Collecting runs in Bill Clarke’s blood.  Following in his father’s footsteps, a lifelong and avid collector of rare coinage, Clarke  has always maintained his own collection of some variety.  It began with gum cards as a kid and then evolved into a record collection in his teens.  He also collected vintage 1960s Beatles toys and memorabilia which are now nostalgic souvenirs.  His personal art collection has been expanding for 12 years and focuses on works on paper, artists’ books, multiples from the likes of Christian Marclay and Jonathan Monk, and an impressive array of pieces by emerging artists.

While his day job in the communications department for the College of Nurses of Ontario seems about as far removed from the art world as one could get, the position affords Clarke the freedom to pursue his philanthropic and editorial ambitions in the art world on the side.  For the past three years, he has worked as the editor of Magenta, a Toronto-based journal covering international art.  He is also a contributor to ARTnews, C Magazine, and Canadian Art, and remains a familiar fixture in galleries.   As an active member of the art selection committee for Art with Heart from 2007-2011, Clarke assisted in the fundraising auction for Casey House, an HIV-AIDS hospice in Toronto.

The roads that lead to collecting art are often winding and mysterious.  In the same way an artist pursues their creative endeavors, there is no straight and narrow path for a collector.  The artist and the collector collide by some strange combination of timing, circumstance, and opportunity.  Like the charming couple Herb and Dorothy Vogel who crammed an extensive and influential art collection into their modest New York apartment, Bill Clarke proves that no matter the size of your bank account, there are ways to build a stunning collection on a budget.

You have always been a collector, but what inspired your art collection?

I was the production manager for Canadian Art magazine from 2000-2001.  I didn’t know Canada had such a dynamic and diverse art scene until I was exposed to it through the magazine.  I was constantly amazed by the creativity coming across my desk I and started wishing I could live with some of it.  But like most people, I thought that only the rich could afford art.

I started collecting in earnest after seeing the exhibition Ask the Dust by a (now-disbanded) Winnipeg-based collective called the Royal Art Lodge.  Several members now have successful solo careers including Marcel Dzama, Jon Pylypchuk, Neil Farber and Michael Dumontier.  But, when I first saw their work back in 2003, I knew I had to own something– anything!  The work made me laugh, and it spoke to where I was in my own life at the time.

I acquired several collaborative drawings and solo works until the group parted ways in 2008, and the prices for their solo work soared beyond my means.  Still, I love every piece I obtained early on.  I purchased other artists at the time, but the Royal Art Lodge is the seed from which the collection grew.

How would you describe the aesthetic of art that you gravitate toward?

I like works on paper: drawings, collage, paintings, artist’s books, and prints.  From a practical standpoint, paper is a pretty resilient medium, and it’s easy to frame, display and store.  From a financial standpoint, it’s often more affordable than painting and sculpture.

I also buy smaller pieces because I don’t have a large home and I like the intimacy of small work.  You have to get up close and really look to appreciate them.  Most of the collection leans toward quirky figuration and finely detailed drawing (a friend calls it “hyper-drawing”), though lately I’ve been looking at more abstract work.

What qualities do you look for in a work of art? How do you know when a piece on a gallery wall must become a part of your collection?

At first, I just have to feel “Wow!” about the piece and be able to pay for it within a reasonable amount of time.  Those rules still apply.  But, the collection is nearing 200 individual works, not including the artist’s books.  Not just anything comes into it anymore.  Whatever I purchase now has to relate to what’s already there, visually or thematically.  I’m learning to curate, I suppose!  Mainly, though I buy what I love.

It seems like much of your collection has been built on supporting emerging artists.  How did you come across these particular artists?

Most of the artists in my collection are emerging Canadians (or they were when I first bought them.)  Buying work by younger artists is important.  If no one does, what kind of future does an art scene have? I’m out at the galleries most weekends, and I read several art magazines.  I discover new artists just by looking and listening and talking to people.  I have done studio visits, but I find them awkward unless I know the artist well already, or have a real purpose for the visit, if I’m writing something about their work, for example.  I’m good friends with some artists in the collection, but many are friendly acquaintances who I just enjoy seeing out and about.  All the artists and art dealers I know, though, are generous, smart and fun people.  I’m lucky to be part of their world.

