Back to the Future
A contemporary gallery that harnesses tradition to make a blueprint for today.
Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Various
In the very heart of the West End, dealers of fine art still cluster together in the web of streets behind the Royal Academy, pavements that have been walked since the 18th century by some of the most famous artists in the world. The sense of tradition is palpable. Since the 1960’s, the contemporary art trade has colonised Cork Street, once a key outpost of the avant-garde but latterly diluted and besieged by commercial pressure from the global fashion retailers desirous of these lucrative central locations. Around the corner in Old Bond Street, the Duveens once reigned supreme, selling Old Master paintings to American moguls like John Pierpont Morgan, Benjamin Altman and Henry Clay Frick, from their own custom-built premises. Nothing much remains of that original building due to extensive bomb damage in both World Wars, but the site has been refurbished and reoccupied by a new generation of art dealers. One of the most interesting of these is Toby Clarke.
Born in London in 1973 but spending a childhood in Devon, Clarke is an immediately engaging individual, bubbling with barely suppressed enthusiasm and energy. His accelerated career in fine art is one that reflects these highly desirable qualities, but backed up by a solid intellect – Clarke scored a first in Business from Edinburgh University (1996) with a dissertation on the marketing of art including the potential of the internet. Ever canny, Clarke realised that artists had poor business brains on the whole, ditto a lot of gallerists, so a combination of both skills would be extremely useful to the art world. It was an assessment that would prove most apposite.
Toby Clarke’s first appointment was at the William Weston print gallery. Such a refined and intimate organisation was never going to contain Clarke’s expansive personality and he was soon in Notting Hill at Frank Ormonde, an Orientalist dealer of the old school who believed in letting his staff loose on any opportunities that arose. Clarke flourished in this environment – and the raffish Portobello Road – developing an affection for Tribal Art and a confidence in his own decision-making powers.
But it was contemporary art that was Clarke’s passion – he was still buying works for his own collection – and when a chance to join iCollector came up, he grabbed it. Selling art and information online was in an embryonic state and the potential seemed limitless – although Clarke thoughtfully told his new boss the business model would not work after only two weeks in the job! His contribution to the growth of iCollector did not go unnoticed and he was poached by artnet after instantly impressing its president, Bill Fine. After a rapid learning curve under Fine’s charismatic influence, Clarke left to join artnet client Eyestorm/BritArt to help re-launch the combined and remodelled business. Again cannily, Clarke negotiated a contract based on turnover and within the year was enjoying a very handsome income. Clarke’s marketing skills and business acumen were getting noticed by the London art world and when that bastion of traditional London dealing, the 140-year-old Fine Art Society, wanted to develop their contemporary art department, Clarke secured the job – after some serious lobbying on his part. Toby Clarke was finally in his right place in the art universe.
Given his head as the youngest FAS director, Clarke’s exuberant vision soon ruffled feathers in the sober Bond Street rooms. But in six years and over some fifty odd exhibitions, his record stands proud. Keith Coventry, a notoriously difficult artist, sold out before his show even opened and is now on a career high; a criticised Gavin Turk exhibition subsequently found a home in the Tate collection. Clarke fondly remembers showing the 90-year-old Bram Bogart, not seen in the UK for a generation but previously exhibited by Arthur Tooth, Mayor Gallery and Gimpel Fils. Other artists enticed into the staid surrounding of the FAS included: Jake and Dinos Chapman, Keith Tyson, Oliver Marsden, Conrad Shawcross, Marcus Harvey, Jason Martin and John Baldock.
Inevitably, the day came for Clarke to run his own space and a timely collaboration with Thomas Williams resulted in the Vigo Gallery, launched in Autumn 2011. Thomas Williams is one of the unsung heroes of the art business, an insider with a solid track record of projects that include co-founding the British Museum’s Vollard group to assist with acquisitions of works on paper. Williams is currently planning a show of Californian art of the 50’s and 60’s for the 2012 programme.
As the son of an artist, Clarke understands both sides of the business and this insight has given him a particular empathy towards artists. Although absolutely contemporary in practice, the Vigo Gallery embraces and sustains its artists in a traditional way, more common at the end of the 1950’s than it is today. Even to the extent of doing business on a handshake. Clarke takes an almost paternal interest in each artist he works with, arranging residencies, museum shows, loaning living expenses and encouragement when necessary, and tirelessly promoting their talent outside of the gallery walls. ‘I recently got Henry Krokatsis into a show [Themes and Variations] with Jasper Johns and other greats at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum’, he notes with justifiable satisfaction. He also works with artists ‘discovered’ along the way, an exceptional example being Penny Lamb, whose extraordinary – almost mystical – assemblages have already enticed major name collectors to Clarke’s door.
Additionally, Toby makes significant contributions to the advisory panels of three significant residencies: Eilean Shona, a tidal island in Loch Moidart, Scotland; Horiuchi at the Kuomi Museum, Japan; and the AMOYA [Museum of Young Art] residency in Prague. Coincidentally, the Czech Republic will be the location for Clarke’s first major international museum show, with 35 artists exhibiting at the City of Prague Gallery in June.
As if this level of activity is not enough, Toby Clarke is also heavily involved in charitable works where art can have an impact. A notable 2010 show at the Saatchi Gallery utilised around 30 artists to raise money for African children accused of witchcraft, purely as a result of Clarke seeing a TV documentary about this murderous superstition. It raised some £80,000. He also advises Kenwood De’Longhi on their sponsorship. Clarke is in real danger of giving contemporary dealers a good name!
It is clear that Toby Clarke’s commercial acumen and market making skills would open the door to many a lucrative career requiring a lot less effort than the art business. But Clarke’s motivation is not money. His is a genuine engagement with art and its makers. Whilst at college he spent his student loan on most of Oliver Marsden’s graduate show (‘some £860 – even though I couldn't afford it’) – and 20 years later Marsden is represented by Vigo. Clarke spends voraciously on art for himself and also works closely with other collectors advising on market trends. He is currently engaged on a project with Christian Levett, the 41-year-old Essex-born financial entrepreneur, owner of the Mougins Museum of Classical Art which contains some 700 works, spanning 5,000 years, acquired over the past seven years. Lately, Toby has been curating the private collection at the Quo Vadis restaurant, for owners Sam and Eddie Hart.
The lengthy external redecoration of Clarke’s building is finally coming to a close, an irritation beyond his control; the June launch of his highly personal survey exhibition in Prague is looming; and it is almost the first anniversary of the Vigo Gallery. It was most helpful that Vigo’s inaugural show by Gavin Turk, En Face, sold out in toto to collector David Roberts. And the space has garnered some very positive press in the meantime. If there is a future for galleries in the 21st century, and a future for a younger generation of dealers, then it is not difficult to believe that Toby Clarke’s fervent and committed blueprint represents the way forward. And that painting is very far from being démodé.