Have you ever wondered what it would be like to manage a collection of valuable, famous art works? Or about where famous works live if when they're not in a museum?
Last month, Art Pharmacy had the privilege of meeting up with James Birch - a well renowned English art dealer, curator and gallery owner, who is most known for his innovative support of British art. He is famous for exhibiting Francis Bacon in Moscow, in the then USSR, in 1988; Gilbert & George in Moscow in 1990, and Beijing and Shanghai in 1993. He studied Art History at the University of Aix-en-Provence, before training in the Old Master department of Christie's Fine Art in London where he later established the 1950s Rock & Roll department. In 1983 he opened his first gallery, James Birch Fine Art, on the King's Road, London and has since worked with impressive artists such as Grayson Perry and has collaborated on numerous projects with a host of other well-known artists.
Emilya Colliver paid a visit to James in London in October 2017, where she had a look at his collection. She was also lucky enough to have a chat to Mia Gubbay, who manages his art collection in London.
James Birch and Mia Gubbay in London
Tell us about yourself - how did you find yourself in this position of managing James Birch’s collection?
Istudied at Central Saint Martins' and at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I've worked on independent arts projects, as an oral historian, and as an exhibitions officer for a public collection. For the past two years I've worked with James Birch's collection, and I've had the great experience of working on this recent exhibition of British Underground Press alongside both James and cultural historian Barry Miles.
Did you feel overwhelmed with the amount of art in the house when you started?
I did – but it was a good sort of overwhelmed because I think discovering how other people live is such a privilege. This discussion reminds me of the book A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit - which is about embracing the unknown. One amazing thing about this job is that it involves pausing to thoroughly examine everything around me
Do you ever pick up a piece and think ‘Oh My God it's a___’! Any specific occasions come to mind?
Once I had to transport a very long nail which was an artwork by Günther Uecker and a pink inflatable poodle by Jeff Koons to an auction house together - the realisation that one artwork could destroy the other was quite uncomfortable.
What’s your favourite piece of the collection?
There are so many. At the moment I find myself constantly turning back to a very simple looking poster - a 1980’s blue monoprint in support of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. Greenham common was an RAF site where cruise missiles were stored and which, through the actions of thousands of women, became a place to think about the future.
The second is actually a whole body of work by Eileen Agar, who James exhibited in the 1980s. Agar borrowed Surrealist methods, she used found objects to make sculptures and collage. Although she never fully committed to the Surrealist movement, she depicted the everyday, believed in imagination - and in the power of just letting herself make things – unedited.
What is the most unusual placement of a work in the house?
There are a lot of unusual placements. When I sit at my desk I am surrounded by photographs and drawings. There is one on my left by the Soviet poet Mayakovsky. It is a very delicate pencil drawing of a softly smiling face - with claws!
FFrom your experience with James, what do you think the secret to a good private art collection is?
I think art can answer something personal for people and there are no rules for that, but generally, examining the social contexts of works, where you acquire them, and your own social agency in relation to those things is important so I'll try to explore those things a bit.
Firstly, you might not be able to own some works - a lot of the art I admire the most is process based - like the work of Tania Bruguera for example, but you may be able to support the artist, or share their work in other ways. So really, finding out what you are moved by is the first step.
James' collection has come together over many years and partly as a result of his support for artists early on in their careers (he gave Grayson Perry his first exhibition for example) – this is undeniably connected to his love of going out, meeting artists, calling people up, seeing smaller exhibitions and developing a feel for it all. It's also about nurturing a space that responds to the visceral.
Another aspect of James Birch’s collecting habit relates to movements and individuals who or which have been historically overlooked. Part of the fun is still having much more to discover than has been documented. This process also works in symbiosis with institutions, as such works have the potential to add new voices to historical narratives.
To support related approaches to collecting we have tried to make sure works are publicly exhibited. This benefits the collector, the artist, institutions who have more of a capacity to evaluate their audiences and engage with contemporary critical debate and thus to request and contextualise works - and of course it makes them accessible.
What is the difference between managing a private collection and managing a collection in a gallery?
It’s really different! All collections are different and the way they are maintained will reflect that. Because of the smaller scale of this organisation, I deal with all the aspects of exhibition work - perhaps more than I have when working for larger institutions. Aside from research this involves corresponding with press, collections documentation and care, consignments, recruitment, acquisitions, insurance, auctions, assisting with articles and catalogues, accounts, artist liaison, correspondence and anything else that crops up. On Wednesday for example, we transported some rare books, showed a curator around the British Underground Press Exhibition, had coffee with Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols and then I finished the monthly accounts. It's incredibly varied!