As we’re based on the West Coast, we haven’t had the opportunity to speak with many Canadian collectors.  What is the art market like in Canada?

The art market in Toronto is very small compared to New York, Los Angeles or London, though it is the biggest in Canada and quite lively.  There are many excellent artists and galleries; there just aren’t a lot of collectors.  A secondary market for contemporary Canadian art is just starting to be explored here.  Canadian art is generally under-priced and under-appreciated.

Would you ever consider selling your collection or donating it like the Vogels?

I don’t consider my collection an investment.  I don’t plan to sell anything, so I don’t think about its value too much.  It would be great if years from now museums were interested in some of it, though.

Collecting is like a game.  Sometimes pieces find you and other times the piece you didn’t know you wanted in the first place, is the one that gets away.  Is there a work that you wish was a part of your collection?

At Scope New York in 2006, I saw a drawing by a British artist Graham Dolphin in which he wrote out all the lyrics of the Beatles’ White Album on a white sheet of paper with white ink.  It looked like nothing until you got up close and saw all the work that went into it.  I didn’t buy it right away and it had sold by the time I went back to the gallery’s booth.  I’m sure I said, “Argh!” and shook my fists at the ceiling when I saw the red “sold” dot on the wall beside it.

If you could have any work of art what would it be?

If money was no object, I’d like one of Richard Hamilton’s ‘Swingeing London 67 prints, which are based on a newspaper photo of art dealer Robert Fraser and Mick Jagger handcuffed together in the back of a police car following their arrest for drug possession.

Selected Works from Bill Clarke’s Collection

Marcel Dzama: Untitled, ink and root beer on paper, 15" x 12", 2001

Marcel Dzama: Untitled, ink and root beer on paper, 15″ x 12″, 2001

This drawing was one of the first pieces I bought.  Dzama and the other members of the Winnipeg collective The Royal Art Lodge made me into an art collector.  I purchased it in 2004 at the first Art Toronto International Art Fair.  The gallery had several drawings, but I could afford only one.  People started gathering around as I was going through them, offering their opinions on which one I should buy.  I didn’t listen to them, though. I knew this was the one the moment I saw it.  People ask which pieces I would grab in the event of a fire (heaven forbid!), and this would be one, not because of its value necessarily, but because I’ve lived with it for such a long time.

Balint Zsako, Untitled
Balint Zsako, Untitled (detail) from the Machines series, ink and collage on paper, 10″ x 8″, 2004

This ink and collage work is a good example of  the “hyper-drawing” I like.  The detail in the drawing of the machinery between the collaged animal parts is incredible.  I happened upon Zsako’s work hopping around gallery openings years ago.  I liked it immediately, though I think it took awhile for others to warm up to his work.

Nicholas Di Genova, Queen Elephant Hen

Nicholas Di Genova, Queen Elephant Hen, ink and graphite on paper, 14″ x 10″, 2005


Another artwork featuring a strange animal! I happened to be at Di Genova’s Toronto gallery, LE, when he came in with some new drawings to show his dealer. He is also represented by New York’s Fredericks & Freiser.  They let me look over their shoulders and when this drawing appeared I asked if I could purchase it, but on one condition: lightly pencilled in was a large, sack-like proboscis that he hadn’t erased yet (hopefully, you can make it out here.) I said that I didn’t want it erased because I liked seeing his decision-making process.  He was fine with that, so this drawing is kind of unique. I also think he made the right decision to go with the shorter trunk.

