A Conversation with Collector Christopher E. Olofson

Christopher Olofson in his home in ChicagoChristopher Olofson, Class of 1992, recently sat down with Katherine Bussard, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography, to discuss the exhibition of works from his collection on view in the Art Museum.

KB I’d like to start at the beginning. How and when did you first collect?

CO There wasn’t a plan. It just happened. I started with Chinese contemporary painting in the ’90s, following an East Asian studies program here at Princeton, just by wandering around in galleries in Hong Kong. The subject matter seemed very interesting, Chinese art was financially accessible, and one thing led to another. Then all of a sudden, there was a little pile of things in the house. As Chinese contemporary art got very popular in the marketplace and painting became too expensive for me, a dealer suggested I look at photographs, which turned out to be no less interesting, and probably even more interesting to me.

KB Why did photography start to speak to you? What about the medium resonated with you?

CO For me, it seemed like an ideal medium for my generation—everybody took snapshots growing up, so there was an approachability. It seemed contemporary, and it seemed “right here, right now.” I was much more interested in looking at work that people around my own age were making.

KB I first proposed doing an exhibition of works from your collection nearly a year and a half ago, after a few visits to your home in Chicago. We now have this first-ever public display of your collection. What have been the highlights for you, and what have been some of the surprises of watching this process, which is of course so different from hanging the works in your own home?

CO Walking into the Museum, there are guards and wall labels, the lighting is perfect, and it’s a very official setting, not at all like picking the photographs up and moving them around spontaneously at home. For a lot of these pictures, I hadn’t seen them in a museum setting before. So, I get to know them in a new way, which has been a ton of fun. Two personal highlights were seeing how you chose to edit a selection and having the opportunity to pitch in ideas.

KB Are you surprised by the overarching theme that we ended up selecting for the exhibition, which is this idea that these particular photographs reveal themselves over time and in layers of meaning?

CO Not shocked, because I know what kinds of pictures I am generally drawn to, but through this experience I have learned to appreciate the works in a new way. I’m not sure I would have been able to wrap that thought around them as neatly as you did.

KB Certainly, your collection could have yielded many different exhibitions—for instance, one about documentary projects, one about portraiture in contemporary photography, or one focused on national identity. For me, one of the joys of this project has been seeing that all three of those possibilities are present in the current selection, all of them amplifying the driving idea behind the whole of the exhibition.

Works from the Olofson collection are also installed through the Museum's collections galleries, provoking new ways of understanding the collectionsCO I think so, and I also think the way that you brought all of it together is very of this time and moment. The presentation of these pictures resonates with a lot of things that people think about right now, whether on a university campus or beyond.

KB That’s a great segue to how delighted we are that, on the occasion of this exhibition—and your 25th class reunion—you have announced that the entirety of your collection will eventually come to the Art Museum as a gift. We are enormously grateful. Could you talk about what it means to see your collection on view in this museum, on the campus of your alma mater, available to students and faculty and the entire community?

CO I love being able to share these pictures with the Princeton community and hopefully there are some images on the wall right now that are a little different, that open new doors and go in a new direction. I like the idea that somebody who isn’t an art history student or who doesn’t have an established interest in visual art might find something to think about. This seems to be true, given how much the exhibition has been used for teaching and assignments, as well as for panel discussions and even a student-led investigation of activism in the arts.

KB As we’ve discussed before, this gift truly will be transformative for our photography holdings. What appeals to you about seeing your photographs in a museum that is encyclopedic in its mission and collections?

CO It’s moving, actually, and it’s very flattering that Princeton would want this collection of pictures. That wasn’t the design when I bought them. It’s an ideal outcome that they would play a role in a world-class academic museum that has holdings from all over the globe. I love seeing the way they’re installed in their own exhibition, and it’s also amazing to see them placed alongside works from other periods and to experience how they interact, because I think both works look better and become more interesting sitting next to one another.

KB Here you’re referring to the insertions we made, pairing photographs from your collection with works in our galleries of European, Asian, and American art?

CO Very much so. I had certainly never seen work from my collection installed this way. The way you tease out the story of a picture through gestures and gazes becomes so apparent when a work by Mohamed Bourouissa is placed next to a work embodying the French academic painting tradition. The emotional narrative of the two protagonists in each work of art feels similarly staged, even in two works from completely different time periods and different media. Experiencing them side by side, you actually see more in each one, and I think it’s extraordinary.

KB Good. So, that’s the university museum doing its job!

CO Absolutely!