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Features / September 17, 2012

How Toronto Patrons Jay Smith and Laura Rapp Brought The Clock to Canada

A feature from the Fall 2012 issue of Canadian Art

It’s a stifling early June morning in Toronto when Jay Smith finally carves out a moment for us to cross paths. This is notable only because I first broached the notion of our speaking five months earlier. It was then that The Clock, Christian Marclay’s tightly wound video work, a 24-hour mashup of film history, one minute at a time, debuted at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC) in Ottawa. Smith, with his partner, Laura Rapp, and her parents, Carol and Morton Rapp, had bought the gallery’s half-interest in the work, which it shares with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The work’s arrival at the Power Plant in Toronto this September is their doing, too, with Rapp a former board member and Smith a past president.

Even for such seasoned patrons as Smith and Rapp, acquiring The Clock was a carefully calibrated balancing act, requiring every ounce of their acumen and reputation as patrons, as collectors and as a general art-world force. This was a moment—a hallmark of their patronage, you might say, much as The Clock is of Marclay’s art. Here was a major work—an instant, no-brainer, must-have, paradigmatic piece—that everyone wanted. With only six editions, very few could have it. Somehow, with the help of Smith and Rapp, the NGC managed to become part of that exclusive club.

I VIVIDLY RECALL when the announcement of the gallery’s shared acquisition of The Clock appeared in my inbox. I remember a slow-motion double take: the work had been a show-stopper at the recent Venice Biennale, and the object of all-night line-ups at both White Cube in London, where it had debuted in the fall of 2010, and at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York. The Clock epitomized a sort of Holy Grail of contemporary art: a thoroughly rigorous, intellectually and formally challenging work that nonetheless has the popular appeal of a Hollywood blockbuster.

Marclay, 57, who was born in California but grew up in Switzerland, had long expressed his hybrid identity through cheekily aggressive, not infrequently hokey inquiries and interventions that used the bits and pieces—film, music, TV—of the American mass-culture machine. Living in New York in the 1980s, he crafted sound works using vinyl LPs as raw material. He was also a fixture of the underground music scene, injecting his material explorations as an artist into his career as an avant-garde DJ.

Marclay was among the first turntablists to scratch records sideways, a now-ubiquitous DJ technique that uses the record and stylus as musical instruments unto themselves. His gleeful impulse to destroy and remake could be readily seen back then in the wee hours of a New York morning, when Marclay, feverishly working the turntables, would shatter a record, tape it back together and let the needle broadcast the resulting burps and shudders to a frenzied crowd.

Marclay migrated naturally to video when technology started to make sampling as easy in that realm as it had become in sound (he may owe a small debt to John Oswald’s 1985 Plunderphonics, the quintessential pop-music larceny of a nascent mashup era). In 1995, he made Telephones, a goofily engaging who’s-on-first cobbling together of unrelated film clips that show actors answering the phone. “If I could just see you, just talk to you,” a deeply troubled Sally Field pleads; next, we see a youthful Tom Hanks saying, “You certainly can.” Later, Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, in full colour, says gravely, “She doesn’t know—do you understand that? She doesn’t know what happened”; the piece then cuts to a shocked-looking Katharine Hepburn in gauzy black and white, struck speechless. “I’m so confused,” she later says, maybe capturing the viewer’s own experience.

Telephones contained a clear seed of what The Clock, over years of scavenging and combining material, would grow into: a bundle of film history that hints at narrative and subverts it at the same time. In a masterstroke, The Clock is actually a clock, calibrated Rolex-like to track time and constantly remind the viewer of its slippage. Watching the NGC’s installation of the work, as I did in Ottawa, you’re keenly aware of two things: your mind’s desperate hunger to glean a story from Marclay’s disconnected, teasingly suggestive montage, and the anxiety of being pinned in place, unable to leave for fear of missing what comes next, as the minutes tick away.

BY THE TIME The Clock’s acquisition by the NGC was announced, it’s fair to say that it was the single most celebrated work of 21st-century art in the world. It seemed impossible that a piece so unabashedly famous could land in Ottawa. I was dying to find out how Smith and Rapp had pulled it off.