Jon Pylypchuk, Small Log

Jon Pylypchuk, Small Log, Edition of 10 + one AP, signed and numbered, bronze on wooden base, 8.5″ x 5.5″ x 3.5″, 2011

Pylypchuk left the Royal Art Lodge early, moved to Los Angeles and started showing with a number of large galleries, including Friedrich Petzel in New York and China Art Objects in L.A.  This put his work out of my reach quickly, which was a drag because I had solo pieces by every other member of the group except him.  Then my friends who run Paul + Wendy Projects produced this limited edition bronze and wood sculpture.  Money was tight at the time, but they let me pay for this little guy in instalments.  It was satisfying to complete a part the collection that felt unfinished.

Jason De Haan, Small Choir Having a Collective Out-of-Body Experience

Jason De Haan, Small Choir Having a Collective Out-of-Body Experience, collage and gold leaf on paper in handmade artist’s frame, 15″ x 11″, 2011

De Haan, who is currently pursuing his MFA at Bard, is one of Canada’s young artists to watch.  Last year, he was nominated for the Sobey Award, one of Canada’s biggest art prizes.  I’d been looking at his work for a little while, but it was often large-scale, delicate and too expensive for me.  His last show at his Toronto gallery, Clint Roenisch, featured a few small collages, and this one immediately grabbed me. I can’t put into words why I like it so much, though it ties into my love of music, obviously.  Perhaps, it’s the visual rhythm of the collage and the elemental feel of the gold leaf.

Laura Owens, Fruits and Nuts

Laura Owens, Fruits and Nuts, hardcover, hand-bound, with 20 screen-printed images in six colors, edition of 100 with 15 aps. signed and numbered, 10.5″ x7″ x 1″, 2011

Artist’s books can be a relatively affordable way to own work by established living, or big-name deceased artists.  My interest in artist’s books came about five years ago after I stumbled across a copy of Books by Artists, which was published for an exhibition of artist’s books at Art Metropole in 1980.  During my first visit to L.A. two years ago, I saw this handmade artist’s book by L.A.-based Laura Owens at Ooga Booga’s booth at the Art Los Angeles Contemporary fair.  Over vintage pages from L.A. newspapers, Owens screen-printed the names and shapes of different fruits and nuts, a reference to the joke that Californians are all considered “fruits and nuts” by the rest of America.

Letha Wilson, Moon Drop (Flaming Gorge)

Letha Wilson, Moon Drop (Flaming Gorge), unique c-print, cut and folded, 11″ x 11″ x 1″, edition of 12, 2010


Most works in my collection are by Canadians, but several American and international artists, including Kalup Linzy, Greg Lamarche, Christian Marclay, Barbara Kruger, Kay Rosen, Edward del Rosario, Amy Pleasant, Devin Troy Strother, Assume Vivid Astro Focus, Jonathan Monk and David Shrigley have snuck in.  Most of the non-Canadians’ work was purchased when they’ve shown in Toronto or at the Art Toronto fair, but I have purchased work when in New York and online, as well.  I saw this piece by the Brooklyn-based Wilson in a recent group show examining new approaches to landscape photography.  I liked it, but didn’t buy it immediately because I didn’t see how it fit with anything else in the collection.  Later, at home, I noticed several drawings in my collection depict a moon, so this hangs with them now.

Vanessa Maltese, Stencil Painting No. 2

Vanessa Maltese, Stencil Painting No. 2, oil on panel, 10″ x 7″, 2011

The talk “on the ground” in Toronto right now is about a cadre of artists, all young women, who make work that approaches conceptual, minimal and process art in rigorous and intelligent ways, and who all display a sensitive handling of materials.  These artists include Jennifer Rose Sciarrino, Georgia Dickie, Hanna Hur, Jennifer Murphy, Kelly Jazvac, Aamna Muzaffar, Lili Huston-Herterich, Abby McGuane and painter/sculptor Vanessa Maltese, who is last year’s winner of Canada’s prestigious RBC Painting Competition.  This painting is currently an outlier in the collection, but the more I learn about the history of this kind of work, the more I’m attracted to it.  This could be the start of a new direction for the collection.


All images courtesy of Bill Clarke