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The Herald

Art Abounds with a Lust for Life by Sarah Unwin Jones



On a quiet Wednesday afternoon in mid February, the only sign of the new contemporary art gallery in Temple – a village meandering halfway down the road that winds through the idyllic Esk Valley – is a large white balloon, jibbing like a truculent child in the air above a cluster of artists who look as if it might be getting the better of them.


Lust & The Apple is the latest project from art curator, dealer and sometime artist Paul Robertson, the former curator of visual art at Edinburgh’s highly successful Summerhall venue. If this sudden displacement to a former primary school building in a rural community some 10 miles from the capital might seem unexpected, there is precedent, perhaps, in the rolling acres of Jupiter Artland or the remote HICA (Highland Institute of Contemporary Art).


And Temple (a once bustling agricultural village named, so they say, for the Knights Templar who farmed the fertile lands of the Esk some 700 years ago) can in any case lay its own claim to artistic heritage. Sir William Gillies, who died in 1973, lived and painted here for much of his working life. The current villagers have been very welcoming, says Robertson, “although possibly a bit annoyed with me as some of them wanted to turn this place into a pub”.


Robertson, whose three-year tenure as curator of Summerhall’s visual arts programme ended at the beginning of the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2014 when he was abruptly “excluded”, is currently in the process of court action against his former employer, due to begin in March this year. Despite this cloud, Robertson is proud of his achievements at Summerhall. “Two hundred shows in three years is not bad. During the Art Festival in August, we often had 30 exhibitions running. People said, ‘Isn’t it impossible putting on so many exhibitions?’ To be honest, it’s not. It’s just work.”


Lust & The Apple is, perhaps as a result, a private venture. “I’ve got no financial help. It’s not a gallery like a normal commercial gallery. It’s somewhere people can come and have a chat, look at art and have a coffee with me,” he says, cheerfully. He does not intend to go looking for funding from state coffers, and has little time for “creatively stifling bureaucracy”.


If popular myth about the so-called lost millions of the Knights Templar, buried in Temple “‘twixt the oak and the elm tree”, are true, of course, he might not have to. “I’ve got an oak and an elm tree in the garden,” he jokes, although he is more likely to find his funds, as he has always done, from sales of his vast archive, ranging from the letters of Andre Breton to ephemera by Damien Hirst.


Artistic plans for the weekends-only venue, which will show 12 artists a year in three-month blocks, include barbeques in summer and an emphasis on land art which he hopes, neighbours willing, may spread into the surrounding fields during the Art Festival. “Edinburgh has a tendency to show safe work. Abstracts that match your coat, things that appeal to the corporate body. I like things that make you think about the world, things that are socially engaging.”


Certainly, a closed-down rural primary is a somewhat apt place to socially engage with the public. There is nothing of the white-box gallery about this former Victorian primary – no doubt a rather idyllic place to have begun one’s education – its unheated rooms chilly in the gloam of a late winter’s day. Installation debris litters the corridors, from which a door opens onto Robertson’s archive, once on display at Summerhall. Another door, and a room dominated by the artist Kenny Watson’s large billboard painting, originally designed for the former Odeon cinema on Edinburgh’s Nicolson Street. “I quite like the rough nature of it,” says Watson, of his assorted ‘works in progress’ that form one of the gallery’s three inaugural exhibitions.


In the car park out front, Tim Sandys, currently studying on the MFA at Glasgow School of Art, is installing his work Damocles, “a terrifying work to walk under,” says Robertson. Here, then, the balloons which bob jauntily in the wind eddies above our heads, each anchored by a razor sharp hanging rapier, referencing the legendary Sword of Damocles. Sandys tells me he tripped while constructing the work in his studio, effectively throwing himself on one of his trompe l’oeil swords and ending up in hospital. “I’m interested in the idea of randomness and danger at the moment,” he tells me, somewhat aptly, although visitors might feel somewhat reassured at his excellent powers of fakery. Recent projects have included leaving realistic forged banknotes in £1000 bundles on the Glasgow Metro.


In the garden out back, amidst some of Sandys’s Hard Tack fibreglass sculptures, Watson’s rough-hewn Electric Chair is another exercise in random danger. Fascinated by the anachronism of electric chairs in museums, he designed a full-scale replica that would be charged by a lightning strike. Visitors sit on it, quite literally, at their peril. “I put it up during a storm once,” Watson tells me. “I really thought I might be on my way out.” Around the corner, Alexander and Susan Maris are mid-installation of their ‘Potters Field’, a series of paupers graves for the nine Classical Muses.


The installation is running a day late, but Robertson says he’s not worried. “I’ve been sweeping the floors within 15 minutes of opening before,” he grins. And after all, he’s only got three installations to worry about this time, not 30.

