Blair Clarke wants you to get comfortable around art. With her recently opened gallery, Voltz Clarke, this Southern-born and bred art dealer/collaborator/co-conspirator is using her humor, charm and deep Rolodex to unravel the snobbery often associated with the art world. Much like her gallery, her home (in which she is pictured above with her family by artist Gail Albert Halaban) is a pastiche of exquisite antiques (her husband is the former worldwide head of Sotheby’s English and European furniture) and modern art, which Clarke often uses to entertain those in the fashion, interiors and art world. Clarke’s second passion is meeting and connecting new people, by the time our interview was over she had introduced me to several acquaintences via email. She is so warm, engaging and five steps ahead, you can’t help but get caught up in her energy. Go visit her gallery, for the new exhibit, SEAMS, which opens tomorrow, but also to meet this whirlwind force.
Please introduce yourself to TFI: I grew up in Georgia and I was always very interested in art and everything that came under that umbrella, whether painting watercolors, building sandcastles or beading. After graduating from the University of Georgia with a double major in art history and marketing, I realized rather than be a painter I loved the people that are brought together by artwork..
I ended up selling art, but it’s so much more than that. I am a jack of all art trades. Yes, we have the gallery, but we do all kind of things under the art umbrella. I would call myself more of an art person than a gallerina or something like that.
Why are you drawn to art and artists? I think you’re born with a creative seed or you’re not. If it’s in your makeup, in your DNA, you have to explore it. I’m drawn to art people, because I think they have such open minds. I love anybody that’s sort of off the beaten path or non-textbook, a little bit some might think eccentric and weird. That to me is more interesting and all the better.
How did you go from working at a gallery to representing and working with artists yourself? I always had this sort of posse of art friends. Even in college I would befriend artists and I was always curating for them, it was sort of a pastime.
That led very organically to working in the art world. Then, after I’d been working for others for a long time, I realized I could do everything pop-up and online. The gallery followed all of that. It was very natural and very gradual.
What made you decide then to ultimately open your own gallery? It was the request, let’s say, a strong request, from the artists that we’d worked with for so many years. These artists had been loyal to me for well over a decade of pop-up exhibitions. It was only fair after all this time to give them the platform that they needed. The gallery is for the artists. It’s a nice place to all be together and work, where before we just had an office. Now, of course, the doorbell rings and we might not know who it is, where before it was by appointment only.
What do you like about having a gallery? It has created such a dialogue, an open door sense of communication with our followers—some might be buyers and some might not be buyers. Some people might come in the door just to say hello and have no interest in buying art.
Before, when it was private, it had much more of a closed feeling, much more elitist. Now a visit can be spontaneous which breaks down any barrier of that awful snobbery in the art world. We try so hard to create a feeling of warmth around here. There’s never a stupid question asked. We are here to help your art journey. Even if you’re not interested in buying and you just want to learn about art. We’re here to try to educate in a friendly manner, give people advice.
What kind of art are you most drawn to? I like optimistic art. There’s so much world turmoil and political unrest and a lot of artists are trying to make political statements with their art, but I am more interested in texture and expression through a medium rather than making intense conceptual statements.
It’s not to say that you can’t look at our art and dive in on many deeper levels with the various works and the artists that we have. Many of them have studied in Italy and then when they go to the canvas they’re cascading with layers and layers and years of experience in lots of different techniques and sort of historical points along the way rather than making statements about feminism or politics.
For me, I love texture and respond to color. It doesn’t always have to be what some would call easy art. Often we’ll get an abstract painting that has dark colors and is very moody and energetic. I respond to the energy. There are over 20 artists that we work with and they’re all giving a different expression.
What about your collaborations? That all started from the pop-up angle that if you don’t have a space you have to create one. To be able to have your work literally in one extra, different zip code ending creates yet more opportunity for visibility for our artists. That’s the main goal; to get as much as visibility as possible. For example, right now we have a pop-up in the Veronica Beard store on Madison Avenue.
It’s nice because the person that’s walking on Madison and the person that’s walking on Lexington—they can be worlds away from one another.
The collaborations are now more than ever with social media, which is also great because it might be the fashion person who is trolling Instagram and all of a sudden sees some art. We’ve always said we’re art through the back door. Sometimes people find us when they’re not looking, and that’s where collaborative work can be so successful.
We also love for our artists to think outside the box and never be pigeonholed where they have to paint for these white walls of 62nd and Lexington. Maybe it’s work in a townhouse or a restaurant—we have some work down at The Fat Radish, just thinking very open-minded about creating.
Plus it gives the artists a new challenge. It tests an artist’s perspective in a completely different medium. One can be enlightened to paint on a handbag. One artist is working on something with Free Arts, and they’re collaborating on a fashion project. It’s very commonplace these days, and I’m by no means inventing the wheel, but it’s exciting for them to tackle that, and then for them to meet other people along the way in different fields.
What was sort of the easiest thing for you when you started representing artists? What was the hardest part that nobody warned you about? The easiest part, following up what I said earlier, has been finding the artists, especially in the beginning because we hadn’t tightened our aesthetic yet. Now it gets more difficult for a couple of reasons. The audience may not love a new artist’s work and that’s okay—we will put it out there and try to educate them. But usually the biggest hurdle is that we already have that genre in the gallery.