Explanations, though, would have to wait. Smith is a hard man to keep up with: first there was the Armory Show in New York, then the stateside iteration of the Frieze Art Fair, various board meetings here, in Montreal and in Atlanta, and then, the day before we were to meet, the birth of his newest grandchild, a girl, in Athens, Georgia. He flew down for that, bumping us back a day, but bounced back across the border without having missed a step.

You might call it his natural state of being. Smith, you see, is always quietly between one thing and another. On the day of our lunch, he already has one foot out the door again, on his way to dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany—where he would cross paths with Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) director Matthew Teitelbaum—and then on to Art Basel.

Smith and Rapp are players in the art world. Between them, they have had a direct hand in dozens of events and acquisitions for the AGO, the NGC and the Power Plant, and for more than 20 years they have built a reputation for saying yes. “They are, without a doubt, among the most generous and welcoming people in the art world in this city,” says arts adviser David Moos, the former curator of modern and contemporary art at the AGO. “Whenever an important artist is visiting from out of town, and there needs to be a dinner, and it needs to be munificent, they are, without fail, the people to do it.”

With his unkempt thatch of salt-and-pepper hair, his thick black glasses and his skull tie (“Alexander McQueen,” he shrugs), Smith seems more well-turned-out university professor than the financier he is, managing more than $1.5 billion in assets as the first vice-president of CIBC Wood Gundy. Before lunch at Nota Bene, where Smith is greeted with the casual familiarity of a particularly regular regular, we convene in his office, which is chock-full of work by artists like Stan Douglas, Ken Lum, Arnaud Maggs, Ian Carr-Harris, Jay Isaac, Robert Fones and Marla Hlady.

He calls his office “the gallery branch,” noting that “Bay Street is all wood panels and cigars and suspenders.” The floors are pale-blond wood, the walls white. “I wanted something that was airy, where I could hang some of my art, that bespoke technology and light of day rather than darkness and back-room dealings.” Home is a different story: “It’s filled with contemporary art, integrated with tapestries and antiques and other collections.” I’ll have to take his word for it. Home is a place I’ll never see. “I’m trying to keep Laura out of this,” he says.

People are patrons for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these is public glory. Patrons can become as conspicuous as the artists and institutions they champion—it’s hard for anyone to think of Jeff Koons, or the string of home runs put together by Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) director Michael Govan, without also imagining the smiling face of Eli Broad—and the appeal of very public cultural capital is powerful indeed. In Canada, we can look to the Vancouver real estate marketer Bob Rennie, whose private museum in the Downtown Eastside stands as a conspicuous monument to one man’s tastes, interests and, most significantly, influence on the fragile ecosystem that is the contemporary art market.

Smith and Rapp are not like that. “Over the years, I’ve watched the two of them really become the king and queen of the Toronto art community,” says Teitelbaum. “But they’ve done it relatively quietly. They operate in this triangle between the institution, fellow collectors and artists. That’s how it always used to be: if you look at the community leaders with any institution over the last 30 or 40 years, it tends to be those who operate in that triangle. They’ve held on to that idea. Some people become enamoured of the art market; some don’t become collectors, but believe deeply in the institution. One thing about Jay and Laura: there are always, always artists around. They have found a way to balance those three things.”

Smith and Rapp’s relationships with artists are legend. When we meet, Smith has just come back from studio visits with Stan Douglas, Jeff Wall and Ian Wallace. Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller are frequent house guests. Cardiff made one of her mesmerizing audio walks for their house; they supported her work at dOCUMENTA (13).

SMITH LOVES NOTHING so much as the art of the deal: In 2009, he brokered the purchase of the South African artist Candice Breitz’s Factum (2010), a commission by the Power Plant, and its donation to the AGO. To do it, Smith recruited 19 separate donors to pony up the funds necessary to purchase the piece—a 17-channel installation featuring exactingly edited interviews with seven sets of Canadian twins and one set of triplets. “And he did it that evening at the Power Plant over dinner,” recalls Moos, a champion of the Breitz work, which came to his department at the AGO. “It was like getting votes at a political convention, but Jay got it done. We were able to announce it that night, with the artist there in the room with us. It was a great, great moment.”

