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The New Venture In Media Art

VC guru Dick Kramlich and his wife, Pamela, sing the praises of media art.

The day after September 11, 2001, the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, in the New York City borough of Queens, opened a sound installation few visitors would ever forget. In the top floor of the school-turned-gallery, in what had been a gymnasium, "The Forty Part Motet" by the artist Janet Cardiff used 40 loudspeakers in groupings around the room to represent a choir of invisible singers, with each speaker projecting a different voice.

Visitors walked among the faceless voices as they performed a choral work by 16th-century English composer Thomas Tallis. Described as haunting and sublimely beautiful, and set in front of windows opening up to a Manhattan skyline now missing two of its towers, it brought many visitors to tears. A year later longtime venture capitalist Dick Kramlich was so moved by the exhibit that he immediately asked the museum’s director, "Is this for sale?" He purchased the U.K. iteration of Cardiff’s work on the spot for an undisclosed price, with the agreement that it would belong to the Tate museum.

It wasn’t always so easy to sell Kramlich, 74, on a piece of media artwork. The co-founder of Silicon Valley– and Baltimore-based New Enterprise Associates confesses to being skeptical about the idea of collecting the genre — art that incorporates computer-based technology, audio components, video sequences or cinematic photography — when his wife first made the suggestion, in the 1980s. It was Pamela, an art enthusiast who used to be married to a French painter, who recognized a connection between his interest in fledging tech companies and the media art that was emerging at the time, Kramlich says.

So he took a leap of faith. The Kramlichs began working closely with several art advisers and museum directors, including Jack Lane, former head of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), who in 1987 invited them to a leading-edge art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany. "They wore me down," says the high-energy, curious Kramlich, who has become profoundly serious about both the work and the artists he has come to admire.

Twenty years later the Kramlichs own some 60 multimedia (sound and video) installations, 200 video-only works and numerous audio-only and photographic pieces by many of the world’s most important media artists. Unlike most collectors who leave their works in institutions, the Kramlichs have taken some of their purchases home, installing video and audio pieces throughout their otherwise traditional house in the Presidio Heights section of San Francisco. They live with ten to 15 pieces at any one time, a fact that astonishes artists who occasionally visit.

When the couple throws a dinner party, Kramlich flips on The Greeting , a Bill Viola video work inspired by the classic 16th-century Jacopo da Pontormo painting The Visitation . The original famously depicted the biblical meeting between Mary and her sister, Elizabeth, after Mary had learned that she was pregnant.

Over the years, Kramlich has identified many similarities between venture capital and art collecting. "Both are long-term in orientation, a lot depends on the quality of the people you work with, and, from a financial standpoint, there is no instant gratification," he explains. "We’re not flippers. We never buy art with the idea of selling it."

At NEA, which holds $8.5 billion in committed capital, Kramlich and his partners go for "the long pull." Take their recent success with Data Domain, a company that developed a way of storing digital data without duplication. NEA invested $250,000 eight years ago in Data Domain, which went public in 2007 at about $17 a share. NEA eventually sold its stake at $33.50 a share.

Back in the art world, the Kramlichs have launched two similar "long pull" initiatives: In 1997 they started the New Art Trust, which funds research by SFMOMA, MoMA in New York and the Tate in London into best practices for conserving media art installations. The couple is also building a 31,000-square-foot home in Napa Valley to showcase their collection. Due for completion in 2011, the house — designed by Herzog & de Meuron Architekten, the architectural firm behind Tate Modern and the "Bird’s Nest" stadium in Beijing — will double as a private study center for media artists, curators and collectors.

"I do this because I like being involved in what’s new, what’s interesting and what will hopefully have an impact on the way we live," says Kramlich, pointing out the topicality of themes covered by today’s media artists, like Shirin Neshat, who investigates the role of women in Iran. Media art, says Kramlich, is "where it’s at."