For example, we see a lot of abstraction we love, but we have very successful abstract painters, and we just don’t need to take on another abstract artist. Figurative is easier, because unlike abstraction it’s more difficult for two figurative painters’ work to look alike where as abstraction can start looking like each other.
The hardest thing that no one told me about is admin, admin, admin. There is so much administration in running an art gallery. There are databases, cataloging every piece, and the technology so that the art can all show up on an iPad. Just a lot of admin, which is sometimes not so fun, but it’s essential and a part of growing a business.
One of your attributes that helps you succeed: Staying optimistic. My day involves so many different styles of work, whether it’s starting the day with a downtown studio visit, then meeting with an editor, then meeting a client in their home and then going to a photography studio to look at their latest framing techniques.
I’m always on the go. You can get exhausted from it all and kind of beat down, especially in Manhattan where just getting from A to B is difficult. I just think you’ve got to be optimistic and stay thinking that the glass is half full. Luckily the people that work here are very optimistic and we’re not moody. We just really kind of stay above board with a an ‘I can figure this out’ attitude.
When I was a little girl I loved Annie. I do think that the sun will come out tomorrow. I mean, no matter how dark your day can be, and there are dark days, there’s always tomorrow. There’s another chance.
Tell us about your new exhibition that launches on March 2nd. We’re very excited about it because we’re always trying to introduce new talent to Manhattan. Our audience might be back on the West Coast or in Atlanta but we’re always casting the net incredibly wide to bring art home, at least to our neighborhood, and then cast it back out to our clients.
It is a Spanish artist, Jacinto Moros, and Stephanie Patton, a Louisiana-based artist. They are both sculptors, and we love three dimensional material. Their work is very rhythmic and texture-based–Moro’s is purely abstract and Patton’s is texture-based words that are in the form of a mattress. It’s a clever/kitsch medium that this artist has created and perfected. The exhibit is called SEAMS—no pun intended.
What motivates you? New York City. The moment I arrived…I was coming for an internship, I knew I would never leave.
I love the energy of New York. I love strolling the different neighborhoods. I love it that you can be in Chinatown in the morning, Little Italy in the afternoon, and go up to Harlem and tap over to Brooklyn and Long Island City. I really take advantage of that. I have friends that don’t go below 14th Street. I don’t judge but for me that would be unfortunate because everywhere you look there is inspiration and creativity and so much stimulation.
Our artists also motivate me. We are like a family. When one of the artists’ dog dies or when a parent dies, or when they get married, when they celebrate their milestones, we celebrate them together. They are very important to me. They truly inspire me and motivate me to be better at what I do because they’re counting on us. They’re creating, but they cannot have the dialogue without a very important component of the process, which is showing it to the client. It’s important what we do and we take it very seriously. I find that motivating.
Role models: Annie, for sure just because of her optimism. And our gallery girls, they truly inspire me. Not only do they know how to call an Uber when I cannot figure it out—I’m totally technically-challenged, since they’re younger than I am, they know what’s the newest music, fashion and neighborhoods. If I need a restaurant suggestion or anything they are my go-to. They do truly inspire me and motivate me. And my daughters as well.
Best career advice you’ve ever received and what you would tell someone starting in your field: Stay focused. I think in this day and age it is very hard to do and you can easily be distracted in many different terms of that word. I also think having no fear is so important. Funny as I’ve gotten older I probably am more hesitant than I used to be. I used to not be scared of anything.
I did a very interesting three-year span of curating exhibitions at the Ferragamo boutiquue. They had a gallery in their beautiful flagship, which they don’t anymore. I’d seen this gallery was being built and I called and introduced myself. Completely cold called. I do think having that lack of fear is great and not taking ‘No, I can’t let you speak to that person’ for an answer. If you’re persistent there is a way to get to the person you’re trying to find.
Then, as my husband says, who gets so annoyed with everyone’s email communication method, ‘Pick up the phone.’ I do think that more so than ever people are scared to pick up the phone and actually have someone answer on the other end of the line. Do something old school and pick it up.
Biggest success to date: I would hope that people see me as approachable. I think the art world, in general, is so arrogant. It’s judgmental. People come to me and say they’re made to feel incapable or less than for not understanding a piece of abstract work or sculpture. They get fearful and then they won’t go back to a gallery. They won’t go to that museum because they’re worried they just don’t understand.
I think being an approachable business owner, yes, it’s a gallery, but it needs to come with an approachable angle. Same goes with being consistent in that approachability. If you see someone on the street always say ‘hi’ and be kind. I know we live in New York where it’s so fast-paced, but I think it’s so important every day when you get out of that taxi or whatever it is to just be mindful, say thank you and please. Be respectful.
Besides your success, what has been your biggest dud or something that didn’t go right? What did you learn from it? We have always built ourselves on art in unexpected places. But once we went so unexpected, let’s say off the map, where connecting the dots didn’t make sense. That was in a hair salon. It was a very chic, beautiful salon downtown by a designer that we work with. But sometimes you have to pay attention to the parallels of art and design. That being said, it wasn’t a total flop.