Rooms Magazine

Paul Robertson on the creation of LUST & THE APPLE


I’d have never thought I would end up founding a contemporary art gallery right in the middle of the countryside. I thought I was as urban as a dirty bus-stop outside a kabab shop. But then suddenly it happened.


If I’m honest it started as a solution to a problem – that I have an archive of nearly 9,000 books and art works from the international avant garde which I needed to find some storage space for urgently and looking around in the city, I suddenly realised I was facing huge rents that I could not afford.


And then a friend pointed out this old school house in a village just 14 miles south of Edinburgh. It was in a former Knights Templar bailiwick (where the fabled Templar gold, spirited away from Paris in 1320, was supposedly hidden between an elm and an oak tree) and had been empty for years. After a visit or two I realised it was an amazing opportunity!


So I went in and negotiated a deal with the factors, moved my collection into two big rooms and suddenly had the insight that I had loads of space left over. Especially if one took into account the four cubicle and two shower old fashioned concrete toilet block that reminded me of my own school days in Denny freezing my bollocks off in the outhouse buildings of the 1960s. There are 2,500 square feet of old school rooms here (one complete with blackboard), a 1,000 square metre garden and a car park big enough for 8 – 10 cars.


I suddenly remembered that I didn’t own 8 cars never mind 10.


So LUST AND THE APPLE was conceived. Every available space would be used to create what I thought could be a very special art gallery showing risky and challenging contemporary art continuing the work I had done at Summerhall as the curator there for the last three years. I built a 9 x 5m white internal space in one room to allow a more traditional hanging and then I started to consider a programme of artists for the coming year. Initially I decided to show three artists every quarter but I am now more likely to exhibit four or more each time as the artists are inspired by the desire to use all of the spaces including the roof and car park.


Here’s the thing – the best side to having your own gallery is that you can put on whoever or whatever you want. My opening shows were Tim Sandys, Maris and Kenny Watson (all of whom I have worked with before) and in May, the gay new York icon Cary Leibowitz will create a new installation out of tartan football scarves, alongside other initiatives by Mike Ballard from London, Edinburgh’s own Alex Allan and the New Zealand artist Elke Finkenauer; each taking over bits of this rather fantastic place. There’s a BBQ opening on the 15th.


For the Edinburgh Festival, the famous conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner has created a new outdoor work created especially for the gallery, Denmark’s art duo PUTPUT will be creating an artist’s greenhouse in the garden, David Connearn will most probably be making a gravel drawing in the car park (although we have an offsite project for the fields nearby which may happen if we can raise the money) and Cisco Jimenez (a very significant Mexican artist) will be showing paintings and ceramics in the white gallery. There will be other artists too soon to be announced including I hope one other very well known name. We may well be running a daily art minibus from Edinburgh for the first week too.


Other artists are planned – Jonathan Monk, Maurizio Nannucci, Gregor Schneider, Christine Borland have all indicated that they are likely to work with LUST AND THE APPLE in the future if we can find the right project. And I will be showing many emerging Scottish and UK artists (much as I did at Summerhall) as I want to help the next generation of graduates get a foothold in the contemporary art scene.


Finally – this is all done out of my own pocket. I cannot see any reason to approach Creative Scotland as in my experience of them, they are deeply bureaucratic, inflexible and cowardly about contemporary art projects. If you happen to know a rich private sponsor then do email me – I could do with the help. But in the meantime I hope to make LUST AND THE APPLE a significant part of the Scottish art scene even if it means I have to live off the apples from the tree found in the garden here. I will eat them lustly.

Art Star TV



When I visited the Edinburgh Art Festival, I had the lucky chance to catch up with Paul Robertson, an art collector, art dealer and the former curator of Summerhall in Edinburgh, Scotland. As the owner of a 9000-piece collection of avant-garde work, Heart Fine Art, Robertson is a huge supporter of dada, surrealist and futurism art books from the 1900s. He also collects Warhols, contemporary art and prints, editions, posters and ephemera. He said he started with £15,000 but the collection is now worth around £2,000,000.


With a science background and a romp through politics, Robertson started collecting art books on the side. Through a weird twist of fate, he ended up a collector. If it wasn’t for a media scandal around the Labour Party he worked for, he might not be in art. Thankfully, he ended up co-directing one of the most vibrant cultural hotspots that Edinburgh has to offer, while continuing on with his own projects. We spoke about the importance of networking and how to get the studio visit with a collector. Robertson quotes Oscar Wilde and explains why he has hung onto every art exhibition flyer and poster (and why you should keep making them).


Interview by Nadja Sayej

ArtStars*: What have you learned and what did you do at Summerhall?


