“I like exhibitions where you learn something. You reconsider what you believed before you stepped through the exhibition. It doesn't matter whether it's a new artist or a new period or a new way of looking at things.”
Deborah Irmas is a philanthropist and art professional based in Los Angeles, California. Irmas’ pioneering interest in contemporary photography led her to guest curate the exhibition Signs of the Times at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and build an expansive collection of self-portrait photographs. The Irmas family donated this collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she curated the exhibition This Is Not a Selfie: Photographic Self-Portraits from the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Collection. Currently, during Covid 19, Irmas is using her philanthropic platform to support health organizations and hunger organizations by delivering feminine hygiene products to women in need.
In this interview, Deborah Irmas shares how she bought two Cindy Sherman photographs for $800 at an auction, the rise in popularity of photo history, and her involvement in fighting homelessness.
TGL: How was your childhood?
DI: My first conscious memory of where I lived was in Mar Vista in West Los Angeles. I had both of my parents and two brothers. My father died 25 years ago, but it was an intact family. I grew up in a little house, and then, as my father got more successful, we moved to Beverly Hills. I was mostly an ordinary kid. I thought my parents were progressive and modern. But little girls are treated differently than little boys, so as you get older, you begin to have different visions of how your childhood played out. You go into therapy, and you begin to look at all this stuff.
When I was 10 years old, I went to school at El Rodeo elementary. I walked past this green golf course called the LA Country Club, it was huge. It had two halves: one for men and one for women, no Jewish, Black, or Asian people. In the past 60 years, I have never been in it, but I can still see it from here. I think it should be a central park where people can walk and look at the city. These two parcels of land, which is something like 500 acres, is bigger than Central Park if you put the two of them together. Eminent domain should take back this land for the people. They used eminent domain to take Chavez Ravine, which is where Dodgers Stadium is. They moved all those people so they could build a baseball field. They should move out 15 golfers, so they can have a park and maybe an outdoor theater, or an area for birds?
TGL: Where does your relationship to Catalina come from?
DI: My grandmother was born in Catalina. My great-grandparents came over in the 1880s from Hungary. It's pretty amazing what my grandparents did, leaving and starting something new. They had a bunch of kids. My grandfather built a hotel with a bowling alley and a saloon. I found a picture of his saloon. In the background, you can see a sign that says, "Tamales on Tuesday." You know how they say Taco Tuesday? He had tamales on Tuesday, because he loved tamales. There was a woman who would send them over from the mainland.
TGL: When did you start being interested in art?
DI: When I was a teenager, I knew I liked art. I also loved fashion. I took sewing and made crazy clothes sometimes. I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was tall and skinny, so I got to work in this boutique in the ‘60s called Paraphernalia. The designer was a woman named Betty Johnson, who's still around and has a store in New York City. The movie stars used to come in, and I would hold their hands. I have a picture somewhere of me in this fantastic dress, holding a dog. I thought, "Perfect, that's me." So, I graduated from high school and went to Syracuse University to study art.
TGL: What was your college experience?
DI: At the end of my sophomore year when I was 20, there was a lot of social unrest because of the Vietnam War, and so I dropped out of school, and I went to live in Italy. I didn’t have a lot of money but I had a boyfriend, it was cliché. There was this woman who got me a job working in an art gallery in Trastevere, Rome. I worked half-days, I got there at 10. I got the owner his coffee. He gave me a little Italian lesson. I went around and dusted. There were beautiful things. There was an Egon Schiele that I used to just stare at all the time, it was quite beautiful. It was European art between the wars, small objects. I don't remember how long I worked there. I don't think it was six months though, maybe three months.
TGL: What did you do when you came back from Italy?
DI: I was in Italy for nine months. When I came back, I went to USC to just finish up, before I went to study art history at Boston University. As soon as I started to really see art and discuss art, I knew that I wasn't going to be an artist. In those days at USC, there were few art history classes, so I took medieval art and Greek art. I started to take photography, and I was good at it. The photography professor used to show us pictures, and he would say, "This was taken with this kind of a camera, and the shutter speed was blah, blah, blah." He spent 15 minutes on the technical stuff, which was really uninteresting to me. I would go back to the medieval class where they would show one slide of an illuminated manuscript and talk about the iconography and the meaning of why the Monks used that letter. It was rich and layered. The photographer Edward Weston got a grant to make his pictures with a four-by-five. I thought, "Why can’t we take the kind of thinking that we use when we talk about painting and sculpture, and apply it to photography?”
