taxidermy arrangements by David Hevel. In the ensuing eight years, Dauber’s collection has matured and expanded, and he’s moved into a second home around the corner (also spiffed up by Faulders) where he lives with his art. He keeps the original house to display and store his collection; it’s cheaper, he admits, than keeping it in a professional storage facility.
Since my previous visit, the context has changed as well. The cost of living in San Francisco has climbed to nosebleed altitudes. Many Bay Area galleries, museums, and organizations have been forced to scatter or close due to escalating rates for commercial real estate and various other financial conditions. Local and national art businesses have been pursuing Silicon Valley dollars via art fairs and pop-up galleries in the South Bay, none of which seem to have changed the game much. I was interested in catching up with Dauber to get his insights into this curious landscape—and of course to get a glimpse of his recent acquisitions. He waxed enthusiastically on both topics, and more, over a Sunday-morning coffee.
We start with the art. In his first house, the gallery/storage space, there are large- and moderately scaled works by Alan Rath, as well as a recent Mickalene Thomas. “I’ve loved Mickalene’s work every time I’ve seen it, so I figured I needed to get one before I can’t have one,” he says proudly.
There are chattering Tony Oursler sculptures tucked in cozy alcoves, works that he admits are difficult to live with, though they look fantastic in an empty closet. These works evidence his predilection for the bold and outlandish. “I’ve always liked unusual materials,” he admits. “And because of my parents’ love of ethnographic art, I like an element of that. Almost everything I have is figurative. I like the human form a lot. I like the combination of all those things into the piece, and if it’s beautiful, that doesn’t hurt.”
In his more spacious residence, one with an epic view of Mission Bay, downtown San Francisco, and the East Bay, he’s prominently placed recent acquisitions by Nick Cave, Kara Walker, and Carrie Mae Weems. Of the latter, he also speaks of availability: “The Weems was also about to go out of my price range, so I had to move quickly.” (Alas, he didn’t share his growing cache of gay erotica that he says is installed in his bedroom.) The homes feel like art-filled man caves with state-of-the-art audio systems and domestic digital controls that befit his profession.
Dauber's passion for looking and acquiring is palpable. He cites a narrative of growing up with art at home as the font of his habit. “I trace my collecting back to my parents and their friends who collected in the late 1960s and early ’70s.” A colleague of his father cashed in his IBM stock and bought fifty paintings “by this young, unknown artist who had the benefit of turning into Basquiat and dying.” (The colleague would be Herbert Schorr with his wife Lenore.)
That narrative of discovery feels mythic, and lucrative, but Dauber’s collection is quirkier and seems driven by genuine interest rather than investment gambles. “Mom always said, ‘You know the house is yours when the art’s up,’” Dauber recalls, and that’s clearly the scenario in his homes. Sensibility is announced by color, texture, and a sense of playful confrontation. Numerous works address issues relating to race and seamy aspects of capitalism. In both of his spaces, he has works of crude oil in Plexiglas form by Russian artist Andrei Molodkin, one jabbing at religion, and the other, brashly titled Greatest American Blowjob (2011), an art attack on petroleum-based capitalism.
Not surprisingly, he relishes making bold observations about the culture of collecting, particularly the maverick, choose-it-yourself variety. “I’ve always been mystified that there’s such a thing as an art consultant,” he scoffs. “Collecting is so personal to me. Paying someone to pick out things to put in your house? That’s fucking weird!”
In our conversation, he confidently asserts that East Coast Jews have a predisposition for collecting more than other demographics, placing the Bay Area at a disadvantage due to its dearth of that culture. “We joke that there are Money Jews and there are Culture Jews. The Culture Jews buy art, even if they don’t have the money. If you think about the big collectors in the Bay Area, what percentage of them are East Coast Jews?” He confidently conjectures: “We are well over half. If you think about people who are picking their own art, we’re well over three quarters.”
You get no liberal-arts education when you get an engineering degree
Identity concerns also apply to his assessment of why tech bros don’t buy art, even if they can afford to. “They’ve all decided that I’m the key to fixing this [tech problem],” he tells me. “But the galleries are approaching it wrong. The problem is not getting people to see the art. The problem is getting people to care.”
“We’re engineers, we went to trade school,” he explains. “You get no liberal-arts education when you get an engineering degree. And you don’t end up in engineering school because you had a liberal-arts upbringing. You’re math and science. Art was something you were probably never very good at and you’re intimidated by. So now, when you walk into these galleries, they’re all hushed and have things on the wall that you don’t understand.” The taste for art is something he believes must be cultivated.
“I know someone who has three massive homes, a private jet, multiple cars, about a hundred horses—and not one single piece of art. And he could go out and buy any damn thing he wants—with the change he finds in his dryer. He didn’t grow up around art. He wasn’t exposed.”
“I grew up in a house full of art, I spent time around it. When I see art, I’m not opposed to buying it. I don’t feel threatened by buying it. That’s a big step for people. It’s like the tattoo thing—will I love it forever? Does it matter?”
Dauber sees the issue as a deeper, more systemic American problem—that there's too little in the way of arts education to make works of art have any meaning, much less enough meaning for people to spend on ownership. He sees himself as part of a vanishing generation. As a regular attendee of the opera and symphony, he observes that he's one of the few of his generation (he's in his late 40s) in the audience, the average age being late 60s, an unsustainable model in his eyes. The arts will obviously need to change and shift focus.
“If I had Bill Gates’s money, I’d fund arts education in the public schools,” he says with conviction. “Every single penny of it. If one in a hundred students gets turned on, the arts will be vital again.”
With more modest capital behind him, Dauber flexes his sense of advocacy individually. He is generous in opening up his collection, inviting people in for organized tours or more social visits. He hosts parties to show off his collection and in the process hopefully demystify the practice. “Big fun for me is having groups come through my house. I like to see how people react to the work.” He seems to relish the idea of being a mentor to budding collectors in his professional field. “I’d say there’s one [tech] person a year I turn on to collecting, which is probably better stats than all the galleries in San Francisco put together,” he boasts.
That said, he may not send people to local galleries to bid. He’s among many collectors who has outgrown the Bay Area gallery circuit and does the bulk of his purchasing at fairs in Miami or in Chelsea. “At this point, I mostly buy from New York galleries, which is saving me money because I can’t be at them as much,” he jests. The trouble he sees with Bay Area spaces is that they are unsustainable, that galleries operate at a modest scale yet have high overheads. He points to a local gallery that has a midrange price point, to which Dauber suggests he'd have to sell out numerous shows to pay his rent. Dauber's observations are not scientific, and his tone is playfully hyperbolic, but soon after this conversation, I spoke to a gallerist who closed a promising new gallery for just this reason.
I could tell you what was going on in my life when I bought everything
Talking to Dauber about these issues is sobering. His picture of Bay Area culture is pessimistic. But it is tempered by the apparent joy he takes from his collection. It is very much a personal thing. “The collection is an autobiography. I don’t buy things for investment purposes. I buy something because it meant something to me at the time,” he says. “I don’t document my past with photographs. I prefer documenting my life with objects—with music, books, and art. I could tell you what was going on in my life when I bought everything.
“When two people take a trip together and one took a bunch of pictures and the other didn’t, the one who took the pictures will tell you the story of the pictures, the person who didn’t will tell you the story of what they did. I’ve always preferred describing what I did. And even pieces that are not to my taste now still reflect my taste when I was a different person. That’s how I track my memories.”
He’s in it for the long haul.