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INTERVIEW WITH CENTURY CURATOR, LEO BABSKY

INTERVIEW WITH CENTURY CURATOR, LEO BABSKY

Leo has run the Century Club Art Programme for close to three years, building up the club’s art collection and also curating it’s revolving exhibitions and organising art- related events at the club. Maria Stenfor's talks to him about his work with the Club, his company LB ~ Curatorial and future plans for the art programme in 2018.

Please tell me about the collection that you have built up for Century Club. How many works does the club exhibit per year?

The art programme is split into two distinct areas - revolving exhibitions that take place in the Club and Tap Rooms (which last roughly 3 months at a time) and the club’s permanent collection, which consists works that we either own or are on a long-term loan. At the moment we have around 100 works in our permanent collection, which we are constantly adding to. The permanent collection is displayed in the reception, the hallways, the private dining rooms and the roof restaurant.

For me, some highlights of the permanent collection are a great Anna Ilsley painting in the roof restaurant and some beautiful photographic floral still-lifes by Clare Hoddinott dotted around the club. We also have a lot of works by illustrator Annabelle Pearl, which I find very charming, lots of animals/birds etc. - particularly on the roof. We have some really fun Alli Sharma paintings of these retro ceramic cats which we put over House of Hackney wallpaper in the Park Room to give this decadently quirky 1970’s feel to it and in the Avenue Room, we have two great Marc Camille Chaimowicz pieces that we acquired from the ICA.

What are your thoughts on the curation of exhibitions and the collection at Century Club? How do you ensure that the programme develops (e.g. are there specific sites for different kind of works)?

I certainly had a strategy when I started (and still have) for getting the art programme to where it is now, and to keep progressing. When I started at the club it had no reputation as an art destination. Also, I had very little resources so it really was a case of doing the best with what was available at the time and incrementally being able to build on each exhibition.
I was very aware of the kind of artists and galleries that I was aiming to work with in the future, so even though some of the early shows may not have been the most exciting I knew that any galleries that may have been taking notice would not have been turned off by the work we exhibited.

Early on, we had offers to exhibit artists that had a higher profile than the artists that I was working with at the time, but I knew the work wasn’t right for our ultimate goals and always refused. I butted heads with my GM quite a few times over this...and I’m sure he would be happy to tell you that I’m very stubborn (laughs). But I was always very strict about sticking to my strategy. It did take time - which I always knew it would - but it has worked and I am really happy with the position we are in now. So if I were to give any advice, it would be to stay focused on your ultimate goals and always think two to three years ahead.

In terms of specific sites for certain works on the exhibition schedule for 2018, we are working with Frestonian Gallery on an exhibition of Eduardo Paolozzi scheduled to open at the end of March. Paolozzi is responsible for the iconic murals in Tottenham Court Road tube station, so I’m really excited about this exhibition as it’s our first art historical show and also one that has a strong site-specific connection to the surrounding area. Regarding the permanent collection, the works start off fairly somber in the reception and get lighter as you walk up towards the roof. The works in the roof restaurant are meant to be much more light-hearted with lots of whimsical and kitsch pieces, with an emphasis on animal and floral themes to highlight the garden feel of the space.

During 2017 you started doing more talks and art walks. Could you please expand a little with your thinking about these?

With the exhibition programme fairly established now, I wanted to bring in a more academic side to it. So far, we have had two artist talks and one gallery tour led by yourself. The gallery tour came about through the fact that some of the best galleries in the world are literally within a 10–15-minute radius of the club, which I felt some of our members may not be aware of. I also wanted to take advantage of your experience a bit more – obviously, we have worked together on exhibitions before and you also interview the artists I work with for Century’s newsletter. But knowing you have 20 years experience in the industry we both felt that could be utilised more effectively. Your contacts allowed our group to have personal tours of these fantastic galleries surrounding the club, which was a really special and unique experience. The feedback we got was great and we are hoping to make that a regular event.

Please tell me about the programme that you have planned for 2018 with exhibitions, talks and events.

