EPHEMERA OF THE ART WORLD: AN INTERVIEW WITH PAUL ROBERTSON
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.
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.