HARTFORD — Tucked away in an old warehouse here is a room filled to the ceiling with photographs. There are photos propped up against the wall, on top of bookshelves, in collages on the white-painted brick walls — on every visible surface of the studio.
For the past 25 years, Nancy and Robinson Grover ’58 LAW ’75 have been collecting contemporary photographs in an unpredictable and personal way. Last year, the Grovers decided to donate the majority of their collection of about 500 images to the Yale University Art Gallery because their storeroom was overflowing and their daughters were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to care for the collection properly after their parents passed away. The Grovers’ donation marks an important gift in the history of the gallery’s photography collection. The photos will arrive in stages; so far, about 100 of their photos are at the gallery.
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“The idea that the collection will go to Yale with its extraordinary strengths in collecting photography and displaying photography and teaching photography is very exciting to us,” Nancy Grover said. “The works will be used and enjoyed and discussed and debated, and that is very important to us.”
Unlike other art collectors who may buy art as an investment, the Grovers say they buy art for the intellectual experience. They never impulsively buy anything because they said they enjoy thinking about how and why they respond to certain images.
“We are very interested in layers of meaning in an image,” Rob Grover said. “If you look at an image and you get it the first time you look at it, and you get the whole thing, that doesn’t interest us. We want a work of art that you can keep looking at, keep thinking about.”
Joshua Chuang, assistant curator of photographs at the art gallery, said Nancy Grover’s background as an art history major and Rob Grover’s experience as a philosophy professor have defined their approach to art.
“Rob, being an intellectual and philosopher, has his take on what he likes, and Nancy, being more visually oriented, may be more attentive to the visual sort of visceral aspects of the work,” Chuang said.
Since they started their collection, the Grovers decided to focus on conceptual contemporary photography — work that is concerned primarily with conveying an idea — including artists pushing the medium or experimenting with methods beyond that of traditional photography. They described their fascination with a tension between different and often opposing themes in the images, as seen in their piece “Cizny #26, 2004” by Simon Norfolk, a beautiful snow road scene that in the distance leads to a mass grave site in Bosnia.
The Grovers have formed personal relationships with many of the artists from their collection, especially John Coplans and James Welling. The couple, at one point, was among the largest collectors of both photographers’ work.
“It’s the type of work, even if [the gallery] wanted to, it could not afford,” Chuang said, referring to Coplans and Welling.
Chuang added that the Grovers were one of the first people to recognize Welling’s talent on the East Coast. Welling, now a highly acclaimed artist, is a favorite of the Grovers because he is conceptual photographer whose equal focus on the quality of the medium sets him apart from other conceptual artists. He is now represented by major galleries such as David Zwirner, where the prices of his works are currently “untouchable,” Chuang said.
“The pioneering collectors tend to be people who look where no one else is looking and when no one else is looking,” Chuang said. “They happened to be very early in looking at the type of photography that they collect.”
Every 18 months, the Grovers rethink and change the images they have on display in their studio, which also contains storage space for the rest of their work that is not yet at Yale. The studio also serves as social space: they have invited everyone from high school classes to non-profit organizations to visit their studio.
“They understand that they are stewards of the work rather than owners of the work,” Chuang said.
Even though many of their pieces, such as their Wellings, have appreciated over the years, the Grovers have never sold anything on the secondary market.
Their continuous interest in the pieces they buy is a result of never buying impulsively. They don’t even buy all the work of certain favorite artists.
“We have learned that if you buy everything you love the minute you see it we would be absolutely bankrupt and this place would be packed,” Nancy Grover said. “We go, we look, we come home. Three days later, three weeks later, three months later, if it has risen to the top then that means it’s for you.”
Nancy and Rob Grover still continue to peruse their many photography magazines and visit galleries whenever they hear about a new show. They said they are conscious of how photography is changing, for example, as more importance is given to the kind of ink and paper the image is printed with.
“We had almost nothing of the kind of work that they have and it would have taken years or decades to build something of that kind of integrity and character,” Chuang said.
The Grovers’ photos are not yet on view at the gallery.