“You know, in New York — the media center of the world — if someone gets brutally beaten in Central Park, it’s a national story. If somebody gets brutally beaten in Des Moines, it never shows up in the press. If somebody’s shot on the New York subway, it’s a national story. It’s not if it happens in Los Angeles. And people around the country will speak of [the New York incident] as a national story. And New Yorkers will expect you to know it as a national story.
“By the same token, if New York is in charge of the entire photographic enterprise, and its institutions run it, if something takes place in New York, the medium has to respond. So, for example, if the New York galleries’ real estate prices rise, the photographs have to rise in value. That means they have to be larger and look more painterly in order to cost enough to pay the rents of those new spaces.
“If, on the other hand, we have a vital scene that allows for major exhibitions to be produced in San Diego and St. Louis and Santa Fe and Minneapolis and Chicago and San Francisco and San Jose and Denver, then a vital scene can be encouraged. It can live. It can thrive. It can have many voices. The opportunities for all increase.
“So if curator X in New York doesn’t like your work, that’s okay, because three others — in San Jose, New Orleans, and Houston — do. And you get into their shows, their books, their catalogs. And the scene grows, the entire enterprise grows. This was very much on our minds in the mid-1970s. That was one thing we were thinking about at that time: how to decentralize this scene. And now it is decentralized, to Europe and Asia and South America. There are galleries of photography in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, in China, and in Taiwan. We’ve been the generation of administrators and curatorial people and artists who have done this. And as a result the field will thrive and will have many manifestations.
“It’s true that New York still plays a big role. Things come up there that don’t look a lot like things coming up in other places, and that’s fine. They can enter the discourse. But they are not the sum total of it. And that has helped a lot. We have made a much healthier environment for the field. If we do nothing else, it will thrive far better and much more interestingly and in a more diversified way.”
When Ollman was considering this museum’s directorship, he got a taste of San Francisco’s own provinciality. Many people there were nonplussed by his willingness to consider moving south. “No one said not to, but they thought it was strange. It’s not on any of their maps. They know where Biloxi, Mississippi, is — maybe. But to people in the Bay Area, coming here is like falling off the face of the earth. It’s like the Samuel Beckett play Endgame. ‘Outside of here it’s death.’ ”
Undeterred, he came for an exploratory visit. “And I was shown Balboa Park” — he who was used to small artists’ spaces, second-floor lofts, often with uncertain rental arrangements. “Then I saw this. It was a Sunday. I couldn’t believe that this was the infrastructure I would be given. This was an incredible vision. It was summer. A hundred people walked by, and three-quarters of them were carrying cameras. This is a great audience, I thought. This is a bigger audience. This is a real audience. How many people can you get to come to a show at a walk-up? Six hundred?” (Here, he has 1000 or more every week; and a recent visit to San Francisco Camerawork’s website revealed that it was being forced to move from its present location, due to rising rents.)
The story of the museum’s origins, in May 1983, is well known to many San Diegans, as is its recent growth. To wit: Ollman began with virtually nothing except the space — 7500 square feet. There was no collection. Not one piece. Since then, the space has quadrupled, and there are 6000 pictures spanning the entire history of the medium. When they aren’t being exhibited in one of the museum’s galleries, they are kept in acid-free boxes, in a state-of-the-art vault — “climate-controlled, fireproof, air-tight” — that is by no means full. “We imagine that if the sizes of what we collect stay somewhat the same, the vault, which is expandable, will be able to hold about 30,000 objects. You know, it sounds like a long way to go, if you do it one by one, but if you inherit a great collection, it could fill rapidly. And sometimes, when somebody dies, they might leave you 15,000 objects. We also have an oversized-art storage room for things that, unlike those in the vault, often stay in their frames. And that other space can hold, depending on what they are, hundreds more.”
Nor did the job come with a manual. “There wasn’t exactly a book on how to make a museum” — especially not a photography museum. They were rare birds until recently. Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York had no photography department until 1992 and no permanent photography gallery until 1997. It would seem, then, that Manhattan was following others’ leads, including Ollman’s, for a change.
From the start, the Museum of Photographic Arts hosted traveling exhibitions. (Currently showing is “Inside Out: 50 Years of Collecting,” organized by the George Eastman House International Museum of Photograph and Film in Rochester, New York.) But Ollman felt strongly that “San Diego shouldn’t always be an importer; it should be an exporter of art as well.” As he says, “There are shows that go to Broadway from here, and we all are proud of them when that happens. And it’s good for the community. We have done the same thing since the 1985–86 [celebrity-portrait photographer] Arnold Newman exhibition. [In 1987–93, ‘Arnold Newman: Five Decades’ went from San Diego to Chicago, Minneapolis, West Palm Beach, New York, Fort Worth, Cincinnati, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, as well as Amsterdam, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, England, and Japan.] It helps our credibility, our institutional name, and our city’s name out there in the world. And it brings back revenues, by the way. We rent the shows, just as we pay a rental fee when one comes here.”