Beth Greenacre is a successful curator and art consultant working across the industry, including being the Curator for AllBright, a female membership club with bases in London and LA.
Beth graduated from Birkbeck in 2000 with a Certificate in Arts Management and began working as David Bowie’s Art Curator, a role that she held for 16 years, leading the sale of part of his Collection after his death in 2016.
Here we hear from Beth about her career, working with David and life in lockdown.
Tell us more about your current work and role as Curator at the AllBright Club:
I am self-employed and have been for much of my career. It allows flexibility and means you can be nimble. I have a broad range of interests and activities, which allows for variety and keeps me on my toes. However, I do try to make all my work linked in some way; this is fairly easy as the art world is small and very connected. It is in itself a healthy eco-system.
One of my current roles is advising a commercial gallery, the Michael Hoppen Gallery. This takes up a lot of my time. I was brought on board at the end of summer last year to set out what this medium sized, well established gallery could look like in the future – in terms of technology, online activity, new audiences and an ever-changing market. My appointment was actually good timing in regard to Covid-19, as one of the first things I looked at was the Gallery’s digital and social media strategy, so we were already taking big steps with our online activity. But things will keep changing and having to implement new activity quickly at the moment is quite hard. The art market fascinates me and I really enjoy the business side of art as one strand of my career.
I also look after a handful of private collections; building, growing and maintaining them.
Alongside this, I am curator at the AllBright Club, which is a female only members club. We currently have two sites in London, Mayfair and Rathbone, and one in West Hollywood, Los Angeles. LA is quite new, it has been open for less than a year. The AllBright is far more than just a club, they are sites for women to grow, develop and learn together. Of course, at the moment they are an online space, with incredible supportive content for women; whether short courses, round table discussions or talks. There is also a great networking app. In terms of my work with them, I select work by women artists to display, loaning directly from artists, collections, public spaces, print publishers and more. In Mayfair alone, the period on display spans 80 years and includes about 130 artists. The collections and hangs often respond to the sites. For instance, LA looks at the female gaze and how that is filtered through films and movies. I keep as much as I can to local artists and galleries, promoting and representing local voices.
I also advise artists estates, which stems from the work I did with David. I was his curator for the better part of my career and directed the sales at Sotheby’s of part of this collection on behalf of his estate. I find working with estates really exciting; whether that be legacy planning or making sure that the collections are future proof and can function sustainably.
What was it like being the Curator to David Bowie’s art collection?
Everyone has some knowledge of David through his music or as an actor. However, I think very few knew him as an Art Collector or what motivated him as a collector. It was a very personal collection, driven by private desires and ambitions, it was very much about his immediate history, and he used the collection to understand his place in the world.
David was a great teacher and looked at the world in a unique way. He used his collection as his way to view or express the things happening around him and he taught me how to do the same. He was also very generous. For instance, he supported young artists through Bowie Art, one of the first ever websites for art, helping recent graduates at the first stage of their career. David understood the power of the internet when others disregarded its; he knew that it could be used in a negative manner, but he also saw its positive potential and reach.
When I first started working with David, it was after I had graduated from The Courtauld Institute in 1997, before going on to Birkbeck. It is so odd to think that I had no access to email as a student I even wrote my dissertation on a typewrite can you believe? Similarly the art world was very different; imagine London without the Tate Modern! The internet was a new and fantastic thing and David managed to harness that. It was extraordinary to work with him.
What has been your favourite moment in your career?
It was difficult for me to oversee the sale of David’s collection after his death. I don’t think I really grieved until after the sale. However, it made me incredibly proud to show people the collection that he had built. We toured highlights around the world and opened Sotheby’s for 24 hr viewing – there were queues around the block and, at the time, it was the highest attended exhibition at Sotheby’s. Seeing the pieces together was amazing; it was a loaning collection, meaning that it was never normally all in one place, and David lived a modest life so there was never room for all the pieces he owned. Brining it together like that really helped to understand the achievement of such a collection. It felt celebratory in a way, and I think that people were granted a means to understand him in a different way via the art he collected and treasured. It was the ultimate sharing experience, which is what David wanted; he always wanted to share his passion for the artists that inspired him.
What advice would you give a student looking to go into the art world?
