“It’s not a gallery, and I don’t like the word ‘museum’. Don’t make it schmaltzy, we are doing something serious here,” said Frank Cohen, the DIY magnate and one of Britain’s most important contemporary art collectors, who is about to open an art centre in London’s Bloomsbury next month — one that is very different.
“It’s a dairy,” said Mr Cohen of the 12,500 sq ft former Express Dairies milk depot, which he is transforming with Danish art collector and friend Nicolai Frahm from brewing milk culture into a centre of rather more conventional culture in the heart of London. It’s called the Dairy Art Centre.
“We’ve spent money on it, but it still has the old refrigeration units, which will be project spaces for upcoming artists we select, to develop their work,” Mr Cohen added.
But at the core of this new centre is a mission to bring art to the people — a down-to-earth approach in the art world, where single pieces can fetch hundreds of millions of dollars and remain locked in private collections.
Frank Cohen is different. Worth around £40 million, he grew up poor in north Manchester’s Jewish ghetto of Cheetham Hill.
“My father was a raincoat machinist in a factory, my mother never worked. We were never rich, we never had a car. But even as a kid I was hungry to go into the big world. My first job was selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door — on-the-knocker they called it. It was a Jewish firm owned by Harry Morris, called Norvac Electrics. I then went to work for a guy selling wallpaper on the markets,” recalled Mr Cohen.
In 1997, Mr Cohen sold his DIY chain of stores — a business built selling that wallpaper from the back of an old ambulance. Since the 1970s, he has amassed one of the world’s finest collections of contemporary art and was a judge of the Turner Prize in 2003, the UK’s most publicised art award. He now commands around 2,000 pieces, rivalled in Britain as a collector only by his close friend Charles Saatchi. The Dairy, he firmly adds, is not a rival to the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea but its aim to make art accessible, he says, is drawn from his background.
“This is not about me as a person or my collection, it’s about what I’m trying to do to create a space in London where all people can appreciate art as much as collectors — students, schools — we’ll run education, courageous talks, film shows, performing arts. We can show anything in there,” he said.
The Dairy’s first show opens in April featuring eclectic Swiss performance artist, painter and sculptor John Armleder, whose work includes amalgamations of furniture, painted walls and everyday objects, which perhaps wink at Mr Cohen’s DIY past. It is a signal to the spread of arts The Dairy will offer, which will also draw on Mr Cohen’s own fascinating collection.
That collection includes a bronze of Hitler as a clown by the Chapman Bothers, (The Clown That Lost His Humour) whose many grotesquely humorous works have often referred to the Holocaust.
“The clown talks to me. It’s not something I necessarily want to put in my house. It’s a museum piece. But it’s depicting what a nasty piece of work Hitler was, where some people are frightened to even mention his name,” said Mr Cohen. “It’s done in a humorous way. It’s important.”
Frank Cohen’s collection includes dozens of pieces by British Jewish artists, whom he said he bought, not because they were Jewish, but because their art is a major contribution to British society. “A lot of artists are Jewish; I do appreciate them. David Bomberg, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff…there are so many.
Jewish people have made a significant contribution to life in this country. You get all this propaganda and everyone thinks all Jews talk about is what goes on with the Palestinians. To be honest with you, it’s about time someone told the world how great the Jews have been in history and what achievements they’ve had in every field”.