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Cathy Wills

Collector based in London, UK

"Life is an enabling and a disrupting force for collectors"

Collector conversation

What’s in your collection?                
My collection includes photography, sculpture, paintings, drawings, ceramics and glass. I don't buy artists' prints. I’ve consistently bought works by strong women artists, at the level that I could afford. Years ago I bought a wonderful watercolour by Rachel Whiteread, a study for her Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial in Vienna. I’ve also bought tactically with a specific space in my house in mind. Recently, I fell in love with a large work by Sophie von Hellermann, which I bought for a big wall. It's very colourful and she is a young woman artist with a growing (though not yet stratospheric!) reputation. My most recent acquisition is a wonderful painting by Lonnie Holley who is an artist from the deep south (born in Birmingham, Alabama), a musician and experimenter with found objects.

I am also interested in artworks that extend the practice of sculpture, like those by well-known artists Alicja Kwade and Judy Chicago, as well as exciting, slightly crazy works by emerging artists like Athena Papadopoulos and Lindsey Mendick. 

I have catalogued every piece I own according to its medium, with each artwork individually documented and photographed.

Where do you keep your collection?
At home as much as possible! I loan pieces to my four children and to art institutions. Some of it is also in storage as I have many more artworks than I can display. I try to rehang my collection at home every year so that I can enjoy different artworks. I curate the hanging carefully to create a conversation between artists, and to bring out different themes within my collection. 

What led you to become a collector?
From a very young age, I knew I wanted to work with art, so I studied Art History. My first job was in a national museum; then I helped run a contemporary gallery in London, the Artists Market in Covent Garden, which exhibited artists from David Hockney to young emerging artists. For a year, I helped set up the organisation ArtLaw which provided pro bono legal advice to artists and creatives. At twenty-four, I set up my own gallery in London which I ran for seven years. I presented very emerging contemporary artists, who made video work, installations and photography. It was all very conceptual work, which was totally impossible to sell at the time! There were only around fifteen or so galleries in London when I started. The best known were Waddington, The Mayor Gallery and Lisson. I remember going around studios in the UK for many months looking at work, deciding who to show and trying to be informed.    

At that time, I wasn’t buying art on a regular basis - all my money went on keeping the gallery open and functioning! I began collecting properly later in life, after I got married. I started to collect in earnest in the mid 80s.       
Can you describe your journey into collecting?                

I come from a family of collectors, so I have always been surrounded by art. For a time, my father had a gallery on Mount Street selling Roman antiquities and sculpture. It's in the blood, I suppose! Most of all, I have a huge passion for learning about and living with art of all kind. I love going to art fairs, visiting museum shows and being inspired by studio visits. For many years, I have curated auctions for BFAMI (the British Friends of the Art Museums in Israel, a charity raising funds for Israeli art museums), which has allowed me to continue to build my market knowledge.

To begin with, I bought from the artists I featured in my gallery. I also consciously tried to acquire emerging artists from younger gallerists, as I felt it was important to support them. I found lovely work in charity auctions, such as a Louise Bourgeois drawing I still have of a mother and child. In terms of prices, the artworks I collect range from £5,000 to under £100,000. At the beginning I paid in instalments, which is a great way to start a collection if you have limited funds.        

Has your collecting changed over time?            
Not really. Throughout my life, I have consistently bought work by contemporary artists. My children share my passion - and today they are advising me! It's fun to look at art together and see what the next generation appreciates, and what they hate, too. I can’t buy from Instagram posts, though, and I’ve  never bought NFTs. I have always bought from women artists and I am so happy that they are finally being recognised by the market and duly appreciated.

Life is both an enabling and a disrupting force for collectors: the specific circumstances of my life, the change of homes and countries, meant that at certain times, I had to adapt the collection, but my priority was always to make a joyful home. I love colour, texture and excitement in art, as in life, and that reflects what I buy. I don't do minimal.  
Today, I buy more photography; it’s been my main area of learning and collecting for the last five years. On a practical level, photography is easier to store, but you do need darkened rooms. I love experimental photography by artists, especially those who reflect historic processes such as Lisa Oppenheim and Vera Lutter. I love documentary photography, but I don’t buy it, as it doesn't fit in my collection. I don’t buy Victorian era photographs either, because you need proper facilities to store them, even though early photography is so beautiful and really undervalued.            

What’s the artwork you love the most?
One of my prized possessions is a photo by Nan Goldin called ‘French Chris on the convertible, NYC’ from her series The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. It shows a young man lying down on the boot of a car. It is sexy but also beautifully constructed.    

What artwork do you most regret not buying?                        

I really regret not having bought a painting by Peter Doig. I went to his graduation show at the Royal College, and he had these beautiful landscapes. I wanted to buy them, but they were already sold.

Imagine, if money was not an issue... what would you buy?
I’d have a whole other collection, of course! I would love to have a Jenny Saville painting, an early Gerard Richter, and early sculptures by Anish Kapoor. I love sculpture, but I’m limited by space. And I would buy Goya and Titian and Manet. Oh, and Degas pastels.

When you purchase an artwork, what are you looking for?
When collecting works by visual artists, I look for beauty, originality, and a powerful sense of emotion captured in the moment. With photography, I look for a sense of history, or a strong imagination. Certain artists and artworks nowadays have a sky-high trajectory, but then the value of their art can nosedive. It’s hard to predict what will hold its value. What you want to do is buy an artist who is going to be picked up by Gagosian!

How do you discover artists?                        
I read some art magazines, but mostly I just get out there all the time - I go regularly to MA graduation shows, I make sure I see most of the London museum and gallery shows monthly and I go to Art Basel, Miami, Frieze and Fiac (NDLR: now Paris + par Art Basel). For photos, I visit Paris Photo and Photo London. I don’t feel I need to meet the artist before I buy, but it is always a pleasure when I do. I go through a lot of pairs of trainers every year.        

What advice would you give to your young collecting self and to young collectors?

I would definitely advise my younger self to have more of a plan for financing my collecting, and to be a more focused collector. The best collections have a set range and theme, and make a comprehensive whole. 

My advice to young collectors would be to set themselves a budget per annum and buy within that range, rather than on impulse. It's hard, but sticking to a budget makes you really think and decide what to buy and what to leave for next time. Collectors on the whole buy out of love and passion - and that addiction is not always conducive to being cautious. 

Also, I wish I had kept better track of auction sales: knowledgeable collectors buy at auctions, where they can pick up pieces that people sometimes miss for a fraction of the cost. Research is critical. With websites like Artsy and Artnet, it is easy to find out information about individual artworks, find out the prices of similar works and make sure that you’re buying at the right level. As a fellow collector recently told me, when they started buying art, they quickly realised the art world was a snake pit! You can pay so much more if you are not informed. I would advise budding collectors to use a competent art advisor when they begin, to help steer their purchases and to avoid being taken for a ride.

What will happen to your collection in the future?
My kids would love to have some of my collection, but I would also like to leave works to the Art Fund and the Contemporary Art Society (I have been a Trustee of the CAS for nearly 10 years), so they can place the artworks I bought in collections all over the UK. I would also love to donate some of my photographs to the V&A photography collection. 

Cathy Wills was interviewed for ArtULTRA in May 2023

Enabling emerging artists to thrive,
to create a more diverse and vibrant art world.

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