The Sunday Times
The great pretender
How can a struggling artist meet the big buyers? Russell Thoburn tells KATE SPICER how he blagged his way in
18 February 2007
For the artist Russell Thoburn, it was not enough just to be at the private view. He wanted an invitation to the all-important after-party, those exclusive little drinks, dinners and hikes to the Groucho Club to which only the really important players in the art world are invited - he wanted the art equivalent of an "access all areas" backstage pass.
After the private view for Damien Hirst's In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida show at Tate Britain in 2004, he rang Hirst's press people and asked what was happening next. Nothing, they said. Thoburn knew better. When he saw the hot gallerist Maureen Paley leaving with the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, he followed that cab. Even though he lost sight of their taxi, they were so near the art-world dining room, St John, he assumed - correctly - that this was their destination. Saying he was "with Damien", he went through and sat down as if he belonged.
"It was less than 50 people, but everyone was there. It was like watching teIly. They were all faces or big collectors. I felt a bit nervous. At one point, a well-known gallerist looked over, and we had one of those five-second looks, but she didn't say anything. Imagine the embarrassment had someone approached me, only to discover Damien had indeed asked me. There's always an air of ambiguity."
Over the past three years, Thoburn, 36, has become an expert in penetrating the art world's more exclusive get-togethers. He has enjoyed "sublime" bottles of wine at the Groucho and brushed shoulders with Ozzy Osbourne and Jude Law. Yet this unassuming figure, wearing tidy jeans with jumper and jacket, is not some party animal desperate to get close to the A list. All Thoburn wanted was to gain access to the few power players who decide an artist's fate. "My frustration was that I knew my art and my ideas were good, but I didn't know the right people," he laughs. "Or hadn't slept with the right person."
"The thing about the art world," he says, "is that it is a game, and people use different strategies. How, as Russell Thoburn, was I going to get tickets to something like the Frieze Art Fair private view? Not even exhibiting artists are invited to that. I thought, 'Who is trendy, or popular, with links to the art world?' I came up with Alex James of Blur. He studied at Goldsmiths and was definitely around that lot. I set up an e-mail address in his name and, before long, Frieze had sent me a VIP pack.
"The parties are significant: very, exceedingly. That's where it all happens. At private views, everyone is networking. I didn't feel guilty. Once in, I was Russell Thoburn."
Thoburn accepts that he comes from outside the sphere of influence. "The way to succeed is to be an artist's assistant, like the Chapman brothers were to Gilbert and George," he says. "It helps to have the Royal College [of Art]'s stamp of approval, which works like an old boys' network of sorts. The era when I came down to London was very Goldsmiths-driven. But my tutors didn't have the connections. Saatchi never bought anything from Sir John Cass, my college - it was totally off radar. And I wasn't going to tiptoe round and get an internship at the Tate so that I might eventually meet the right people. All I want is to make a living. I feel like I am being wronged, because my art doesn't get the attention it deserves."
To gain access, he was not just "Alex James". "Gary Hume" urged the gallerist Victoria Miro to check out Russell Thoburn; "Damien Hirst" suggested Saatchi visit his studio; "Jay Jopling" recommended he exhibit at a gallery space (he subsequently got a show and sold £3,000 of work, the only financial gain thus far). To date, he does not have a gallery representing him.
A few months ago, he thought, "I could do some art off this," - work that can be seen in his show A Fake's Progress, a name chosen when he discovered it would coincide with the Hogarth exhibition at Tate Britain. "Like me, Hogarth satirises the politesse of the middle-class world," he says. Inner Circle, After Hogarth's Tavern Scene has hundreds of Bryant & May matches, ordinary ones with brown heads, standing outside a circle of colourful matchboxes from Sketch, St John, the Groucho, The Hospital, Momo and all the art-world haunts he infiltrated. Inside are colourful matches, with heads of every colour. "The brown matches represent the masses at art, fashion and photography events. If you are one of those artists on the edge, a brown match, how do you get a deal with a gallery?"
He says he does not criticise the art world, he merely - "like Warhol" - holds a mirror up to it, something he has done throughout his career. An earlier show in a small basement gallery next to Saatchi's old St John's Wood space revolved around Saatchi's power and influence. A Saatchi employee asked him "politely" to close it down. "They are so big - why are they even bothered?" He calls his blagging "social sculpting"; others may call it gate-crashing.
Alex James calls it identity theft. "He's looting the most valuable thing everyone's got, which is their identity - although I suppose the justice in what he's done depends on whether what he is doing is any good or not. Imposters soon go away. Imitation is a part of the creative process. Everyone starts from that point. Bands impersonate other bands. You could say Holbein used the people he painted to make him famous." James also doubts whether Thoburn had much success in penetrating the circle of colourful matchsticks. "He might have got in, but it is close-knit."
Thoburn says: "It's all about establishing your brand: Chris Ofili with his elephant dung, Damien Hirst's dead animals and spot paintings. Mine is the blagging thing. Collectors tend to be straight people; they feed off the colour of the person as much as the art. Grayson Perry, sexually, is coming from a position that is appealing to the art world, where you need to be an outsider to be an insider." But his beef is not with the artists. "I love the art world," he says, with genuine passion, "because it embraces everything. Artists are great people. Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst are from similar working-class backgrounds to mine. We all struggle to adapt. But this is about the money and politics, not art. It's like the 1980s all over again - the people who buy art nowadays would normally just buy property."
He shows me an invitation for "Alex" and his wife to join Gilbert and George for a dinner to celebrate their Tate show: "That'll be my last party." His project is over, his secret is out; whether his antics have helped his career remains to be seen.
A Fake's Progress is at the Foundry, EC2, from February 28