Portrait of the art historian Cathy Wills, in front of a colorful artwork of her collection
Art and culture

Let’s talk art with Cathy Wills

February 03, 2020

As an art historian, curator and philanthropist, Cathy Wills has a great passion for art. Hear about her own collection, advice on buying art, and her Art Deco Shorts project with 45 Park Lane.

What inspired your passion for collecting art and curation?

My father was a great collector so I grew up with art. As a child we went to lots of galleries together and it just naturally became an important part of my life. I studied Art History and went on to have my own contemporary art gallery when I was very young, which was an incredible learning curve. Today, I’m an art curator and a true art history fan. I love research, visiting galleries, exploring artists’ studios and meeting a wide variety of artists. My main specialism is contemporary art but I’ve discovered a real fascination for Art Deco since being involved in the Art Deco Shorts project with 45 Park Lane.

Cathy Willd smiling in front of one of her abstract artwork ( a pink sculpture)
Francesca Pasqual, Red Straws 2017
Colorful painted artwork of Cathy Wills
The Bride, Paula Rego 1985

How would you describe your own art collection?

Where to start? I have a collection of around 400 pieces, which I began when I was in my teens. It’s all contemporary work and there’s everything from photography to sculpture. I enjoy working with emerging artists, so I’m perfectly placed to buy ahead of the trend once artists have established their own style but their work is still affordable. It’s definitely an eclectic and colourful collection. I love quirky and unusual pieces, where the artists show their confidence and often their informed historical references, with a strong concept and skill. I also collect many works by 1970s and 1980s artists, often female – many of whom are now in their 70s and 80s themselves!

Have you any advice on buying art?

It’s important to develop your own eye. I like to think by now I have developed a very informed eye. That means I might make an almost immediate buying decision but really it’s informed by knowing what’s out there and understanding what I really like. By going to exhibitions and visiting lots of galleries, talking to gallerists and reading you’ll soon develop this skill for yourself. Before investing in a piece, you need to be confident that you’ll still love it in ten years and that it will stand the test of time.

What cultural must-sees would you recommend?

Living in London I have to say The National Gallery, which is home to 2000 of the world’s greatest paintings. It’s like a résumé of what great art should be and a wonderful way to inform your eye. I’m also a huge fan of the Barbican, and the amazing V&A with its collection of sculpture, glass, ceramics and costume, and great design exhibitions they host. When it comes to maybe lesser-known exhibition spaces in London, I recommend the South London Gallery in Camberwell, Camden Art Centre, Chisenhale Gallery and Whitechapel Gallery in the East End.

I love Paris and never get tired of going to the Musée d’Orsay, Pompidou Centre and Picasso Museum. When I’m in Los Angeles I always go to LACMA, and The Getty Villa in Malibu has my favourite historic sculpture collection. MAXXI in Rome is another must-see, and I think the art scenes in both Barcelona and Lisbon are exceptionally good.

The Victoria and Albert Museum viewed from across the road in the daytime
Courtesy of Victoria and Albert Museum
London 45 Park Lane lobby lounge interior

Are you a fan of Art Deco?

Yes, what makes it interesting for me is the important role it plays in social history. It provided an exciting new vision that was desperately needed after the First World War, making Art Deco completely revolutionary in its time. After the frivolity and froth of the Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau, it was a pared down vision of art and architecture, and paved the way for later modernism and minimalism. Working on the Art Deco Shorts series has given me exciting new insights into the extent of its influence. Highlights for me included Professor Bruce Peter’s exuberant passion for ocean liners and how they brought together the best of everything to encapsulate the entire style of the era. I was also fascinated talking to knowledgeable architect Paul Fineberg about Mayfair’s history and outstanding architecture.

What do you like most about 45 Park Lane?

Through my arts philanthropy, I met the hotel’s general manager John at 45 Park Lane and we discovered a shared passion for art. I think 45 Park Lane is a super stylish hotel with spectacular views out over Hyde Park. I always refer to the hotel as ‘a lovely unique slice of London’. It has a very elegant Art Deco feel to it and the love of art shines through. I adore the fact that John shares his enthusiasm for new artists and isn’t afraid to showcase their work in the hotel’s very beautiful spaces.

Whenever I go there, I find a new piece of art to admire.
45 park lane lobby with natural light
The artist Alexandra Errington working in her workshop
Alexandra Errington MA Chelsea College of Arts

What can you tell us about your work as a philanthropist?

I began by working with young artists when I had my gallery and enjoyed helping them find their way. Through this I became a Trustee of several art organisations, acting as an advisor and fundraiser. I currently work with the Contemporary Art Society, which is over 100 years old and buys art work for and supports over 70 museums in the UK. I also work with some 45 different charities including MAG (the Mines Advisory Group, working to destroy landmines) and Freedom from Torture. For the last 11 years I’ve mentored and currently support MA sculpture students at the University of the Arts London. I’ve also worked closely as a curator with BFAMI (British Friends of the Art Museums of Israel) for many years.

What else are you passionate about?

I love putting people together that can help one another, like introducing a promising young artist to a gallery owner. When I’m not working, you’ll find me gardening, playing in the park with my grandchildren or sailing around the Greek islands.

For more art inspiration, take a look at our Art Deco Shorts series, featuring Cathy Wills interviewing an array of Art Deco experts and enthusiasts.

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