With a career spanning four decades and counting, gallery owner Trish Clark continues to be challenged, stimulated, enriched and sustained by her first love: art.
When Trish Clark established her namesake gallery in the 80s, her great eye, fierce passion for art and fearlessness in approaching prominent artists quickly made her one to watch in the art world. Now, 40 years into a career in the arts, Clark shows no sign of slowing down. “It’s quite remarkable that I’ve survived,” she laughs. It’s the phenomenal capacity of art to engender wonder that keeps her hooked, which is of great benefit to Kiwi art enthusiasts as her Auckland gallery has become a go-to for great contemporary works.
She opened her original space in Auckland’s High Street in 1984, and while she says resilience and adaptability have been integral to her success, she confesses serendipity has played a large role, too. “I didn’t have a business plan, put it like that!” she says. What Clark did have, unsurprisingly, was an immense love of art. “There’s clearly evidence that early humans have always made art, and that it was an important avenue of expression for them,” she says. “And I have always felt in my own life that art was just the same as needing water or needing food; I always needed art.”
While she struggles to pinpoint exactly where that appetite came from, Clark says she grew up with beauty around her. “Dad had a very finely honed aesthetic sense, and my mother used to paint, and my uncle taught art,” she says.
Clark’s father, Tom Clark, founded beloved ceramics manufacturer Crown Lynn and, as a child, Clark loved to go with him to the factory and admire the pottery. “I was fortunate in that I had numerous opportunities via my father to experience beautiful design, beautiful architecture, beautiful things.” Clark recalls making her way around Auckland’s galleries aged as young as 13. “People treated me with great disdain because I was just a kid in a school uniform,” she says.
But Kees and Tine Hos, founders of the notable New Vision Gallery, saw her potential and she credits them with being instrumental in getting her started with collecting. “They could see that I had a hunger and an innate understanding of art, so they would take me into the stockroom and show me things. So, of course, when I was 18 and bought my first artwork, I bought it from them.”
Despite her devotion to art, when Clark left school she studied politics at the University of Auckland. “When I went to university, I didn’t want to study things I knew and loved, so I never studied art history, I never studied English literature,” she says. “Politics was the department that at that time was definitively the most lively; it felt at the leading edge of thinking and action.” She graduated with an MA in Political Studies and went on to develop a pilot programme for adult Aboriginal education in Far North Queensland. After that, she was the first woman to demand and be paid equal wages on a prawn-fishing boat in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Following further international travel, Clark returned to NZ “with a distinct desire to somehow work with art”.
“Essentially, art is one of my great loves. English literature is a second great love, and architecture is a third,” she says. “Those are the great loves that I have, and political activism and social good, to me, underpin everything – they underpin the whole of life.”
Clark had a burning drive to have her own gallery, and in 1984 her dream came to fruition with the opening of her space on Auckland’s High Street. Clark approached numerous artists whose work she admired, including Milan Mrkusich, Gordon Walters, Max Gimblett and Billy Apple.
She managed to convince Mrkusich and Walters to be represented by her before the gallery had even opened. “I just rang up these elder statesmen and said, ‘Look, I love your work and I’m opening a gallery and I’d like to represent you,’” she says. “Knowing what I know now, I think, ‘Oh my God!’ I was so young and naive! But they said, ‘Come and see me,’ so I went and saw them and just spent time with them in the studio and we talked about their work and they said yes.”
Clark relinquished her gallery in 1989 to raise her children, turning to high-level art consultancy until she eventually reopened with her space on Bowen Avenue in 2014. “I swore when I went out of the gallery that I wouldn’t have another one until all my children had left home, because when you’re working so intensely with artists there’s only so much emotional energy you have,” she explains.
Clark loves art from all eras despite owning a contemporary gallery. “The reality is, living in NZ, there’s not a huge amount of historic art available,” she says. “And I made that choice to live here rather than live abroad, really because I didn’t feel completely at home anywhere else.” But her countless trips over the years have given her an understanding of the continuum between ancient art of all cultures and contemporary art. “For me, when I look at really, really good art, it has a living quality.”
Clark has had to rejig her exhibition schedule for the year due to border closures meaning artists based overseas are unable to make their way to NZ. Clark’s new space in Grey Lynn opened just a few weeks before lockdown and although that was initially disappointing, she was soon able to see the bright side. “The pandemic has slowed things down and that thing about pausing, reflecting, resetting – I’ve taken that very much to heart.” She has reduced the opening hours of the gallery to give herself more time for herself, her family and her loved ones, as well as for forming deeper relationships with artists and collectors.
Trish Clark Gallery, 142 Great North Road, Grey Lynn, Auckland, trishclark.co.nz