AMA is honoured to have talked to Beth Greenacre, the curator of David Bowie’s collection. This interview “gives us an insight into what an incredible mind David had, what a passion he had, and the phenomenal ways in which he saw the world”.
What is your background?
I graduated from Courtauld in London in 1997 and started working as David Bowie’s curator in 2000. In 2005, I launched Rokeby which is a commercial contemporary gallery based in London working with emerging and mid-career artists. During all this time, I have worked with other private collectors as well, predominantly in the Modern British and Contemporary field.
How did you first meet David Bowie? And how did you start to work with him?
David had started his collecting in mid-1990s. I first met David in 1999 through his previous curator, Kate Chertavian. She left the position in 2000.
How many collectors have you worked with so far during your career? What kind of collector would you describe David Bowie as?
I have been very selective in working with collectors because of the in-depth and involved relationships I have with them and their collections. I spend a lot of time with them building and maintaining their collections. At the moment I work closely with five clients. David invested in his collection emotionally and intellectually; he completely immersed himself in a phenomenal way. It was almost like his full-time job, although he already had many full-time jobs! He was incredibly inquisitive and academic and did an awful lot of research; he had an amazing library of art books but also visited the artists where he could, spoke with curators, museum directors and visited galleries and institutions. He was definitely a hands-on, all-round collector – he tried to get into the minds of the artists he was collecting and he would do that in every possible way he could. He had an amazing understanding of the work that he was passionate about and the place and tie in which it was produced. For example, he would take trips down to St. Ives and went to visit studios and art community down in Cornwall, so as to understand what was it that attracted the artists. He would walk along the cliffs and through the landscape of the region in the same way that the artists in his collection had done. People often forget that David also wrote about art; in 1994 he was invited onto the editorial board of “Modern Painters”. Let’s not forget, David spoke the same language as visual artists.
What constantly attracted Bowie and united his collection?
The collection is so vast and embraces a lot of different moments and geographies. David’s mind was unique, he had an amazing knowledge of history and was incredibly inquisitive, so he would make networks and associations that you and I might not. Although the core of the collection is Modern British art, particularly from Cornwall and St. Ives, there were also a number of London-based Modernists. He also collected African art, Memphis furniture, Outsider art, and a number of Scottish artists. I don’t see his collection as diverse at all because there is a line – a narrative thread – that runs throughout the collection. There are also themes in the collection as well – the artists that David collected were making work to understand and make sense of the world. They were looking for new ways to talk about the world, to question a given reality or the statu quo and to create new languages – that’s exactly what David did and why he was attracted by these artists. It is a personal collection – he went to artists that defined his immediate personal history or present; he used art to understand his place in the world.
How does his collecting relate to his music practice?
David asked lots of existential questions in his music, and that’s what the artists in his collection would do. Although a lot of the work in the collection looks quite traditional or even parochial to a contemporary audience, these artists were actually revolutionary during their lifetimes – they were questioning the given reality, creating new languages and asking for a break with the norm or the past. And that’s what David did through his music as well. So, it was the artists and what they were trying to achieve in the world that attracted David.
How did your collaboration with him and his collecting practice evolve throughout the years?
David was an amazing historian – he really was the greatest historian I’ve met! (laughter) He saw the importance of history in understanding today. So one way the relationship developed is that we collected historical objects together besides fine art. We also co-curated exhibitions together and worked with younger, emerging artist; that was a really exciting part of our relationship. We were always in conversation. There was a regular discourse, which didn’t change, but it developed and got deeper, stronger and richer; and we became friends. With regards to his collecting, David was always a collector who approached it in a very thoughtful, academic and emotional manner – that did not change. His mind was so well developed by the time he started collecting, so he knew what he wanted from the outset and his taste was always so well determined.
What motivated Bowie and you to set up an art foundation, Bowie Art?
David and I did a number of projects together besides the collection. The art market in the UK in 2000’s was not what it is today and so how these young artists were going to make a living was questionable. We launched a website called “Bowie Art” in 2000, which was one of the, if not the, first website dedicated to art. David understood the power of the Internet. The site was a platform for supporting emerging artists and graduating MA students. In my estimation, thousands of artists benefited from visibility on the website. David and I also curated a number of real time exhibitions with these artists, including Sound and Vision to coincide with the Meltdown Festival he curated at the Royal Festival Hall, London.
What were the biggest challenges managing Bowie’s collection? How did you overcome them?
In the early days, Modern British art was undervalued, in the sense that institutions did not give much space to these artists, and certainly not internationally – so that was a challenge and a big job of mine was to try to raise awareness of the artists in the collection. I would invite museum directors and curators to have conversations with me about the artists and make it very clear that we would always be happy to loan work. Besides that I don’t remember there being any challenges; David was a joy to work with the whole time – I learned a lot from him and had incredibly valuable conversations with him. It was such a great journey to share!
How do you feel seeing his collection going to auction?
David never “owned” the work in the sense that it was not about physically owning the objects. Instead, he valued the ownership of ideas and conversations with the artists. He was a custodian who was always sharing his passion for the artists – whether through private donations he made to institutions in his lifetime or gifts to friends. So this is a final act of dissemination.
What is the link between your roles as a gallery owner and a curator of collection?
The two roles are complementary. I think of myself as a facilitator when working with artists and collectors. And having an historical understanding of artistic practices is invaluable in both roles; I do think it is important to bring art historical knowledge or understanding to an artist’s contemporary practice. One also has to understand the market, and having worked in the international art world for as long as I have, you gather a lot of information; its how you use it that’s important!
What was the most memorable experience throughout your career?
There have been so many! Seeing work from David’s collection hung next to each other, some for the first time – all of those different narratives, so many major works and so many quiet ones which personally resonated with David – I am immensely proud of being a part of that conversation. And having over 55,000 people see the exhibition – the rooms filled with people, that is incredibly special.
What are your upcoming projects?
The collections that I continue to work on…. and a film I am working on about Bernard Leach!
What is your vision of the contemporary art scene in the UK?
The art scene in the UK is an international scene. Young artists today embrace every possible art form and media, it’s all about the “transgression of boundaries” and a refusal of hierarchies, and that is exciting.