If you could have one artwork what would it be?
I'm not in the business of stealing from museums but if I could steal one artwork and live with it forever, it would be Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) by Catherine Opie. When I’m teaching, whether it’s fine art or an art business course, I always show it because I think that it is a really impactful piece of art and an example of an artist doing their job really really well – communicating something that is very nuanced and sensitive. To me it communicates the desire for home, whatever that home might be. Whether it's feeling at home in your own skin, in the embrace of another or within your chosen family. It’s about the sometimes painful experience of dreaming of home.
I'm so happy that I finally have a version of the artwork on my wall, which is a risograph that Catherine made for my show at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art in New York.
How would you describe your own home?
I think there's a process of reclaiming underway in this house. My wife was raised Catholic, and Catholicism is really complicated for queer people, but there's a lot of really beautiful imagery and we have loads of it in our house – we have my wife's nana’s rosary here. There's this really gorgeous collage that our dear friend Fiontan Moran made for her birthday too, which makes an unlikely match of the Virgin Mary and Kim Basinger. Then there’s this crucifix by Franco B, who is one of the most important living queer artists. He came to prominence in the 90s and was known informally as 'the artist who bleeds' because of his body work. This is his version of Jesus with a cross stamped onto him.
I’ve also spotted a lot of medical paraphernalia around your house, can you talk more about that?
On our mantelpiece we have a bust that was legitimately used for phrenology. In our cabinet of curiosities there's a shark in formaldehyde (which is ironic because I spent my early career working for Damien Hirst), a little taxidermied Octopus by an artist called Harriet Horton, a skeleton head and some Victorian teeth. Amongst them you'll find ceramic post-it notes by Lindsey Mendick with messages like 'You told me I looked like your dead friend."
Do you see any ties between the medical objects and the artworks you collect, perhaps in terms of deconstructing the ways that people have understood and presented identity?
My wife is a dementia specialist, so she works with people towards the end of life, but she’s also a poet and super creative. We're both quite interested in unpicking the systems within which we operate but particularly, as a queer family, thinking about systems that were not built for us. With those kinds of objects there's also an aesthetic sensibility, and some mysticism. These are all different layers of understanding and constructing identity.
How does this interest in unpicking systems translate into your curatorial practice?
I feel very fortunate that my career has also become a platform for activism. A lot of the work that I do is focused on increasing diversity in the sector and my curatorial work is very much about championing women and queer artists. I became a trustee at Queercircle three years ago. It was the first space in London dedicated to LGBTQIA+ arts, culture, health and wellbeing.
The print by Michaela Yearwood-Dan that I have was a fundraising edition for Queercircle, created in collaboration with Avant Arte. It’s very special to me because it was inspired by a mural we commissioned to open the space.
I’ve noticed you hang prints, posters, and original works alongside each other. Is there a rationale for what goes where?
There are museum quality works, mixed in with more accessibly priced early career art, mixed in with editions. I couldn't afford a Michaela Yearwood-Dan painting, but that edition is really meaningful. There are also framed exhibition invitations, postcards and John Rafman posters that cost £15.
This Jenna Gribbon edition, also by Avant Arte, is different because it’s a monotype. Jenna is a real star and has her work in museums, galleries and collections around the world. I am obsessed with the success of her work – almost like a trojan horse, the way it is getting lesbian visibility into the mainstream. It’s such a romantic dedication to her wife who she paints over and over and over again. I've just recorded a podcast with her and Christina Quarles where we discuss this.
How did you start collecting?
I've worked in the art world for 20 years and have had close proximity to art on a daily basis, so I know how valuable it is to be surrounded by it. I started collecting at the beginning of my career, buying pieces that were relatively affordably priced. One of the earlier works was this red acrylic diptych by Hannah Perry. I paid for it in about ten instalments over the course of the year.
What was your journey like into the art world?
My Granny went to art school in Sheffield in the 50s and was very passionate about art. She got a scholarship to study at Slade but instead married my Grandad and worked in her parent’s shoe shop. I was very close to her growing up; she would take me to museums and galleries. She really encouraged me to study art. I initially went to university to study maths and artificial intelligence. I picked art history as a secondary subject, but I loved it so much I convinced the university to let me switch courses. Then when I went to The Courtauld for my master’s, my granny helped me a lot financially.
I commissioned this sculpture by Paa Joe in her honour. He’s a fantasy coffin sculptor. My granny sponsored a cheetah for the last ten years of her life, so I sent her photos of the cheetah to him in Ghana. It’s a really amazing object and it has a compartment where the body would go, but this is a miniature version.
Are your kids into art?
They’ve been surrounded by art since they were born. The ink drawing by Gray Wielebinski (top left) of two babies suckling on a she-wolf depicts the story of Romulus and Remus. It was the invitation for my kids’ naming ceremony. Their bedroom is full of art, including some art that my granny made and we have lots of their art hung alongside our collection. They're very lucky to be growing up with art and if one of them turns out to be an artist, I'll be really happy about that.
We're interested in collections of all kinds. Have one to share? Get in touch.
See Gemma's show Dreaming of Home at the Leslie-Lohman Museum in New York until January 7, 2024.
Listen to the podcast Gemma hosted to accompany the show, including a conversation with Catherine Opie.
"From canvas to club, and the spaces between" – pre-order Gemma's upcoming book, Queer Art.
Discover the expansive collection of queer art Gemma curated for Brighton Beach House.
Learn more about the section of this year's London Art Fair that Gemma has curated, drawing inspiration from the former home of Bloomsbury Group painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.