TGL: Did you change your major to art history?
DI: At USC, you had to study some art history, if you were going to be an artist. I asked to take extra, but I was taking ceramics, printmaking, and photography, so I was making things too. I found the art history classes much more interesting. This Greek art professor told me about Carl Chiarenza, who just got his PhD in photo history from Harvard, and was teaching a class at Boston University. The only reason I got in was because I was the only person who wanted to study photo history. Everybody else wanted to study American art or the classic areas of art history. I had a lot of catching up to do, because I had only taken a few art history classes, but that's the way I loved to learn. I went to BU for two years and studied art history and got my master’s in photo history.
TGL: Was photography a popular field of study?
DI: I realize that California was not as advanced as the East Coast in this field. Peter Bunnell taught history of photography at Princeton and there was my teacher, Carl Chiarenza, who had a PhD from Harvard, but they were doing it themselves. It wasn't as categorized as it is now, but I took all these photo history courses, so I was able to teach it.
TGL: What did you do right after getting your master’s?
DI: I really wanted to be a curator, and there weren't the programs like there are now. I curated an exhibition in Los Angeles of this photographer named William Mortensen in 1976. He was quirky. I didn't pick a normal person with a normal body of work, but a fellow in New York named Stephen Romano who took my research and is putting together something formidable on the Mortensen material. He has found amazing things.
TGL: Where was the exhibition?
DI: We did it here at the Municipal Art Gallery at Barnsdall park. I did it with the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies. And then, it went to the Oakland Museum, and it went to the gallery of Daniel Wolfe in New York. This exhibition was picked up by Life Magazine. In those days, the magazine came out monthly, not weekly. Somebody from Life Magazine cited Daniel Wolfe, and then they did this whole story about it. For me, that was it and I loved it.
TGL: What did you do after the exhibition?
DI: I started teaching the history of photography at UCLA, USC, and Orange Coast College. I would drive all around and teach these courses. Then, I got a job in San Francisco at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, but it was not where it is now. It was a smaller place. Van Deren Coke started buying photographs and setting them up in the museum in the ‘70s. He went to Germany and got a lot of the German abstraction, Bauhaus photographers. He wrote a book called The Painter and the Photograph. From Delacroix to Warhol, it's just pictures and text. He was a lovely guy, and everybody was in awe of him. He used to have discussions, and I would argue with him. He called me and said, "Deborah, why don't you come up to San Francisco? It's going to be our 50th anniversary of the museum, and we need somebody to go through the collection and put together a show." I was so excited, that was '85.
The show got written up in The New York Times. It was on the front page of the Sunday Arts and Leisure section. I did this show and this guy named Gene Thornton, I never met him, wrote about me twice. He wrote about photography, because there weren't big photography shows and I did one. The museum had never had that amount of attention. There was a job opening for an assistant curator, and I wanted to work with this woman curator. But she wouldn't have that, because I had gotten this attention.
Somebody asked me, when I came back to Los Angeles, if I would be the interim director of the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA). I was the interim director for one year at LAICA while it continued on a downward spiral. At the same time, I co-curated a show with a video artist named Branda Miller, who now runs The Media Sanctuary in Troy, New York. Sometimes artists want to do shows, and they don't know how to pull them together, so that was my skill at that time. She gave me this great project called Surveillance. Branda and I did that show for LACE and it got a lot of attention in Artforum, etc. And by that time, I couldn't get employed with an institution, so I was just teaching.
TGL: When did you move to Paris?
DI: I lived there from '91 to '95. I loved Paris and in '94, I bought an old warehouse in Le Marais and I transformed it into a living place. As soon as it was finished, I was asked by Pace to open their photography department in Beverly Hills.
TGL: Did you experience culture shock living in Europe?
DI: Americans have been going to Paris since the 18th century. I studied French from the time I was 10 years old, so my French might not be that good, but I was fine. I needed a change. I lived in these little apartments. I got a project: I would photograph things and meet people. It's not hard to meet people in Paris.