Embrace the amazing people in the art world; curators, gallerists, writers, academics, collectors. Don’t be afraid to reach out, the art world is full of generous and passionate people who are glad to offer guidance. It can seem intimidating at first but there are loads of really brilliant people who want to talk and share.
What area of art do you personally tend to most enjoy?
I am passionate about modern British painting and sculpture, which was a cornerstone of David’s collection. We would always joke that it was very unfashionable! That has changed in recent years though. I think I like that it tells a history that is close to my own. It’s certainly been underrated and undervalued in the market. There were very similar things being explored by artists across continents at that moment but the USA shouted the loudest. Their market was more established, and they had a stronger institutional network supporting their artists. Many people will know who Barnett Newman, Jackson Pollock or Franz Kilne are but far fewer will know of Peter Lanyon or Ben Nicholson.
How has the lockdown effected the art industry so far?
Part of my work is advising private clients, which at the moment is actually quite busy! I’ve worked through a number of recessions and find that people always want art in their lives. It helps us to understand the world, particularly at times like this.
I’ve also been amazed at some of the great online content that’s coming out, both from our large art institutions and privately owned galleries. I think people are really connecting with art. And given that some people have more time at the moment, the content is being consumed in a new way. I believe that you have to find opportunities at moments like this! Never waste a crisis.
Art markets, dealers and auctions have been doing ok- all things considered. For instance, Sotheby’s recently announced their highest grossing online sale, which beat the record set just the week before. We are all of course cautious and sadly some artists, galleries and institutions will struggle. However, the art world is biting at the bit to get going again and make a difference to those that are finding it hard in the current climate.
What do you think will be the long terms effect of the virus?
I think that many industries are due a re-evaluation as are many aspects of our private lives. And I hope that the current situation will help us to look at our values and consider what is important; and I do not just mean market values. For instance, the art world ships art around the world and jumps on planes at the drop of a hat, to the detriment of our environment. I think things can afford to become more localised and considered.
I just read a piece by The Business of Fashion in the Financial Times, outlining how the fashion world can have a positive impact on the environment. The article asked for a restructuring of the traditional fashion seasons, so that they weren’t driven by four set timelines. It is this sort of innovation we need.
The online art market has also been developing for a long time and though it will never replace physically engaging with a piece or person, it is a valuable tool that we will have to use more and more.
Why did you choose Birkbeck to study at?
The flexibility is amazing and the level of teaching is great – I was lucky to have Lisa Lefeuvre for one of my modules, who is a bit of a hero of mine. The idea that I could work and earn money (at the time, in the height of a recession) was ideal. The network at Birkbeck was also really important to me.
What, do you think, makes Birkbeck special?
What is really special for me is the fact that it enables and supports those who may not normally get the chance to experience high level education, whether that’s because of economic background, gender, age or academic experience. It’s as democratic an institution as you can get and really does enable people.
Are there any resources that are helping you at the moment? Podcasts/scheduling apps/exercise classes?
Really, I have just been increasing the things that have always kept me motivated. I self-isolated for 3 weeks at the start of the virus as I had symptoms, and then I had a big list of things to do; podcasts. writing, reading. However, as a mum of a five year old I am not one of those people who has more time during lockdown, and so sometimes I feel like hero if I manage to put a load of washing on by the end of the day! So, no great revelations, though I am grateful for yoga (I have managed to master the head stand), meditation and my allotment. I never thought I’d hear myself say that about an allotment!
And time with my son- one benefit of this situation is that it has enabled me time with him that I would never normally have. Early on we created a ‘be kind’ pact as I didn’t want there to be pressure on me or my son to have to do certain things or reach milestones. I did laugh when he said recently with a big grin on his face: ‘Does lockdown mean art galleries and museums aren’t open?’. That made me realise I probably take him to too many!
What was the last book you read?
‘The Secret Lives of People in Love’ by Simon Van Booy. Beautiful and poetic short stories about love which are great for lockdown! I have also read ‘Limelight’, which is Helen Gee’s memoir. Helen set up a photography gallery in Greenwich Village NY, during the 1950s. It was a completely new model for a gallery – also housing a coffee shop – and the first to show photography in a commercial context as art. Pretty inspiring stuff; she was a single mum with determination.
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