“I never let anyone else’s opinion change my mind about what I think of something—Usually they get interested even if they initially don’t like the work.”
After quitting a successful international career in corporate law, curator and writer Marcelle Joseph threw herself headfirst into art collecting. Now fully immersed in the artworld, her nomadic curatorial platform, Marcelle Joseph Projects, has allowed her to work with hundreds of artists as she promotes contemporary art in venues across the UK and Europe. Although she shares her home with her children and husband, when it comes to the work on show there is only one opinion that really matters! This year Marcelle will be serving on the jury for the prestigious Max Mara Art Prize for Women.
FAM: Hi Marcelle, thanks for agreeing to talk to me about your collection. You have recently finished a rehang in your home, what was the inspiration behind it?
Marcelle Joseph: Well, I am doing another show in my home this year and for the first time it’s going to be a curated collection hang. The idea is to take down all the work by white male artists and get a female artist and a gender queer artist to each design a set of curtains behind which those works will be hung. The rest of the house will be hung with works by female artists, artists of color and LGBTQ artists.
So it’s a kind of reversal of the reality of the art world?
Yes, it’s a post-Trumpian riposte. The title of the show will be “You see me like a UFO”, a lyric from a Frank Ocean song. It is a chance to show the diversity of my collection as part of it consists of works acquired by the collecting partnership I co-founded with a Zurich-based friend called GIRLPOWER Collection.
So in terms of a pivotal work in your collection, would you be able to pick one out?
I only started collecting in 2010 and the first work I bought was an abstract painting by Shaun McDowell after seeing his work at a Parasol Unit group show. I asked him to curate a show under my roving projects company. It was a multi-generational show of abstract painting with Howard Hodgkin and Raoul de Keyser and a handful of young artists. The project revved up my interest in those curatorial group shows, where you can really witness art history in a single exhibition between masters and future greats.
If you had to pinpoint what you go to art for, what would you say it is?
I have thought about this a lot recently and I think I am drawn to artworks that are focussed on their materiality and works that have a cheekiness or sense of humor. I’m increasingly more drawn to sculpture now, which is tricky because it takes a lot more space!
Would you say your taste has been influenced by your upbringing?
Well, I grew up in Upstate New York, in the Finger Lakes area outside Rochester in a small town called Naples where there was absolutely no culture. Actually I didn’t discover art history until I was 19 when I was studying at Cornell University and took my first Art History class.
So where did your interest in art stem?
My maternal grandmother was a seamstress and she taught me how to sew at a young age and I think that’s linked to my love of the materiality of art. Her sister, Marian Heard, ran Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one of the two best craft colleges in the US. As a young girl, I used to spend time with my great aunt every summer at her second home near where I grew up. I was always very taken by the way she curated her home, all those amazing textiles, ceramics and wicker baskets. These were hugely important influences on my aesthetics.
How do you think your taste has developed in relation to the wider art world?
Early on I was mainly interested in abstract painting and then figuration came into it as it became more prevalent in the art world over the past three years. I’m now much more drawn to that, perhaps because I see it more.
Could you say a few things about the works here in the sitting room? What about this amazing pillow sculpture?
That is by Athena Papadopoulos, a young Canadian artist of Greek decent who came to London to study at Goldsmiths. She did an amazing show a few years ago in a London hotel suite near Frieze Art Fair, featuring sculptures like this that incorporate image transfers and various consumer products used by young women trying to doll themselves up for a night on the town—like fake tan, hair dye, nail polish, red wine and Pepto Bismol, just never paint. She references her own autobiography, in particular her divorced, hard-partying, successful businessman father.
What about this text painting in your drawing room?
It is by a young artist named Thomas Langley who is currently doing his post-grad at the Royal Academy Schools. He grew up very modestly in Canterbury and is using this Mummy's Boy series of painting to buy his mum a house. Watch out for his degree show next year!
This fabric work over here makes me think of the Sixties somehow.
This artist often uses tacky cheap carpet that you would find in night clubs and she paints onto it. Her name is Samara Scott. That one is in the shape of a skirt. She did a huge installation at Jupiter Artland in Edinburgh and took one of their outbuildings and completely covered its walls in carpet.
I recognize this artist. It is Rebecca Ackroyd, right?