Definitely everything’s not a bed of roses, but everything we go into we come up with a whole new group of people that we love interacting with. We take away something from everything. It’s one big snowball building process.
Three words that describe you: Optimistic, scatterer-brained, and driven. In other places I think driven would be a negative word, but that’s why I think we all live in New York City, because people here are driven. You just never give up. Here, it’s actually a very optimistic, positive word.
Three words that describe Voltz Clarke: Approachable—I very much hope that, eclectic and classic. We may exhibit neon and we may be taking a chance on youthful art mediums, but at the end of the day we always have an underlying classic aspect to what we exhibit.
We’re grounded, literally, with my husband’s period 18th century beautiful, historically-made furniture. [Alistair Clarke is now a fine antiques consultant and shows some of his acquisitions at the gallery.] So yes, the art might be contemporary and abstract and nontraditional, but the seed that ties everything together is still based in classic elements.
Life goals: I love what I’m doing so much I hope I will be doing this in 50 years, and stay consistent with what I’m doing and continue to grow. Same goes for my artists and for my artists’ growth. To be loyal to all the people we work with. We have such a loyal following now, I feel very blessed for that. As things evolve, I hope to continue on with that sort of collaborative success.
Daily goals: Chomping away at my task list. I’m very task-oriented and I keep a to-do list, or about ten at all times. For me the daily ritual is literally just scratching off things on my list and trying to find joy in the little things.
I’m also a big sweeper. I love sweeping the gallery floor. I find it quite therapeutic. It is also important just to keep grounded, especially in a small business. Everyone jumps in together. Everyone answers the phone and everyone sweeps the floor.
Favorite inspirational/motivational read: I don’t really have any. I do keep quotes around the house for my daughters. I love Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss’s ’Oh, the Places You’ll Go!’, things like that. Sometimes it’s the most simple idea, just like—“Oh the places you’ll go”. You have to keep an open mind and not ever be closed to any idea.
I’m not super deep and philosophical—I just kind of buck up. My British husband has helped with that. I used to wallow sometimes. But the British aspect of bucking up and getting on with it, I think that’s helped me moving from Georgia to New York where people do just get on with things. Put one foot in front of the other.
How do you unplug? I drop my girls off at school every day, well almost every day, about 30 blocks from my home. We take our little cockapoo, Olympia and I jog home through Central Park with her. Sometimes I listen to music and sometimes I don’t. It’s a really energetic way to start the day. I always think of so many things that I have to do and I talk to Olympia a little bit. We talk to every dog in the park. The dog people are interesting and eccentric. It reminds you of this very crazy kind of eccentric community in which we live. The energy I get from it is astounding.
Then, dark chocolate.
Hidden talents or hobbies: A backbend and headstand every single day keeps the doctor away.
Favorite sites or people you follow: All the Voltz Clarke gallery artists, the art trade publications, art fairs, and things like that. It’s very difficult with Instagram. As we use that medium now, the question ‘who do you follow?’ I think means more the question of ‘who do you look up to?’ I try to use it as an art tool, and I actually follow very few people. People get offended by that, that I don’t follow their children and their mom. I just have such a hard time getting through to 200 people that I do follow. I know that I do offend people, but it just it is what it is.
Favorite charity: We have done some work with Free Arts. They work with wonderful wonderfully-talented artists and do incredibly cool events. They are one that I hold very favorably.
Besides art, do you collect anything? Friends. I get so excited meeting people in New York City, there are so many different types and they bring such incredible ideas to every scenario.
Anytime when I meet someone new we get to talking and I start thinking who I want them to meet. I love what I do in art but I really enjoy meeting new people. It drives my husband crazy because he doesn’t think I plug out enough. He wants me to be home with the family. I am, but it’s hard when you enjoy meeting new people as much as I do.
Biggest splurge you don’t regret: That’s still ongoing, and it’s traveling. I travel a lot to art fairs, biennials and openings of museums. I usually do it alone and it’s selfish; it takes time out away from my family. But it’s very valuable and rewarding for me. It really pays back more than any gift I could give myself.
Favorite small indulgence: Ten minute massages at the corner nail salon which often turn into 15. They’re a great way to restore if you have a second and your backbend didn’t do it for you.
Album currently on repeat: I recently took my girls to see Cats now that it’s back on Broadway. I loved that when I was younger. Now we have Andrew Lloyd Webber on the iPhone blasting Mr. Mistoffelees in the morning. It kind of gets us awake when we’re half asleep in the taxi.
Scent that brings back memories: Revlon’s Silver City Pink lipstick and Bartles & Jayme’s Wine Coolers.
Lucky charm: A tiny, tiny little gold Sydney Evan’s bracelet with LOVE spelled out that I never take off.
Your favorite hour of the day: Friday around 5:00. Everything about Friday I love. Friday around 5:00 we usually open a bottle of bubbly in the gallery and kind of kick back and talk about the week. Just relax. I think everyone works so hard and stays so focused. Friday at 5:00 exemplifies every bit of reward after such an intense week. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. is so depressing to me.
Follow Voltz Clarke: Instagram.