Interview with Michael G Wilson

Art Quarterly asks philanthropist, James Bond film producer and Art Fund trustee
Michael G Wilson about his internationally renowned collection of photography.

AQ: When did you first start collecting photographs?
Michael G Wilson: 1978.

Can you remember the first work you bought?
I bought 60 lots at auction from Sotheby’s, all 19th-century photographs, and that started me off.

What made you buy your first work? Was there a trigger?
I had been collecting books and prints, so I was familiar with auctions and collecting. I had a friend who I had gone to college with who was at the Metropolitan Museum specialising in photography, so when I moved to New York [in 1970] we hooked up and I got to meet a lot of artists at his house in Soho – Robert Mapplethorpe, Hiroshi Sugimoto, people like that.

How do you fit collecting photography around your role as the producer of the James Bond films?
I rarely integrate the two, although I did this year with images taken on set by some artist friends of mine that I thought would be an interesting celebration of the 50th year of Bond.

Through the Wilson Centre for Photography, which you set up in 1988, you have become a patron, working with artists and helping museums acquire contemporary photographic series.
Yes, we worked with Bruce Davidson on his Subway series. We’ve also worked with Taryn Simon, Luc Delahaye and Simon Norfolk.

“I have drawers full of mistakes, but the biggest mistakes are the ones I didn’t buy.”

Is there an artist or a photographer you would like to work with in the future?
We are now working with Stephen Shore, William Eggleston, and Graciela Iturbide.

Is your focus entirely on contemporary photography now?
No, we worked with Tate Britain on a Roger Fenton display in 2011, and now have mammoth-plate photographs of Egypt (1857–8) by Francis Frith there. Recently we did a publishing project with the estate of Japanese photographer Watabe Yukichi. His fly-on-the-wall pictures of 1950s Tokyo look straight out of film noir.

You have collected broadly across the photographic spectrum but is there one work that eludes you?
Hundreds of works elude me! But you can’t have everything. When people say, what mistakes did you make? I say I have drawers full of mistakes, but the biggest mistakes are the ones I didn’t buy.

As well as being an Art Fund trustee you are chairman of the Science Museum Foundation, overseeing the development of the Media Space at the Science Museum, a London portal for the collections of the National Media Museum in Bradford.
I was up there at the Science Museum yesterday, talking with the designer for the Media Space, and they are doing a great job, it is going to be a great space.

London seems to be waking up to photography.
Yes, the V&A has always been there, as the lone voice, but now Tate has a curator of photography and we see that even the National Gallery is not afraid to put photographs in their spaces. We are finally getting a critical mass, and with the opening of the Media Centre we will now have a place [London] where photography is as recognised as it is in Paris or New York.

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