Paul Robertson: You have to be authentic, you have to be valid. You can’t fake it in this world. For example, at Summerhall, we tried to give a good number of emerging artists their first exhibitions. That was partly a strategy because in Scotland Glasgow is thought of as typically the place you go to see contemporary art, certainly the emerging art scene. I believe that Glasgow and Edinburgh are somewhat different: Edinburgh was historically, and still now, economically founded on the law and the finance sectors as well as accountancy – all serving Scotland’s finance sector which is mostly based on the East coast. Often such people have degrees and life experiences that are rather limited (although clearly not all of them), and in my experience there’s no collecting base in Edinburgh compared to Glasgow where people have wider arts degrees and wider knowledge due, I would argue, to an economy based on the supply industries and more cultural diversity in businesses. Clearly that’s a broad generalization but as an art dealer I’ve never had many clients in Edinburgh at all. In Glasgow, I have had more although most of my clients are abroad in New York, Paris, Berlin and Tokyo. There is an active and vibrant gallery scene in Glasgow with six private galleries that show a certain type of work. But the private galleries in Edinburgh mostly show portrait, landscapes, traditional representative art. So from the start I tried to open Summerhall up for younger artists (alongside significant shows by world famous artists such as Gregor Schneider) and we did 48 shows in 2013/14 with young, emerging artists. I also hoped that program would be a catalyst for emerging East coast and other Scottish artists. I’ve bought a lot of work from younger artists in the last few years, putting my money where my mouth is. It’s to show support but I also like the work.


You have an interesting back story, can you explain how you became a curator?


I was trained scientifically, I was trained as a psychologist. Then, I ended up in politics. I am from an age when baby boomers kept their jobs at universities and there were no jobs after I graduated. So I got involved in democratic socialist politics, I ended up working as a consultant to the Labour Party as a propagandist. Additionally, I do have a graphic design background. In the 1990,s I was turning around a reasonable amount of money as a political consultant. I would write, design, produce all the leaflets during elections from 1981 to 1990. Then there was a political scandal in Scotland which put me on the cover of the Sunday Times, five pages inside, television, radio and other newspapers. It was an interesting time but that ended that career path.


What happened?


I was interviewed by the police five times about a possible breach of the representation of the people’s act, which is a very serious piece of legislation. They interviewed me as a witness, but an accusation was made by the Sunday Times that the Labour Party covered up expenditure in an by-election. It turned out nothing happened. No charges. But it claimed a great deal of attention in the newspapers and, typically, the Scottish National Party as used the story opportunistically and tried to turn up the heat on me and the others as I had print managed and designed the publicity for that by-election. I had to deal with a lot of personal press intrusion, which was interesting to say the least. Soon after, I needed a career change. I was already collecting art and it seemed to me that I could deal in it.


What did you start collecting?


I bought a few Warhols and you could buy Warhols for an affordable price back then. Sadly, I’ve sold them now for money to buy other works (sadly because I really think Warhol was a remarkable artist). That said, I have a lovely 1963 Warhol self-portrait on silver paper that is hand-silk screened by him.
There is a danger as a dealer where, as Oscar Wilde said, you know the price of everything and the value of nothing. I really like art. Usually, I buy things I am intrigued by, I’m not doing it just to flip something. I learned long ago to buy things what I like. If you buy something just to sell it, it’s not always going to sell and you will be left with it – at least buy things you personally desire and appreciate.


What is your collection made of?


My collection is about 70% books, specifically art, first editions of the international avant-garde – including dada, surrealism, futurism from 1900 to the present day. A lot of the books are rare – I’ve sold several books to major libraries for well over $100,000. That’s the sort of thing I’ve done to survive, but I’ve built my collection up at the same time. The other 30% consists of unique works, editions, prints, sculptures and ephemera as well as posters, artist’s records and unique documents. You can see it all at the Heath Fine Art website. I started with £15,000 but the collection is now probably worth around £2,000,000.


How did Summerhall begin?


The McDowell family bought Summerhall and Robert McDowell made a speech at a party for Richard Demarco saying he was going to set up the building up as an art hub and everyone should support it. By a series of co-incidences I was there and I walked up to him and said “you should know me.”


Summerhall used to be a veterinary college and it has 430 rooms, it was really not fit for purpose as an art museum – for instance it has no large doors for bringing art in and large parts of the building have no wheelchair access but we tried to make it work. But for what we had, we did well, I think. Before we parted company, I programmed 10 shows every two months and put on just under 200 significant exhibitions in the past two years including a Lawrence Wiener multiples show, Gregor Schneider in a major installation called Susser Duft, Genesis P-Orridge, FAILE, Fiona Banner, Susan Hiller, Carolee Schneemann, a Christian Boltanski show from my own collection, Art & Language, Claude Closky, Ryan Gander, Jonathan Monk. I was lucky enough to have worked with significant international artists. That said, the program was always a mixtape. We showed many international artists but also tried to support emerging artists locally. And when I say “I give people their first shows,” I have made sure that we were not restricted to Scotland only – the artists were English, Welsh and Irish as well.


How was Summerhall funded?


