How A London Collector Is Challenging Models of Arts Patronage

Sarah Elson appears on my screen, via Facetime, in front of a large hanging textile in various shades of dirty pink, its edges frayed. A seasoned London collector whose career trajectory has included stints at the Guggenheim and Public Art Fund, in New York, as well as at the helm of her own art advisory service, Elson recently founded Launch Pad, an exhibition series of sorts that takes place within the walls of her home and collection, where she lives alongside her children and works by Isaac Julian, Do Ho Suh, Rose Wylie, and Philip Lorca di Corcia, among others. The outré fabric suspended behind Elson is the work of Josh Faught, a San Francisco artist who she collaborated with on the second iteration of Launch Pad, resulting in this monumental hanging wall work.

After years of advising and collecting, Elson tells me, she found herself increasingly eager to burrow more deeply into the artistic process. “I began realizing that the most satisfying purchases are ones where I’ve worked more directly with the artist on a commission basis,” she says, “those are always the most fulfilling projects because, probably, of my training as an art historian, I’m interested in digging into the work more, feeling a real connection with it.”

So it was that Launch Pad was born, an initiative for which Elson invites select overseas artists to respond to a prompt: to use the physical parameters of the ground floor mezzanine, atrium, and lower ground areas of her traditional, white-stucco-and-brick Holland Park house, with a minimalist interior renovated by architect Seth Stein, and to address the domestic environment of her family home and collection. “The architecture (both the modernized, customized interior and the traditional, standardized exterior), the other works in the collection, the nature of the commission itself (public vs. private, gallery vs. personal space) and inevitably, my own story and interests as the artists get to know me, are all aspects that are up for grabs, so to speak,” she says. At the end of this residency-cum-homespun exhibition, Elson opens her doors to the public—or at least, her extended network—for a series of programs around the resulting work on view.

In Faught she found a perfect candidate. Aside from his medium and aesthetics lending themselves to the domestic sphere, he is no stranger to site-specific work. Shortlisted for SFMOMA’s SECA Art Award in 2012, he created a series of his raggedy mixed-media textiles for a bespoke display at the Neptune Society Columbarium, in San Francisco, a temple tucked away in the city’s Richmond district, which is home to walls and walls of tchotchke-filled shrines to passed loved ones.

“I first saw his work at a show at Lisa Cooley Gallery in 2009, and I totally fell in love with it,” Elson remarks of an auspicious introduction to the artist’s work. “And it was funny because it was a very instinct buy and when it came here to London from New York it arrived in this enormous wooden crate, like seven feet tall, and I was afraid to open it because I knew that my family would hate it [laughs], so it stood in the kitchen for about a month and finally I took it out of the crate and put it somewhere and, sure enough, everyone was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ It’s this sort of woolly, tattered loose-thread thing…it had all this dangling yarn and saggy sequins and skirt trailed off the floor.” Later, at a dinner party, one of Elson’s guests, Glenn Adamson—a leading craft theorist and, now, director of the Museum of Art and Design in New York—launched into extended praise of Faught’s piece. “I was completely vindicated,” Elson smiles.

Though in this case Adamson knew Faught’s work well, it is these types of connections Elson hopes to forge through her program, introducing artists to her network of curators, collectors, and art-world insiders of various stripes. The first artist she worked with, for example, German artist Suse Weber, connected with a curator from London’s Whitechapel Gallery at Elson’s home. The two share an interest in performance and dance. “For my first artist, I really wanted someone who would engage with people who came to the house,” Elson says of inviting Weber to participate in Launch Pad. “She’s all about that, letting the people who talk to her somehow affect what the art looks like. The piece that [she made] was a huge coat-rack out of cardboard and wooden dowels, and it was interesting to see how people engaged with it as they walked through the door.”

Whether or not Launch Pad has opened doors for Faught and Weber remains moot, though it’s still early days for the program. In many ways, Elson’s form of patronage follows the age-old model, but it’s also rare that private collections are made available for public access. Is this a driving mission for Elson? “I really believe strongly in exposing people to the process of collecting art, because that’s the best way to support art making—to buy it and to engage with it,” she reflects. “And the more people can see that it’s not mystifying or difficult to grasp, the better.”

New forms of arts patronage and funding are constantly emerging—from open-sourcing support through Kickstarter campaigns to publications like The THING, which commissions artists to produce replicable objects for their pool of subscribers—but would Elson’s model translate to other cities? “I feel like here in London it feels easier to make a difference than it does in New York, where I think the stakes feel so high, and the amount of money you’d have to spend to get your foot in the door and get access to the networks that would make a difference for the artists I’m working with would be so expensive. Here it feels so much more personal and grassroots, in a way. It’s a smaller community and it just feels more tangible, like I can get my hands around it.” New York’s art world might be a particularly tough nut to crack, but the jury’s still out on whether Elson’s model will take hold in London, too. Stay tuned.

Josh Faught, How to Beat the High Cost of Living, 2009. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley Gallery

Josh Faught, Triage, 2009. Courtesy of Lisa Cooley Gallery.