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Features / September 5, 2013

Inside Story: Bill Clarke’s Collecting & Fall Gala Tips

Collector Bill Clarke at home with works by Marcel Dzama, Jason de Haan and, behind, Kelly Mark, Balint Zsako and Luke Painter Collector Bill Clarke at home with works by Marcel Dzama, Jason de Haan and, behind, Kelly Mark, Balint Zsako and Luke Painter

If you ever want to know more about starting or developing an art collection, Toronto’s Bill Clarke is a great person to ask. Featured as one of Modern Painters’ Top 50 Under 50 collectors last year and also highlighted in the Globe and Mail’s Report on Business magazine for his collecting, Clarke has put a friendly, public face on an activity that more often than not stays behind closed doors. Now, as chair of the art advisory committee for Canadian Art’s Gallery Hop Gala and Auction—our annual fundraiser taking place at the Carlu on September 19—Clarke is helping others nurture their own love of art and collecting. In this chat, he provides the inside scoop on this year’s auction lots, his gala survival tips, and how he got started.

Canadian Art: You are well known now for your art collection, but you must have started somewhere. When did you begin collecting art, and how?

Bill Clarke: I started collecting seriously in 2005. Canadian Art can take the credit for starting me off as a collector, because I knew nothing about the Canadian and Toronto art scenes until I got the job as production manager at the magazine in 2001.

During my years with the publication, I learned so much. I was constantly seeing all this amazing stuff come across my desk, and I started to feel like I really wanted to live with it.

Still, when I first started collecting, it took a little while for me to figure out what my focus would be. I decided on works on paper for practical reasons—paper is easy to store, it is easily displayable, and from a financial standpoint, it tends to be a more affordable than paintings or sculpture!

I’m at the point now with the collection, at 200 pieces, where anything that comes into the collection has to relate to other works that are there.

CA: How do you decide what works of art go into the Gallery Hop auction?

BC: It is a team effort. We want the tastes of everyone on the committee to be reflected in the selection because there will be a variety of tastes at the gala looking at and bidding on the work.

Overall, there are 11 of us around the committee table: people who are out looking at art all the time, like the gallerists who sell it, the writers who write about it, the curators who curate it. People who are looking at the work and bidding on it can feel confident that it has gone through a rigorous selection.

There are a lot of tough decisions, too. We started in February with a list of over 180 artist names, and of course we had to bring that to around 50 by April. You do have to be ruthless sometimes.

Also, we want to present work that we think is going to have legs; we look at career trajectories and highlight artists that we think are going places.

CA: There are a lot of up-and-coming artists in the auction, but this is also the first Gallery Hop auction with a legacy piece—a work by a late, well-known artist. In this case, it is a painting by Harold Town. Why the change?

BC: We received feedback from some longtime attendees of the auction, and some of the more seasoned collectors, that they really appreciate seeing contemporary art but are interested in seeing more older Canadian work.

We’re really excited the board of the Town estate has been very, very generous in what they’ve offered to donate. It’s a really significant piece from early on in his career. I get the sense it is probably museum quality.

CA: I know this is a difficult question, since you stand behind all the works in the auction, but which ones would you most like to add to your collection?

BC: There are so many pieces in the auction that I’d be very happy to live with but, as a collector of mainly works on paper, I gravitate towards those. There is a wide variety of such works in this year’s auction… my subtle influence on the committee, perhaps!

For instance, the amount of detail in Nicholas Di Genova‘s drawing is stunning, and the simplicity of Jim Verburg‘s folded diptych is beautiful. The playfulness of the Luc Paradis, Simon Hughes and Shaan Syed pieces appeal to me, and I’ve admired Hanna Hur, Adam David Brown and Vanessa Maltese from day one. If I had deeper pockets, I’d bid on Jessica Eaton‘s or Barbara Astman‘s photographs, and the Shannon Bool piece, in a heartbeat.

CA: You are involved with various art endeavours: besides chairing our art advisory committee and building your own collection, you are the executive editor of Magenta, and you’re a past board member at Mercer Union, and you contribute writing and reviews to a variety of publications. Why do you think it is important to support Canadian Art as part of your busy schedule?

BC: I think Canadian Art is quite an important book of record about art in this country. And I feel its publisher, the Canadian Art Foundation, is a very dynamic force across the country that brings the Canadian art world together under one umbrella. I think if you are interested in Canada and the visual arts, it is really important to support that.

CA: Last question: The Gallery Hop Gala and Auction brings to a head a lot of preparation and activity. What are your survival tips for the event?

BC: Alright—one glass of water for two glasses of wine at the gala. And just prepare yourself to have fun, because that’s what the evening is for! Also prepare yourself to come with an open mind, because you will see lots of really, really interesting art. It’s a real visual feast.

Also, after the event, if you don’t get the artwork you want, go to the gallery that represents that artist. They may have more of what you are looking for.

And don’t forget to join us on Gallery Hop Day, September 21, too, for a day of free art talks and tours. I will be talking about Luke Painter‘s new work at Le Gallery, and everyone leading the tours is very knowledgeable. It’s a great day to learn new things.

The Gallery Hop Gala and Auction, a fundraiser for the Canadian Art Foundation, publisher of Canadian Art, takes place September 19 at the Carlu in Toronto. Selected tickets can be purchased at