Gallery owner and curator Beth Greenacre took over as David Bowie's curator from Kate Chertavian in 2000. She then worked with Bowie and his art collection for more than sixteen years, during which time they became close friends as well as collaborators. We sat down with her to discuss their time working together, Bowie's passion for collecting and his committment to supporting young artists.
Can you talk a bit about Bowieart and how your relationship with David began?
I graduated from The Courtauld in the late 1990's and first met David in 1999. I became curator of David's art collection in 2000. We worked on numerous other projects together and launched Bowieart, David's online platform to support young artists that same year. From 2000 we co-curated numerous exhibitions in real time with artists who were on the site including Sound and Vision, which was part of David's Meltdown at the Royal Festival Hall in 2002. The Window Pain Project, was an ongoing series of installations in window spaces across the city – this was before the word Pop-Up began being used! David also sponsored a number of graduate exhibitions and projects at a time when the contemporary art landscape – especially in the UK – was very different. We supported thousands of artists, some of whom I still work with today. In fact one of the artists I represent at ROKEBY, the gallery I co-own with my partner Ed, I first met via Bowieart.
BETH GREENACRE AT ROKEBY GALLERY WITH FRANK AUERBACH'S HEAD OF GERDA BOEHM, 1965. ESTIMATE £300,000–500,000. © PHILIP SINDEN. COURTESY HARPER'S BAZAAR.
As well as the Auerbach’s and Hirst’s of this world, there are some relatively unknown artists in the collection. Was David interested in championing younger, lesser-known artists?
Bowieart is testament to the support that David provided to young completely unknown artists. It was a way of giving visibility to artists at a crucial time in their careers. And it is also an example of how prescient David was; he really saw the power and scope of the Internet. It was the first time art was shown online.
There are also a number of lesser-known artists in the collection. David's engagement with art went well beyond fashion and popular taste. He saw value where others had overlooked it or rather he valued artists well before others did!
ARTISTS BAREND DE WET, KATE GOTTGENS AND WAYNE BARKER WITH DAVID BOWIE AT THE JOHANNESBURG BIENNALE, 1995. © KATE GOTTGENS. COURTESY SMAC GALLERY, CAPE TOWN.
David started to collect African artists in the mid-nineties after a trip to Johannesburg where he met people like Nelson Mandela whilst also seeking out then unknown artists. He always engaged in conversations with artists. When he returned to London after that trip he wrote about the artists he had met and made sure that an exhibition of their work was organised in London. He wrote brilliantly about art with real vigor and insight; in catalogue essays, and also for Modern Painters, which he joined the editorial board of in 1994.
ROMAULD HAZOUMÈ, ALEXANDRA, 1995. ESTIMATE £5,000–7,000.
What is the piece in the collection you have the most connection with, and why?
There are so many pieces in the collection that I have special relationships with for so many reasons. David’s enthusiasm for artists enabled you to see things in a different way. I have a particular affinity with St Ives – David loved St Ives and the artists that were attracted to the region; I have to go at least once a year for a visit. David collected Peter Lanyon in depth and as the only native Cornishman who was considered part of the St Ives avant-garde movement Lanyon really understood the region, its history, sense of place and inhabitants, old and new, real and mythical. David collected work from each decade in which Lanyon worked up until his untimely death in a gliding accident. A few years ago I curated an exhibition for ROKEBY which bought together a group of contemporary artists whose work can be seen to be informed by Lanyon's concerns of the 1950's when he developed an all-encompassing understanding of landscape. At this point Lanyon was instilling his paintings with a phenomenological dimension, that could be understood in time and space. The show was called Inshore Fishing after the painting from 1953 that David loaned to the show.
His relationship with the art world was well-documented, but the size and breadth of the collection David amassed over the years is surprising to some. Was collecting something David was quite private about?
David was private about his collection; personal interests and passions fueled his collecting. However he never once denied a loan, he was delighted to share his passion for the artists he admired and promote them to a wider audience. In recent years you will have seen work from his collection at Tate Britain, Tate St Ives, The Hayward Gallery, The Serpentine, The Royal Academy, The Whitechapel and further afield.
What will you be concentrating on when the sales are over? Can you tell us about forthcoming shows and projects at Rokeby?
I am very excited to be working closely with Abigail Reynolds one of our artists at the gallery who was awarded the BMW Art Journey prize last year in collaboration with Art Basel. And who incidentally lives and works in Cornwall; her studio is in St Ives. Her year-long project The Ruins of Time: Lost Libraries along the Silk Road is now underway and Abigail has started her journey along the route of the ancient Silk Road to research lost libraries, or those lost to conflict or to the ravages of time. The conceptual framework of Abigail's practice, as well as the materials she uses, are found in libraries. And so in visiting sites where libraries once stood the journey will bring her formally to numerous blanks. I am so excited to see what she comes back with from her trips and the work that will develop from it. It's a privilege to be a part of – or privy to – an artists' working process.
ABIGAIL REYNOLDS, TOL, 2015–2016. © THE ARTIST. COURTESY ROKEBY.
Tol’s physical structure directly references a print by St Ives based artist Barbara Hepworth. The title points to the ancient Mên-an-Tol stone formation which Reynolds passes each day on her journey to the studio in St Ives. Pictured on the printed glass is an one image taken from Daphne du Maurier’s book, Vanishing Cornwall. A text fragment printed onto the glass is also from Du Maurier, conveying the ritual significance of the holed stone for women in history. The other image incorporated in the sculpture is of Godrevy lighthouse, another local landmark that is said to have inspired Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse.
MAIN IMAGE, PETER LANYON, WITNESS, 1961. £250,000–350,000.