Yes, this is a plaster bandage and chicken wire sculpture called Kurt, from her Royal Academy Schools Degree Show—she was listening to Courtney Love’s band Hole in the studio at the time. I always describe her as a millennial Rosemarie Trockel as she flits between a myriad of different materials from silk and tulle to welded steel rebar and jesmonite.
Your house is dominated by art and it gets the prime positions in the house. Are there any disagreements with
other people living in the house?
Yes! There used to be a table, some Biedermeier chairs and a ton of art books here before (laughs). My daughter hates this Kira Freije work, she thinks it’s strange and eerie. But I never let anyone else’s opinion change my mind about what I think of something. There’s always some negotiation but usually they get interested after a while even if they initially don’t like a work. Other than a through space, the entrance hall is mostly used by my son to play football so I have to choose very hard-wearing artworks there!
And what about your husband?
Well, I collect on my own. I don’t advise him on his mergers and acquisitions and he doesn’t get involved in my art collection. If I really like something it’s a gut instinctual thing, whereas my husband would have to think about it for a few weeks.
What about the selfie mirror image? (top portrait)
It’s from the artist Amalia Ulman’s Instagram feed. She did a landmark performance called Excellences and Perfections and pretended to be this vacuous girl who was interested in fashion, make up and getting her boobs done. She racked up tens of thousands of followers on Instagram, mostly male, and everyone thought this was her real life. In the end she revealed it was all an art performance. This was loaned to the Whitechapel Gallery for the Electronic Superhighway Show.
Sadly we can’t talk about everything that’s in the house because we would be here for hours. But perhaps you could say something about this Alice Anderson work, the wrapped copper books?
I have been following Alice’s career for a while and have been very inspired by her, the way she takes her biography and wraps it into her work. We don’t know if these meticulously wrapped notebooks are empty or have been drawn and written into and that is part of the allure.
Your entire downstairs cloakroom is an art installation.
Yes! I commissioned Ludovica Gioscia to create a permanent installation in here in 2014. This particular work was inspired by an airport toilet as well as going on holiday. She collects wallpaper from William Morris prints to kitsch finds on eBay and prints her own and creates these works called decollages.
What were you doing in your first career?
I initially was a corporate lawyer. I did that for over a decade in a large American law firm and travelled the world and worked very long hours and got burned out. I stopped working and took some time out to have children—in 2010 I decided to do a degree at Christies’.
How do the two worlds compare?
I have since met a lot of people in the arts who used to be lawyers. I think a lot of the skills are useful, being able to read contracts, the work ethic and juggling a lot of different things. A lot of the artists I’ve worked with say they’ve never worked with anyone as organised as me, so it must have been helpful!
What’s your attitude toward buying editions and multiples?
I collect photography and limited edition prints, often more to support a project, like Studio Voltaire for example. I wouldn’t buy a photograph in an edition more than 10 but with prints I am less concerned.
Do you feel like you are making a difference for female artists or is that an ambition you have?
Yes, I do think that’s important. I think women are still not on a level playing field with men. I am all on board for representing all the views out there, whether female, non-white, LGBTQ+. Speaking as a white woman, I think there are some intrinsic disadvantages for women in the art world. Many of the museums in London are making significant headway in presenting solo presentations of women artists, in particular, Whitechapel Gallery, Studio Voltaire and Tate. But research shows that the artist rosters of over 100 London galleries on average include only 30% female artists. Of course, the art market is predominantly controlled by the white patriarchy so they tend to buy works by other white men.
And what about these wall pieces?
These were maquettes for much larger architectural interventions by Alex Chinneck. He pushes materials to their limits and works with engineers, architects and builders to realise large-scale sculptures that defy the viewer's imagination. So this is an actual brick wall that he has made to look like a zipper. These sculptures inspired his larger projects like the upside down brick houses he erected in Margate and the Southwark area of London.
So will you carry on collecting when you finally run out of space?
Well I have run out of space already so I try to rehang once a year and put some of the things that I bought that year on the walls. All the not hung things are currently in a spare bedroom upstairs but I am at a point now where I need to think about getting another house!
Thank you so much for making time to speak with me and showing me your beautiful collection.
It’s been a pleasure, thanks for visiting.
Interview by Kâthe Kroma
If you want to know more about Marcelle, visit her website.