But Hall took a cue from his grandmother, Rosalie, who lived through the Great Depression. According to Hall, Rosalie had a reputation for frugality, always heading to the bank to put something away. She perpetually demonstrated the importance of saving money for a rainy day, and Hall absorbed her thriftiness from a young age. Today, he lives across the street from the Morgan Library & Museum, but until the age of 16, Hall wasn’t aware that museums even existed. “There were no museums in Wakulla County,” he said. The family could only visit the museum in nearby Tallahassee on the anointed “Negro Day,” “which we never did since we didn’t have a car,” Hall continued.
A dedicated student, Hall gained entry to the Yale High School Summer Program in 1969, where he experienced just how far New Haven, Conn., was from rural Florida. The Black Panthers had a headquarters in New Haven, and the town’s mayor, Richard C. Lee, famously spoke out against the Vietnam War and urged President Richard Nixon to bring troops home. This hotbed of political activity gave Hall his introduction to contemporary art. The Swedish-born American artist Claes Oldenburg, as a show of support for student protesters opposed to Vietnam, installed a 24-foot-tall sculpture of a tube of lipstick, unraveling from inside a military caterpillar tank, at Yale’s Beinecke Library Plaza. Hall would spend hours staring at Oldenburg’s work. It hounded his mind. Everything happening at Yale was just in the background. “It was that good,” he said, “and I didn’t even know that there was such a thing like that. I thought art was just classical paintings in books.”
Graduating from Bowdoin College in Maine in 1974 with a degree in English Literature, Hall was in debt, but he spent his time looking and pondering, “building a well of visual images that have since influenced what I collect,” as he put it. In 1982, he moved to New York and started working in finance, which gave him money for the first time in his life. He became friends with Marvin Heiferman, who worked in the print department at Leo Castelli, the dealer of artists like Warhol and Rauschenberg. In another sign of Hall’s foresight, he bought two photographs by Nan Goldin from her 1985 series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” which documented the nocturnal and narcotic lifestyles of Goldin’s friends. He bought “Skinhead Having Sex, London, 1978” and “C.Z. and Max on the Beach, Truro, Massachusetts, 1976” (the titles are self-explanatory) for $350 each. Individual works from the same series have since sold for over $65,000.