Purchase Story

Hanging with Graham C. Boettcher

We are all spending much more time now in our houses and apartments because of COVID-19. Because we all might enjoy staring at someone else’s walls for a change, this column gives our readers an idea of what some of their colleagues, fellow collectors, and other readers surround themselves with in their abodes.

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Running out of things to talk about with Graham C. Boettcher, the R. Hugh Daniel Director at the Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), Birmingham, Alabama, is next to impossible. The 48-year-old spreads joy, knowledge, and enthusiasm whether he’s moderating a Zoom call with museum members during an “Alabama Art Happy Hour” or hosting a fondue supper in February for friends on a freezing Sunday evening in Birmingham.

Graham Boettcher at home in his mid-20th-century house. He’s seen on an Eames Sofa Compact from 1954 that once furnished the ladies’ lounge at Birmingham’s Eastwood Mall, built in 1960, now defunct. On the wall above his head is a 2011 portrait of him by Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins. On the adjacent wall hang photos by Todd Hido, #7851, 2008, and Catherine Opie, Bravo, 2011.

Graham Boettcher at home in his mid-20th-century house. He’s seen on an Eames Sofa Compact from 1954 that once furnished the ladies’ lounge at Birmingham’s Eastwood Mall, built in 1960, now defunct. On the wall above his head is a 2011 portrait of him by Birmingham artist Bonard Hughins. On the adjacent wall hang photos by Todd Hido, #7851, 2008, and Catherine Opie, Bravo, 2011.

“I’m a professional materialist,” he said during a telephone interview brimming with information, not the least of which is a list he sent of what he collects—German nutcrackers, stamps, coins, rocks, seashells, miniature rolling pins, gavels, figural glass Christmas tree bulbs, Yale memorabilia, vintage swizzle sticks, cuff links, pocket squares, vintage fortune-telling devices, Red Wing Prismatique pottery designed by Belle Kogan and other mid-20th-century pottery, books on German Romanticism and the artist Caspar David Friedrich, mechanical tin toys, Richie Rich and

Archie comic books, antique coin banks, PEZ candy dispensers, Birmingham pig-iron souvenir pigs, and more.

3  A vintage Isamu Noguchi coffee table and a recently manufactured Eames lounge chair feature prominently in the living room of the ranch house, designed by Birmingham, Alabama, firm Shaw and Renneker and built in 1954. Boettcher bought the house from a friend in 2019.

A vintage Isamu Noguchi coffee table and a recently manufactured Eames lounge chair feature prominently in the living room of the ranch house, designed by Birmingham, Alabama, firm Shaw and Renneker and built in 1954. Boettcher bought the house from a friend in 2019.

“I love objects,” the gregarious museum director stated, explaining that his mother and grandmother accompanied him to antiques and thrift stores from the time he was a youngster growing up in the far northwestern corner of Washington state, in Burlington, south of Bellingham. Those experiences helped hone his eye and gave him “a keen sense of valuing the past.” His great-grandmother owned a thrift store in the 1960s, when thrift stores offered everything, including antiques, clothes, and furniture, he said.

“I have the reputation of being the guy to go with to tag and estate sales,” he said with a chuckle. “I turn things over, look for marks. My antennae are up, and I zero in on museum-quality works among things that aren’t.”

Boettcher graduated from Yale University in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in German studies and northern European art history. He then went abroad and lived in Dresden, Germany, where he taught English for a year. Returning home, he got his master’s degree in art history at the University of Washington and then returned to Yale for his doctorate.

He has been at the BMA since 2006 and became director in September 2017.

“I’m geographically versatile,” he said, explaining that he traveled often with his a cappella group at Yale. “I applied to museums all over the country, but I knew a number of Alabamians. Birmingham feels like a small town although it’s a city. There’s a thriving art scene and a socially engaged LGBTQ community. It’s a warm place to live, and I’m really happy here.” Boettcher lived in the New Haven, Connecticut, area for seven years and worked at the Yale University Art Gallery for four of them. All told he spent 11 years in New England and said “it was thrilling to visit churchyards and see dates from the beginning of the country. I knew then I was in the right line of work.”

Graham curated his first exhibition at the Burlington Public Library during his freshman year in high school. He filled the library’s glass display cases with his toy collection and handwrote the labels. His foray into collecting centered on nutcrackers. “They had to be German. I was very picky and discerning.”

Fast forward, Graham has become “fascinated with the psychological aspect of collecting,” noting that his grandmother, who was a collector, “crossed over to the dark side” at some point, and after her death the family “found treasures and lots of work.” He recalled diving into the dumpster to retrieve objects family members had thrown away out of frustration. They had been unaware of the matriarch’s hoarding nature. One “dumpster find” was a collection of cast-iron pigs. “There’s a fine line when a hobby becomes an obsession and mania,” said Graham.

 The exterior of the 1954 house.

The exterior of the 1954 house.