As we just discussed, I really want to keep the academic side of the programme evolving - especially your tours as that was such a success. The Eduardo Paolozzi exhibition, again, is something I am very excited about. It’s our first show that is modern rather than contemporary art and having that mix will make the programme that much richer. Another new facet for 2018 is that I am starting to invite guest curators to curate some of the revolving exhibitions for the club. We have Cairo Clarke who has curated ‘The Reinvention of Love’ currently on view in the Tap Room, and we have yourself curating one of our March/April exhibitions. So adding different viewpoints and perspectives rather than just my own to really make the programme multi-dimensional.
We have an ongoing relationship with the ICA where we have special offers for artworks from their artist editions programme specifically for our members. I’m always thinking of ways to strengthen that relationship, whilst also hoping to partner with other institutions.
I try and focus on three areas which is a.) providing a thought-provoking viewing experience of the artworks on the wall. b.) If you want to learn a little bit more about how to think about art then that is also available to the member through talks etc and c.) If our members are starting to think about purchasing some artwork or starting their own collection that is also something that is available either through the works we have on sale in our revolving exhibitions or through our partnership with the ICA.
I’m really just trying to offer a very rounded, bespoke, unique art experience that our members won’t find anywhere else.

You also work with exhibitions and art projects outside Century Club. What kind of projects are they?

Yes. I have my own company LB ~ Curatorial, of which Century is one of my clients and I work at the club around two days per week. Outside of the club, I have a mixture of corporate and private clients. I did a presentation of Tim Ellis works for Fabiana Filippi, an Italian Fashion brand, in their Conduit Street store to coincide with an event for their VIP clients late last year. I was also a jury member for Contemporary Visions 8, the annual open call exhibition at Beers London, which was a very enjoyable experience.

I tend to lean towards clients in the hospitality/retail sector. When I was a practicing artist myself, I always had side jobs in hospitality to support myself, particularly in private members clubs. Knowing that market really well meant an organic progression towards those areas. It’s something I’m passionate about. It drives me mad when you’re in a fancy restaurant and the “artwork” is obviously just some splashes of paint to complement the colour scheme, probably done by the interior designer. So infuriating (laughs). Seriously though, it does cheapen the experience if you don’t show artwork with some kind of substance, and it really is a way of keeping your brand current at not necessarily a huge cost. Also, let’s be honest, London is an expensive city and the more we can do to help artists and galleries the better. If you have a venue and some wall space you can do something interesting and it will keep your customers coming back. It really is a win-win situation for all involved.

You must look at many exhibitions. What was the best exhibition that you saw 2017?

Rachel Whiteread at Tate was very powerful. I’m a big fan of Seth Price’s work and haven’t seen it in person for quite a while so his show at ICA was great.
Among the non-institution exhibitions I saw, Katy Moran’s show at Stuart Shave was beautifully executed and hung. And Derek Mainella’s work is always a pleasure to see. His solo show at Castor didn’t disappoint.

You work in Soho and, I guess, spend quite a bit of time in the area. Describe your perfect day in Soho. Do you have any hidden gems that you would like to share?

I do actually really enjoy being in Century. It’s never overly busy and you can always find a quiet corner to get on with some work. It’s a real respite from the chaos of central London and it’s really useful for me to subtly observe how people react to the artwork on view. The staff are all lovely and it is a bit of a home away from home for me.
Marian Goodman and Sadie Coles galleries are literally just around the corner from Century and I always find the quality of exhibitions there extremely good. The coffee at Flat White on Berwick Street is amazing and Alex Eagle on Lexington Street has a great selection of products. It’s super expensive but perfect for a bit of window shopping. In the evenings, the sushi at Taro is good-quality and affordable. I like sitting at the bar and watching the chefs work. It’s not exactly a hidden gem, but Dean Street Townhouse do a great Negroni and I will often sit at the bar with a Negroni if I have some time to kill before meeting friends. I am also obsessed with their haddock soufflé….but maybe not at the same time as the Negroni (laughs).

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You can keep up to date with what Leo is doing through his website lbcuratorial.net or via his instagram @lbcuratorial

Maria Stenfors has more than 20 years of experience from the art world. She worked at several galleries in Stockholm and London, as well as an independent art advisor, prior to running her own eponymous contemporary art gallery in King’s Cross between 2010 and 2016. She is now an independent consultant alongside working in a gallery.
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