TGL: What did you do for work while living in Paris?
DI: I met this man named Pierre Bonhomme who ran the Mission du Patromoine Photographique. He hired me, and I traveled around the world to archives to find out how they were organized. Did they keep negatives? Did they keep color slides? How did they see their collections being used in 20 years? I also started writing for Frieze Magazine when it first started, Art & Auction, and Men’s Vogue.
I did an exhibition of Robert Heinecken in '93, '94. The D.A.P. and the Pompidou bought pieces. It was Heinecken’s first international exhibition, and I had a little party for him. I remember people came up to him and said, "I'm so embarrassed. I never knew your work. You are fantastic.” He got Alzheimer’s and died several years later, but he knew that it was big for him to have a show in France, so I was really happy to do it.
TGL: What makes an exhibition good for you?
DI: I like exhibitions where you learn something. You reconsider what you believed before you stepped through the exhibition. It doesn't matter whether it's a new artist or a new period or a new way of looking at things. There are some good and some great curators. Sometimes, we have to go see those shows, like Hilma af Klint: Paintings for the Future at the Guggenheim. It completely changed what we know of abstraction and that a woman was doing it so flawless. To me, that was one of the greatest exhibits of all time.
TGL: When did you start collecting self-portraits?
DI: I did it with my parents, and I would say that we started in the early ‘80s. We started collecting photography, and then we noticed that we had three or four self-portraits. We had a Nadar self-portrait, an F. Holland Day self-portrait, and a Francis Frith. We had these three early 19th century, early 20th century self-portraits. We said, "Let's just go there." You could just walk into a gallery and go, "Do you have any self-portraits?"
My father found a beautiful, original Alfred Stieglitz when he was in London. It was in an original frame that he made. He goes, "Have you ever heard of somebody called Alfred Stieglitz?" and I said yes. “Well, there's an Alfred Stieglitz photo,” and I said “Just get it.” In those days, you didn't have to worry about whether it was a later print, it was signed and they were all either vintage or a few years later. We amassed all of this stuff.
TGL: Why self-portraits?
DI: I think it was the sign of the times. I saw the work of Cindy Sherman, and that became the first contemporary work we acquired. This was in the '80s, and we bought two of her photographs at a fundraiser for MOCA. They were $800 apiece. Meanwhile people were paying thousands of dollars for other things. I was with my father and I said, "Dad, you need to buy these for our collection." He goes, "Who is it?" I go, "It's Cindy Sherman." He answers, "All right, which one do you want?" The opening bids were $800 and there were no bidders. My dad said, "Just sign your name on both of them. And then, other people will start to come, and you'll figure out which one has more." Nobody. There were no other bids, none. So we had two Cindy Shermans. I should have kept one for myself, but they're both at LACMA.
TGL You gave your collection to LACMA. Have you done any exhibitions there?
DI: There have been many exhibitions and I did one of them, and I wrote an essay in the first one. Then, they asked me to do another exhibition later on, which was called Masquerade. And I just wrote an intro to This is Not a Selfie. It was made into a show, and it's going to Shanghai in September, Macau, and in 2022, it's going to Bogota, Columbia.
TGL: Are you still interested in self-portraits?
DI: Very rarely. I'm a bit tired of them actually. It reminds me of still lifes in the 17th century. Everybody did still lifes for the next 200 years, and now we don't want to look at another still life. But if you go back to the original still life, you'll see that the flowers had buds, old flowers, and blossoms that have fallen off, they're about the trajectory of life. The self-portrait is not a selfie. It makes me crazy how people call a self-portrait a selfie. I wrote that if anything was going to be considered a selfie, it's the photo booth photos.
TGL: What attracts you to the art you collect?
DI: I have to say, I do have an interest in the formal. I like stories, too, like this Kirsten Everberg picture of the building. She paints pictures of buildings that have been mediated in some way. So this was a photograph that was in the newspaper. That image was reproduced in papers all over the world. It's the building where the Gurlitt Collection was found. The Gurlitt Collection was the stolen Nazi loot the son had hidden for years and years. I love that picture, because she doesn't just paint a building. I like the conceptual framework behind it.
