Gillian Catto is a true specialist, a woman with an instinctive ability to recognise talent, to nurture potential and to advocate success. As a world-respected art dealer she has represented many fine names, and continues to attract the best. Exhibitions at her gallery in Loulé and the Conrad Algarve in Quinta do Lago are considered required viewing for the art cognoscenti.
Asking the questions: Susi Rogol Goodkind
Let’s start at the beginning. Your London gallery; when did it open and was it your first adventure into the art world?
The Catto Gallery opened in 1982. I specialised in 18th and 19th century watercolours but staged two or three exhibitions a year of contemporary watercolourists. I soon discovered that the public were more interested in those works, and within 18 months the gallery became a specialist in the field. You have to see where your market is and be prepared to move with it. Soon after this, I started representing oil and acrylic artists and also sculptors. The gallery was on its way to becoming one of the best known in London.
Did you handle any famous names then and how did you source them?
I first became involved in the star system when The Walt Disney Company approached me to put on an exhibition of animation. At first I declined, but when I saw that Disney Paris was opening, I decided to go for it. A tour of the Disney Studios in Los Angeles confirmed my interest and I went on to have a sell-out show; that a few surviving original Disney animators were there really added gravitas to the project. In fact, it went so well that I opened animation galleries in London, Paris and Munich. My next brush with Tinsel Town was when I was approached by Tony Curtis to stage an exhibition of his work. There are so many stories connected to this exhibition but the real synergy was with my father-in-law at the time, Max Catto, who had more books that were made into films than any other author.
Trapeze was one of them, the movie that launched Tony Curtis into stardom – he, Tony, loved that connection. Tony was brilliant; the best raconteur I have ever met. He wanted to be known as a great artist rather than an actor – something I could not bring myself to tell him was never going to happen, even though his paintings were, like him, larger than life and full of colour. Amazingly, the first two works of his that were sold were bought by someone who did not have a clue that Tony Curtis was that Tony Curtis! I was then approached to show Tony Bennett, the singer, a water colourist who paints when he travels. We were so successful that he asked to do another show with me. On both occasions he was singing at the Albert Hall and we were given the best seats.
So what made you leave big city life behind and come to the Algarve?
Ah, well. that would be a love story. My husband had died and I met an old boyfriend who I had not seen in 30 years, an English lawyer residing here for more than 25 years. I tried to run my London gallery from here but it proved impossible so I did a management buyout and The Catto Gallery London continues, but without me.
Did you have the intention of opening a gallery here, or did you spot a niche in the market, and an audience whose tastes matched your own?
No, but I soon hit a wall here. You see I don’t drink – I have always been teetotal – and I don’t play golf. That left me three options: 1. Go back to London; 2. Slit my wrists; 3. Open an art gallery. It was an easy decision.
Test run – or straight into it?
Yes, I did do a test run. Although I hate ‘pop ups’, I took over The Keys sales office in Quinta do Lago for six weeks and it was a great success. To do it, I had to have a company and VAT number and all the other legalities. When those six summer weeks were over I had a business but no home for it. Fate stepped in.
Why Loule, rather than the heart of the golden triangle?
I looked everywhere – galleries need space and they need a ‘café society… they need a heart. Almancil was not the right place; Quinta did not have a shop that was the right size; Loulé had what I wanted. I love this place – it has a history… and a very big heart.
Do artists seek you out, or do you actively research the market to find new names to promote and established names that will promote you?
Both. I really only represent artists that have a strong provenance. I have found a few artists in my time who have chanced their luck and come into the gallery looking for representation. On the whole I have spent my gallery life creating a stable of fine artists and I am on the constant look out for new and exciting artists and sculptors.
How big is your current gallery and at any one time what is the value of the works you hold there?
The gallery is roughly 250 sqmetres and at the moment we have insurance in excess of one million euros on work held here.
Your clients – how do they hear about ArtCatto?
We opened here in 2011 so we have a known presence but, like any business, we rely on advertising and word of mouth to raise awareness.
Are you a collector yourself, and what styles of art are your personal favourites?
I have been collecting for years – mostly 17th and 18th century paintings. However, over the past few years I have been collecting more contemporary art. My personal favourites have to do with the journey of my life. I love them all for different reasons; they are family to me.
And do you have a preferred medium?
I don’t have one really, different artists treat mediums in different ways. I do represent one of the finest egg tempera artist, Colin Fraser. Such a hard medium to use but his works are breath taking.
Which exhibitions of yours has been the most successful to date and is success judged on the number of paintings you sell?
Cristina Bergoglio, the Pope’s great niece and Dom Pattison the urban artist – I have just purchased one of his paintings myself. There is always a demand for his work. Unfortunately when you run a business success equals sales.
Explain how the whole thing works – who gets to choose which works from a particular artist go into a show?
I work in a team. I have Antonio Lourenço and Freddie Ponte my cohorts. We decide together who, what and where. We have been working together for so long now that we seldom disagree and know what feels right. I could not run this gallery without them.
Rumour has it you are moving gallery space. Where are you heading, why, and what does the new premises have to offer that is special?
It is more than a rumour but not in stone yet – as you know, things move slowly here. We were offered the most beautiful building in Loulé ; my first reaction was to question why would I want to move five minutes down the road when I have spent years advertising where we are. Three months went by and I was asked again so I took another look at this building which is on three floors and will have a lift. I said “yes”. It will be stunning.
Can you paint yourself? Have you ever wanted to?
If you asked my mother, who is nearly 101, she would say I could paint; the truth is I can’t. I am good with my hands, I love computers and in the old days I would sew and knit . Who has time for that now?
How do you judge potential for a successful showing? Is it pure instinct?
No, although instinct gained through being in the business for so long is helpful. An artist has to be of a certain calibre, they have to know their craft. Think of Picasso. Look at his early work and it is evident the man knew how to draw and, as a result, could move through his different periods with skill. You can only be a clown on ice if you know how to skate. So yes, I have certain criteria which have to be met.
If someone wanted to start collecting, what six pieces of advice would you give me.
There is just one. Love the piece that you are buying and do not worry about investment.
Last question. If you could personally own any painting of your choice – from impressionist to old masters, which single work would you choose?
That’s an almost impossible question. I would take any Renoir, Klimt or Lautrec blind . I wish I had not answered that question … there are so many more.
NOT TO BE MISSED:
29 March, Conrad:
Tommaso Ottieri and Serge Baroteaux, evening launch party
6 April, Gallery: Colin Fraser and Shen Ming Cun
June (date TBC), Conrad:
Dom Pattinson and Jürgen Lingl-Rebetez
September (date TBC), Conrad: James Frances Gill and Georg Scheele
September (date TBC) Gallery: Carrie Graber and Ana Perpinyà