We are sitting in a cosy café in Soho with Tot Taylor – author, musician, composer, pop-singer and London art dealer who curates art exhibitions worldwide. Together with Virginia Damtsa he founded the Riflemaker – a contemporary art gallery in Beak Streat, Soho (now considered Mayfair, just to confuse you more!) which was also once mentioned as “the art world's hip new location” by Vogue. Tot is a most interesting, engaging and insightful companion. His musical achievements include various pop-hits and the score for the National Theatre’s eight-hour production of Picasso’s Women, as well as numerous theatre and film soundtracks and record productions. Within an hour we discussed the situation on contemporary art-market, the gallery business in London, then moved towards more philosophical realms of creativity, English literature and finally, Tot’s own novel The Story of John Nightly, which managed to become legendary even prior to its publication. This opus magnum of his of truly epic proportions (almost 900 pages!) was published by Unbound/Penguin in 2017 and by Heyne Verlag/Random House in Germany in 2019. And 2019 also marked Tot’s return to music-making: first, he re-arranged and recorded his schooldays song Featurette, then he released a beautiful new vinyl single Yoko, oh! (already sold out). You should keep checking out his new releases, as more are on the way.
How did you become a co-owner of the Riflemaker?
The gallery opened in 2003. So, oddly enough, now it is one of the longest running contemporary art galleries in London. There was a gallery opening boom between 2002 – 2004: whole 19 galleries opened the same time as we did. They have all now closed, so we are among those few survivors from that phase. Strictly speaking, the Riflemaker is two galleries joined together. Virginia Damtsa had previously curated a number of art shows in London and at some point, we realised that we had been curating the same artists. I also had a space, which I was first going to use for a musical club but then decided to open a gallery instead.
How did you get interested in contemporary art?
Originally, I am a composer who studied classical music. So, when I was still at school, at the age of 15-16, I was working for record labels, recording music played by classical orchestras. I always used to work in the studio called Polygram which was a well-known German record company with its office in Bond Street. According to the Musicians’ Union regulations of that time, one could work only for three consecutive hours and then needed to have an hour’s break. I would do my session with the musicians and then wander about for an hour. As I originally came from Cambridge, not from London, I did not know my way, so I would keep close to the studio to avoid getting lost. As you might know, recording studios are nearly always situated in basement floors, for they need a lot of room and good sound-proofing. In those days Polygram was located underneath Sotheby’s, so whenever I would come up above from the recording studio, there was Sotheby’s auction house. Subsequently, every day or three times a day I would walk around the auction rooms. I did not know anything about art, but the people who were looking after exhibitions got to know my face, so they would give me the catalogues. That was really how it started. And then I used to have a game with myself: I would turn each page of the catalogue and I would immediately guess who the artist was. Obviously, this took me several years to know, while also helping to take my mind off music.
Do you collect art yourself? You were previously a very successful musician, so why did you decide to switch over to another field?
I started to buy art myself in mid-1980s: I bought my first piece probably around 1985. And then I started to collect it properly. Also, in 1991 I started running collectors’ groups in London. I had about 15 different groups made up of 4-5 people each, who were in the film, music or theatre business but did not have time to go to galleries. They were obviously interested in art and in figures like Francis Bacon or Andy Warhol in particular. Besides, they had to make album covers, production posters, which meant they had to be aware of the trends. The only time they had off were Saturday mornings: it is very hard to get film crews to work on a weekend. So, every Saturday for 18 years running, I would put these people on a mini-bus or in a few taxi cabs, and would take them on a tour of contemporary galleries. We tried to get to as many as we could, usually visiting about 12 to 15 galleries. We had a system, according to which all 5 people in the group would decide which work to buy. I could guide them to their purchase, but eventually they would decide themselves. Each person within a group would contribute a £1,000, so we would end up with £5,000. If we did not buy anything on the first Saturday, we would have £10,000 next week, and so on. When finally the group bought something, the members could keep the artwork in turns for up to 3 months, and then had to pass it on further. So, after six consecutive Saturdays, it would usually mean that every person in the group had a work of art of some description. And then it would get to a point, when instead of passing it round for the second time, they would ask: “Can I buy it out from the group?” According to the rules, one could do this at a double price. Eventually, all these people acquired valuable collections of contemporary art. They had the advantages of buying ahead of the curve: I knew the galleries and the artists; we regularly did lots of studio visits and could get a good price. Some works we had bought then came up at auctions later and did extremely well. This all was before the opening of Tate Modern (in 2000) and before the art boom in London which also coincided with Riflemaker’s opening. So, when I opened the gallery, the people who were in my collectors groups became my gallery clients. And now we also have four other spaces that we can use.
Which exhibitions did the gallery became known for?
The main idea was to have a gallery that could be accessible rather than aloof. The Riflemaker became famous for discovering talented young artists. We eventually became famous for spotting the artists before they would become famous and for promoting them.