The Clock was both a simpler and more complex deal. The art world had been buzzing about the work for a while. NGC curator Josée Drouin-Brisebois had dinner with Marclay three years before it ever showed, before there was anything to see. Nonetheless, the gallery kept tabs on the project as it progressed, wondering what it would amount to—if anything.

So when NGC assistant curator Jonathan Shaughnessy set out to see it at White Cube in October 2010, he went with tempered expectations. “I try to keep a critical edge, because you need to,” he says. “It hadn’t even debuted yet, and, frankly, I thought it was overhyped.”

At the private party that served as The Clock’s first-ever viewing, that changed. “Within a few minutes of watching it, I knew: this was astonishing,” Shaughnessy says. At the party, he ran into Rapp, and they agreed that The Clock was extraordinary.

Shaughnessy, however, was hamstrung while speaking with Clare Coombes, who handles museum sales for White Cube. Marc Mayer, the NGC’s director, wasn’t due in London until the next day, and Shaughnessy didn’t have the authority to put a hold on The Clock himself. The annual Frieze Art Fair was on, and the art-world elite had crowded London. There was a lot of interest in the work, but, without Mayer present, it would have to wait—maybe a little too long. “All I could really say was, ‘I’ll be back,’” Shaughnessy recalls.

After the party, Shaughnessy and Rapp had dinner. They agreed that The Clock would be an exceptional coup for the NGC, if only it were possible. Later that evening, they walked back to White Cube and watched The Clock strike midnight together. Rapp left and Shaughnessy stayed on, watching until two a.m.

What Shaughnessy didn’t know at the time was that Rapp and Smith had already made inquiries about The Clock for their own collection. The two know Marclay, and have followed his work for years. They own Telephones, which, Smith says, “seemed almost like a maquette” for The Clock, and they wanted to connect the two. But they were politely rebuffed. “White Cube told us it would only be for museums,” Smith says. “That happens to us a lot.”

The strategy took shape quickly. The next day, Mayer stepped off the plane at Heathrow and texted Shaughnessy, asking where he needed to go first. Without hesitation, Shaughnessy replied: The Clock. Mayer bypassed Frieze and went straight to the gallery. He was blown away. “It gave me rushes, just watching it,” he says. “After about three minutes, I reserved it.”

It was, almost literally, the last minute. White Cube was deluged with inquiries; in some cases, as many as three museums had agreed to share a copy. On the table at White Cube there remained a half-share to be split with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. “It really came down to whether Boston wanted us as a partner or not,” Mayer says. “It was touch-and-go.”

Mayer also knew that the hard work—of passing things in committee, of approving the gallery’s funding commitments—was yet to come. With an annual acquisition budget of $8 million, the NGC’s buying power is respectable, but the gallery doesn’t come to mind as a major player on the international scene. White Cube didn’t disclose prices, but it’s safe to say that The Clock represents a substantial portion of the NGC’s budget, and the approval process involved in such an expenditure can take months. “I don’t just wiggle my nose and next thing you know, I’ve spent the money,” Mayer says.

From White Cube, Mayer went to Frieze to meet with Shaughnessy. There, he saw Rapp and Smith. “The first thing out of Laura’s mouth was: ‘Have you seen The Clock yet?’” Mayer recalls. “I told her not only had I seen it, but I’d reserved it. The next thing she said was: ‘We want to buy it for the gallery.’ It was very fast. I actually got goosebumps.”

With Smith and Rapp’s commitment in place, Mayer got to work. He solicited input from external advisers, then convened a teleconference of the acquisition committee of the board. “With this overwhelming support from the third-party advisers, the acquisition passed quickly,” Mayer says.

There was really very little choice. “You had to be able to act in a nanosecond,” says Smith. “If you couldn’t do that, right then and there, you’d lose out.” Rapp wasn’t prepared to let that happen. “The Museum of Modern Art had it, the Tate had it, LACMA had it, and I think Laura felt it was really important that Canada had it, and I agreed,” Smith says. The gift to the NGC was made with the country in mind. “The National Gallery has the largest travelling program in the world,” says Smith. “It was a way for all of Canada to see it.”