TGL: What do you think about the commercial side of the art world?
DI: I came back to L.A. in the mid-'90s and ran the photography section of Pace (Wildenstein) Gallery in Beverly Hills for a time. That's when I got into the commercial end of things. It was hard for me, because in those days, the idea of selling was like selling out.
Now, you have to think about the market. People want to know why they are spending that amount of money for a work of art. Their relationship to works of art are different from mine.
I help people buy art. I supply clients as an art advisor, but it's like what I was talking about before: everybody had to know what F-stop the photographer used. Now they have to know: What's the provenance? Where was it shown? What did it sell for at Sotheby’s? Oh, the secondary market. I just hate that. That made me realize that I love time-based art, dance, international theater, performance. I like being in a room with people, and we all have that experience at the same time. I was there when Marina Abramovic ended her durational performance at the Museum of Modern Art. It was astounding.
TGL: How has COVID-19 affected your philanthropy?
DI: I just left, but I was on the producers' council for 14 years at CAP UCLA. I had been on the board for 13 years, and I decided last year that they should have younger people. I really believe in succession, that younger people should take over and begin running things. Kristy Edmunds is fantastic. I knew from the get-go that I could really get behind her. She has a new young crew which is fantastic. I am sad about not going to the theater. I miss live dance. Everything is unknown.
TGL: What are you currently working on?
DI: The artist Dan McCleary started this community art school called Art Division, where 18 to 26 year-olds practice art. He built a library based on a library in Oaxaca, Mexico founded by Francisco Toledo. The students can come in and sit and read all the art books they want. Many artists donate their books to him. He has a big team: ceramics, and printmaking, mural arts etc. He asked me if I would be part of the advisory council, and I've done a project with him. I'm really into giving feminine hygiene products to women who cannot afford them. He and I drove down with 60 packs with pads and wipes and all sorts of stuff. He had the students make a floral stamp for the bag.
It was a wonderful project, because I was giving people something they needed, and they were happy to receive it. I went with a girlfriend of mine, and I'm doing it again next week. I'm doing four deliveries for project Angel Food, with feminine hygiene products. That's my art project.
TGL: You support organizations fighting homelessness. Do you think homelessness can be solved?
DI: My father, who has been dead for 25 years started working with an organization called LA Family Housing. The Irmas Family Center was just built last year, it is a huge building in the Valley. My family has been large supporters of this homeless organization.
There are three kinds of housing for the homelessness: emergency, transitional, and permanent housing. LAFH is involved with all of them, But I think it's a government issue. It started because the government decided in the 80's when Ronald Reagan came in, that they weren't going to spend anything on subsidizing housing. And so what happens? People are living on the streets. This country used to build a million units a year. They stopped in 1980, and went down to 20,000. And then, less and less. They did it, because you could buy houses for what you made in two years. Let's say you made $40,000 a year. You could buy an $80,000 house with a 30 year mortgage, and it was reasonable. But then, when they cut out the lower end, the price of real estate went up.
TGL: What art have you been interested in seeing lately?
DI: I want there to be more inclusion of people. I saw an artist in Mexico last fall named Gala Porras-Kim. I saw her work at Labor and I said, "Tell me about her." They said that she lives in Los Angeles and is represented by the gallery Commonwealth and Council. I love that gallery. I've bought from them before, and I'm always going to go see their shows.
Next week, I'm going to see Ana Prvacki. She's a really interesting artist. She now lives in Berlin. She was here in Los Angeles for I don't know how many years and nothing happened. She goes to Berlin, and all of a sudden, she's shown all over the place.
TGL: What was the most memorable studio visit or active conversation you have had?
DI: I always like going to see my friend Joyce Kozloff in New York. We've become good friends. Every time I go over, she takes me back to her studio.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
DI: I know very little about her, but I’ve always been fascinated by Benjamin Franklin's wife. I had dinner with Joe Biden once a long time ago. It was nice, we had a real conversation about Darfur. Of course I would like to have dinner with him again, preferably in the White House. I would like to have dinner with the person who invents the COVID-19 vaccine. I would like to take her out to dinner…It better be a woman.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
TGL: I would say nobody is a genius, we’re all human beings.