Moving an art program from a private museum in London to a remote 15th-century Scottish castle is a new kind of upgrade. But it’s one of the reasons contemporary art collector David Roberts gives for his decision to close his gallery in Camden, north London five years ago and move to Cortachy Castle, north London. Dundee, from where it now offers artist residencies, events and UK-wide collaborations.
“London is full of artistic opportunities”, declares this 65-year-old man over an aperitif in the large living room of Cortachy. “It seemed like a better idea to think about regions that don’t benefit as much.”
As part of the revamp, his wife, artist Indrė Šerpytytė-Roberts, joined him on the front stage. The David Roberts Art Foundation, which has supported and shown more than 1,000 artists since 2007, including Victor Man and Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, was renamed the Roberts Institute of Art last year. Among the institutions that have borrowed from its curators and drawn from the couple’s collection of thousands of contemporary artworks are the Millennium Gallery in Sheffield and the Mostyn Art Gallery in Wales. Several of their works by artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Danh Vō and Liliane Lijn are in the The flesh arranges differently exhibition at the Hunterian Art Gallery in Glasgow (until May 22).
Key to the couple’s plans is the offer of two artists’ studios and residences in the sprawling grounds of Cortachy, the former home of the Earl of Airlie. Roberts took over the estate on the recommendation of art dealer Iwan Wirth, who established himself in Scotland with the Fife Arms Hotel in Braemar. In Cortachy, the renovation of two formerly abandoned outbuildings is almost complete and the ceramist Jesse Wine is due to start a residency in May. Later in the summer, Polish sculptor Monika Sosnowska will take second place. Roberts and Šerpytytė emphasize flexibility in their residencies, in part because of her background as an artist.
“There are no parameters. It’s about using this beautiful landscape and this quiet place to push their practice however they want,” she says. There isn’t even the familiar stipulation of doing a work, even though Roberts says, “We’d like some kind of record, but they could write something, for example.
Šerpytytė admits that the brooding Cortachy did not win her crush. It’s certainly different from where she grew up, in Lithuania and Cornwall, and studied, in London and Brighton. “I love it now,” she says, and both note how attached their young child – her first, her seventh – is to the spot, where they’ve all happily squatted for much of the pandemic. .
For Roberts, Cortachy Castle is much closer to home, but still feels far from where he grew up in Greenock, near Glasgow. “All those who left school went to work in the shipyards,” he says. He was bright, with an early interest in graphic design and so, he says, “my mother pushed me to be a naval architect”. He gradually moved into commercial real estate, where he made a fortune, but still managed to maintain a relatively modest framework. Cortachy, while remaining a castle, is not full of modern comforts. WiFi is spotty to say the least, and in mid-February the most consistent heat came from an open fireplace in the living room.
The art on display in the castle is not an obvious selection of mega-gallery hits. There are plenty of sculptures and paintings by Nicolas Party, but also a painting by the less publicized Donna Huanca and a large photograph by London-based Jo Broughton. The new owners of the chateau have kept some of its ancestral paintings, as well as a lot of discarded crockery and glassware, and display them to great effect.
Roberts and his art on display seem less gloomy than they have been in the past: his “fascination with death” has been recorded in a FinancialTimes interview 10 years ago. Roberts and Šerpytytė say it’s not about changing each other’s artistic habits. “We have very similar tastes. Indrė made me a little less impulsive. When something blows my mind, I prefer that she sees it first,” he says. Another perk of the partnership: Roberts was one of the first buyers of now popular young artist Flora Yukhnovich – “She had the same gallery [Parafin] like Indrė,” he says. (Yukhnovich now exhibits with the Victoria Miro Gallery.)
Roberts met Šerpytytė at his exhibition at the Royal College of Art, where he purchased the entire series of his work. “He tried to get a discount; I said no!” she says. The nine photographs are part of a powerful project that maps houses that were secretly used by the KGB as control centers. The photographs now hang proudly outside the room bathroom on the ground floor of Cortachy. She naturally speaks very little about the unsolved death of her father, a Lithuanian government official, when she was only 18, but she says that these works do not have no connection.
They’re still buying art, although Roberts says ‘lockdown has slowed things down a bit’. The Institute champions performance art, something he learned “needs help other than owning.” A postponed exhibition of new commissions from six artists is finally due to take place at Studio Spaces in Wapping, east London, on March 30 and the program will travel to Scotland, thanks to a collaboration with Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery.
Roberts is a little jaded by certain aspects of the art market – its internationalization, its internetization – which have changed so much since he started collecting in the early 1990s. galleries are on an endless treadmill, with huge numbers of collectors and artists to serve. You can decide to go or not,” he says – sitting firmly in the second camp.
He confesses that stepping off the treadmill means he’ll “often open an auction catalog that’s coming up and there’s an artist I’ve never heard of who’s estimated to make $1-2 million!” But he mostly takes it as a welcome challenge to keep learning. “It’s exciting. Art moves so fast as a subject, you can never know everything.