Smith and Rapp’s presence in the gallery’s corner counted for more than money, Mayer says. “The art world isn’t first-come, first-serve—certainly not at this level,” he explains. With The Clock mania reaching fever pitch, Marclay was in a position to pick and choose where his work would go. The NGC, with its long-standing history of contemporary acquisitions and notable record of video presentation, would be a strong candidate. But it may have been a combination of its pitch and its patrons—who owned Marclay’s work, who knew the artist, who had followed his career—that pushed it over the top.

“Jay and Laura are known quantities; I think Laura has known Clare Coombes longer than I have,” Mayer says. “Those kinds of relationships count: they’re collectors but they’re involved with institutions, they donate to institutions. It behooves a gallery to be nice to people like them.”

LAURA’S PARENTS, Carol and Morton Rapp, were fitting partners in the purchase of The Clock. The Rapps, long-time arts patrons whose home brims with great works, were models for Laura, who made her first art acquisition when she was 13—a Jim Dine lithograph. Dine was a friend of her parents. They gifted his emblematic work Black Bathroom #2 (1962) to the AGO in 1966. Laura had pulled the lithograph from the artist’s press in his studio.

Smith grew up in Indiana, and moved to Toronto in the mid-1970s to pursue a PhD in philosophy. He was interested in art early on. While still a student, he bought a print by Pablo Picasso in Indianapolis. For the third year of his undergraduate degree, Smith attended the Université de Strasbourg. He spent his spare time hitchhiking to the great museums all over Europe, picking up bits and pieces along the way. On one sojourn, he bought a small Henri Matisse print that spent the trip rolled up in his backpack. Both it and the Picasso are still in Smith and Rapp’s storage.

For almost as long as Smith and Rapp have been buying art, they’ve been giving it away, often in Smith’s consensus-building fashion. The AGO has always been their main beneficiary. Their list there is long: Simon Starling’s Infestation Piece (Musseled Moore) (2006–08), which lists six individual donors, or Do-Ho Suh’s 348 West 22nd St., Apt A, New York, NY 10011 (bathroom) (2003), with its two, are just a couple of examples.

For the Breitz donation, Smith says, “People asked me, ‘Why didn’t you just write a cheque?’ Well, the beauty of that is it engages other people; it gets them involved; they’re part of something. And their names end up on a major work of art in a major institution. That plays an important part.”

At times, Smith has taken on the role of cheerleader, lending just his enthusiasm and skill for the deal. That was the case with David Altmejd’s The Index (2007), which George Hartman and Arlene Goldman bought when it debuted at the Canada Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2007. In Venice with Moos, Smith was energized by the piece. He knew Hartman was mulling its purchase for the AGO, and he made his pitch. “Jay called George and shared his enthusiasm for it,” Teitelbaum explains.

Smith is never one for the hard sell. “His point, always, is: ‘Hey guys, this is fun,’” says Teitelbaum. “And it comes directly out of the pleasure he gets out of it himself.”

At Nota Bene, Smith is pulled away to meet visitors from out of town, and he chats graciously with them before excusing himself to return to our table. Once he’s nailed down, Smith always has time—or, at least, he’s able to make it. Lunch stretches out over a couple of hours, and the conversation drifts from the West Coast to dOCUMENTA (13) to the still-fresh “Oh, Canada” exhibition at MASS MoCA, which Smith is yet to see. He will. Soon. “Do you think it would work at the AGO?” he asks me. You can almost see the wheels turning. If it shows up on the museum’s agenda in the near future, you’ll know why.

Whether it’s ideas or artworks, Smith is interested as much in sharing as in having. He’s excited that The Clock will appear here in Toronto. As of writing, there were no other venues planned for it (the Winnipeg Art Gallery has since confirmed it will show the work in February), but Mayer knows that the NGC’s mandate to share the wealth was part and parcel of the gift itself; Smith and Rapp gave The Clock to the NGC specifically so the work would be spread around as much as possible. Had they been able to buy The Clock for themselves, though, it would have been no less public—eventually, at least. “Sooner or later, you give it all away, anyway,” Smith says. “At the end of the day, it gets the works where people can actually see them. That’s the most important thing, isn’t it?”

For more on the story behind The Clock, read our story on the young Canadian film editor Marclay works with.