There was no public money there at all for the visual arts budget. Not one penny from the British government. We did receive money from abroad, otherwise it was paid for by my money or Robert McDowell’s money.


How did you decide which artists to work with?


Some were artists I hugely admire. For example, FAILE I’ve collected and I had long desired to work with Schneider. I would love to work with Matthew Barney, he is the artist to my mind who is mostly like Marcel Duchamp today. There was no overall strategy to Summerhall’s program, we were eclectic. There was something for everyone. When you have 20 spaces, you can put on a program that has width. In most museums, I would have had only two rooms attest for shows, so my time at Summerhall was unique despite the problems.


Do you find it helps when artists are professional? Is it about that?


I’ve worked with people who are uber-professional, Fiona Banner was so exacting but rightly so. The precision with which Fiona would place a video work was remarkable in her accuracy and as you are installing it seems difficult because we had to go back and remake and remake again a wall because there was one tiny bump in it, but that’s the way it should be. I learned something working with Fiona, who I greatly admire. Other artists are looser in their requirements: Schneider sent me a Word document and left me to get on with it until he arrived and I was relieved that I had done precisely what he wanted – while some artists are different and want something more precise.


How important is networking?


I try to network a lot, I try to get around. I go to most of the major art fairs and festivals like the Venice Biennial. I’m in a difficult place being up here at the edge of Europe, we’re not London, New York and Paris. It’s difficult to get people to come to Scotland, but I found that if I was enthusiastic then I would enthuse the artist and they would usually waive their fee and come.


When an artist asks you for a studio visit, do you go?


Often. I firstly ask people if they’re any good if they are starting out. I think confidence is a good sign. And if they intrigue me then I would go see someone’s work, I like going to studios and seeing artists’ works. I go to all the degree shows I can then I try to follow what some of the best of those artists are up to: I watch their work for one or two years and see if they come through. It’s quite possible that you get disappointed by where they end up – I’ve seen one great female artist have to become an accountant and give up making art as she couldn’t pay the bills any other way. That is sad.


As well as doing a good number of the art fairs, I’ve traveled a lot to build my collection. You can’t buy Dada in Scotland, you’ve got to go to Paris or Berlin. Fluxus is found mostly in Germany and New York. The YBAs in London. I’ve build up connections over 15 years of trading. I’m still buying things that interest me – this week I have bought three Beuys multiples, a Gary Hume painting and an Ian Hamilton Finlay multiple that I didn’t even know existed despite collecting Finlay for over 20 years and having over 1,750 items in my Finlay collection.


You have 9,000 pieces in your art collection?


Yes, but they’re not all unique paintings by any means, for example, I collect the ephemera of the art world. A friend calls it ‘the junk mail of the art world’ but I think that is short-sighted. I think in terms of documentation ephemera is important – the posters, invitation cards, things handed out in the exhibitions, the catalogs are all important historically. Sometimes, such as say the London Misfits Festival which was one of the earliest Fluxus events, only the announcement card is available for that show and has all of the lists of the participants and the events on it – else that would be left to the memories of artists who are ageing and sometimes forgetful and many of the participants of that event are now dead like Robert Filliou. I also collect artist books which go back to surrealist collaborative artist books all the way to more recent publications like the Richard Prince photo book I bought last week. Object multiples I quite like. Dieter Roth, Joseph Beuys, fantastically wonderful things. Even though editions are made in perhaps 100 copies, after 30 or more years they’re hard to get. People lose these things. It reduces down to fewer than a handful. I’ve found a book in London that’s worth $55,000 before now and I paid £20 for it. It’s a bit Antiques Roadshow – awful! Tacky, “How much is it worth?” … but then it is a very important book by Jack Smith (filmmaker) which influences the films of Warhol, the trash aesthetic of John Waters, is one of the earliest gay photo books (pre-Stonewall) and includes images of Marion Zazella and La Monte Young as participants with an unique silkscreen cover by Zazella. So the value is nice to have but the content more so.


What is the common trait you see among successful artists?


Enthusiasm and belief. I’ve always said people who are serious artists would do it anyway. Carolee Schneemann, for example, early on made no significant money and still did the breakthrough work she did and was enthusiastic about it. Some people are just born artists. I agree with Beuys when he said “every man is an artist.” But despite Kippenberger’s jokey “every artist is a man” clearly not every contemporary artist is a man and I am interested in feminist art especially the early works of Emin and Schneemann and, importantly, the female surrealists who were for years ignored by critics and their peers. Every artist is someone who has being an artist inside of them. Art is a function that is needed psychologically by human beings and it’s essentially a form of entertainment, by which I mean it is a form of cerebral entertainment.


Artists make themselves. It’s their way of life, and thinking about the world. The really good ones have talent and are successful. Even those who don’t make a living at it, it is in them, they can’t do anything else. You can’t stop it coming out, one way or another.

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