To that end, and long before Marie Kondo wrote books on tidying up and decluttering, Boettcher began giving away entire collections “to bring joy and put things where they belong.” He views himself as a temporary custodian. For instance, he gifted his collection of PEZ candy dispensers to a friend who had bespoke shelves for the pieces. He also gifted his fortune-telling playing cards to Yale. He willingly confesses to storing a lot of his collections in his mother’s basement, however. The mid-20th-century ranch house Graham bought a year and a half ago from a friend has room for some collections. “The 1954 house never hit the market. I bought a few pieces from the seller, and I’ve added some.” Boettcher’s friend Jan Jander, an architect and interior designer in Chicago who was originally from Birmingham, helped him select some pieces, he said.

There is no common theme in a traditional sense to what Graham collects. He said he begins to collect as a result of looking and bringing things together from disparate places. For example, a Finnish-designed candy jar on a mantel was recently joined by three more of Italian design. “I have a natural desire to bring things together so they can tell an interesting story.” eBay is a favorite source.

He is a born storyteller and often leads trips with museum trustees and collectors. He is known as the “fast walker” because he likes to scope out highlights ahead of the group. “Follow the pants” is the tour’s cheer because of Graham’s penchant for brightly colored slacks—fire-engine red, golf-course green, bright pink, cobalt—a fashion aesthetic he adopted in grad school. In Germany he was known as “Big Green” because he always wore green. “I’m a big guy, and I was bigger then. I stood out.”

He explained that a by-product of being a big guy is that he tends to accessorize with cuff links, pocket squares, and bold ties. His collection of pocket squares numbers 300, and when he became director at the Birmingham Museum of Art he received several Hermès pocket squares as congratulatory gifts.

“I also love giving gifts,” he said. “I love to find the perfect gift—ones that are rare and personal.”

Walking fast while paying it forward, no doubt.

A 1960 painting by Cham Hendon of Birmingham’s “The Club” hangs in the dining room beside John Lytle Wilson’s Pistolet de Singe, 2017. In the corner is a pair of Red Wing wall pockets designed by Charles E. Murphy, circa 1955. On the table is a collection of Festivo candlesticks designed by Timo Sarpaneva for Iittala in 1966. A Poul Henningsen PH5 Pendant lamp designed for Louis Poulsen in 1958 sheds light on the table.

A 1960 painting by Cham Hendon of Birmingham’s “The Club” hangs in the dining room beside John Lytle Wilson’s Pistolet de Singe, 2017. In the corner is a pair of Red Wing wall pockets designed by Charles E. Murphy, circa 1955. On the table is a collection of Festivo candlesticks designed by Timo Sarpaneva for Iittala in 1966. A Poul Henningsen PH5 Pendant lamp designed for Louis Poulsen in 1958 sheds light on the table.

“Until you have three, it’s not a collection,” joked Boettcher, pointing out his “collection” of still-life paintings by Dutch artist Gerard Victor Alphons Röling from the 1950s. The painting of the lobster was a gift, the bowl of plums he found on eBay, and the flowers in a vase was a recent find at Heritage Auctions.

“Until you have three, it’s not a collection,” joked Boettcher, pointing out his “collection” of still-life paintings by Dutch artist Gerard Victor Alphons Röling from the 1950s. The painting of the lobster was a gift, the bowl of plums he found on eBay, and the flowers in a vase was a recent find at Heritage Auctions.

The study includes memorabilia from Yale University; a marble bas-relief sculpture by Byron M. Pickett (c. 1834-1907), signed and dated 1864; and a 1930 lithograph by Julius Bloch, Fighter’s Head. Boettcher describes the room as “a modern take on an eclectic Victorian parlor.”

The study includes memorabilia from Yale University; a marble bas-relief sculpture by Byron M. Pickett (c. 1834-1907), signed and dated 1864; and a 1930 lithograph by Julius Bloch, Fighter’s Head. Boettcher describes the room as “a modern take on an eclectic Victorian parlor.”

The museum director loves bright colors. His attraction to Marimekko began when he was living in Finland as an exchange student in 1990. Vintage Haeger Pottery lamps flank the bed. Daniel White’s The Water Is Wide, 2017, hangs above the bed. On the dresser is a 1919 gilt bronze sculpture, Coq Chantant, by Charles Paillet (1871-1937). The concrete and acrylic lamp is by Graham’s friend Chicago designer Jan Jander. Pieces of Tuskegee Institute Pottery from the 1950s and Red Wing pottery from the 1960s are placed throughout the room.

The museum director loves bright colors. His attraction to Marimekko began when he was living in Finland as an exchange student in 1990. Vintage Haeger Pottery lamps flank the bed. Daniel White’s The Water Is Wide, 2017, hangs above the bed. On the dresser is a 1919 gilt bronze sculpture, Coq Chantant, by Charles Paillet (1871-1937). The concrete and acrylic lamp is by Graham’s friend Chicago designer Jan Jander. Pieces of Tuskegee Institute Pottery from the 1950s and Red Wing pottery from the 1960s are placed throughout the room.


Originally published in the April 2021 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2021 Maine Antique Digest

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