Our early exhibitions were immediate hits. The first artist that we showed in 2004 was Jamie Shovlin (a British conceptual artist exploring tensions between the truth and fiction– I.K.). We did not want to have a star or anyone famous because this would have immediately stamped the gallery with a certain profile. So, we decided to show a student, for Shovlin was still studying at the Royal College of Art then. By 2006, he had his solo show at the Tate when he was still in his mid-20s, and we managed to organise for him a show in New York. Shovlin’s first exhibition of about 120 drawings was all bought off by Charles Saatchi for £25,000. He went on showing them at the Saatchi gallery as soon as the exhibition at the Riflemaker was over. It was just an amazing start for us as the gallery.
Our second artist was Christopher Bucklow, formerly a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was in charge of William Blake’s archive. So, we did a collaboration: we approached the V&A suggesting to display Bucklow’s works alongside those of Blake’s. And strangely the V&A approved and gave us some William Blake’s prints and drawings.
In 2005 we started a feminist art program which ended in 2015. The works of Judy Chicago, the American feminist pioneer of the 1970s, were constantly exhibited at Riflemaker. In 2015 they were exhibited at the gallery stands at Frieze Masters, and eventually made their way into the Tate’s show The World Goes Pop. Another famous feminist artist we worked with was Liliane Lijn. She had her exhibition at the Pompidou centre in Paris in summer 2016. We also promoted Penelope Slinger, who makes black and white photo-collages. She has just had her solo show at Hayward Gallery in summer 2016. Yoko Ono also joined the program by doing a series of performances at the Riflemaker in 2009: she re-enacted some performances she had only done with John Lennon.
Which artists do you collaborate with now?
We now are collaborating with 30 artists. We are not just working with an artist for a year but aim for 10 years, or forever. We do have long-term contracts with most of them. However, the major problem is that other galleries interfere, as soon as the artist becomes famous, so the gallery has to make efforts to retain the artist. This is a recent trend: previously there was loyalty between the gallery and artist, but not now, when artists aspire to work with Gagosian and other powerhouse galleries. Still, most of our artists have stayed with us because we are good at selling their works and because we have been very good at PR. We have been featured everywhere from New York Times to Vogue. And we do not even hire a PR company, which points to a great amount of natural interest towards us. We organise a show for each artist every two years.
What do you consider to be most exciting about your job?
Most people tend to open the gallery to show the work they love themselves, and to see whether their taste or their ideas will find acknowledgement. For me the greatest fun lies in discovering something, and then seeing the public go mad about it. We have been lucky; we had that about twenty times. Certainly, the reverse also happens, when you discover something, and you love it, but nobody likes it. However, it may pick up later and even make its impact on culture in general.
You are the author of the 1000 page novel The Story of John Nightly which explores the nature of creativity and mixes the real and imaginary in the tale of a young singer-songwriter tracing his career from the late 1960s to 2006, his rise and fall, contrasting his creative peak and subsequent fade into obscurity. So, what is creativity for you?
At some point I thought it was interesting to compare Old Master paintings with symphonies. I was interested to find out, if the works follow same conventions, have same ambitions, or same ideas. Essentially, by making a piece of art, or a piece of music (whether it is classical, pop, or jazz), one is trying to show one’s humanity, the deep reality of what one is as a human being. It can be a good exercise to consider a work of art or book in the format of something else. You can look at a symphony and see how this relates to a visual art work.
As for the novel, it was first published in 2017. Those who are interested in having an immersive experience, may also take the opportunity to produce their own song for a day at Abbey Road studios when purchasing the book. The novel itself is dedicated to John Nightly’s creative and destructive journey. The creativity, as we know, frequently has a destructive element to it, and affects the creator and people around this person. The ideas of Freud about the death wish, self- destructing are now just everyday situations. The book is not about my experience, because I made a point of combining the stories of many people. The protagonist is about 200 people rolled into one person. In order to make the novel absolutely real, the songs referred to as hits of John Nightly, had also to be written and roughly recorded in demo form during the fifteen years of the novel-writing process. However, this is something I decided to concentrate upon after the publication of the book.
So, please, tell us about the new songs released in autumn 2019?
These are three new songs, each in the form of a letter. The first is a love-letter – to my favourite Beatle – Yoko Ono (Yoko, oh). The second is a letter, perhaps a sick note, to my teenage self (Featurette). The third is a letter of intent, to Donald Trump (let’s wait and see).
Yoko, oh, is a mesmerising work. Please, tell me more about its creation.
I was at school when I first heard John Lennon’s Oh, Yoko from Imagine. I wondered why there’d never been an answer record to Oh, Yoko. So, I’ve written one. Yoko, oh (the official answer to Oh, Yoko) was released in October 2019, in two vinyl ltd editions of 500.