Let’s fill this town with artists: interview with Mark Cass

With stores within walking distance of many of our galleries and the same cherished sense of family and heritage, it was only a matter of time until we joined forces with the UK’s leading art supplies retailer, Cass Art.

Along with hosting our Scarlett Raven and Marc Marot exhibitions at their Islington and Glasgow stores, they kindly donated the winners’ prizes for our 2018 Young Fine Artist scheme and joined our judging panel for our Summer Exhibition the same year. To celebrate our collaborations, we grabbed Cass Art’s founder and CEO, Mark Cass, for an exclusive interview for our Fine Art Collector magazine.

Art is in your blood…talk us through your family’s legacy!

Our family has been involved with art for many generations. My great-great uncle, Paul Cassirer, was an influential art dealer and a promoter of the Impressionism movement in Europe. My father founded the Cass Sculpture Foundation in 1992, and my sister is an artist.

Cass Art is now an institution, but how did it all begin?

In 1984, I was running a large art and craft business in London, but then I got the opportunity to take over 13 Charing Cross Road, at the back of the National Gallery – which is probably the best-located art shop in the world thanks to its many famous visitors, including Winston Churchill and Claude Monet.

At that time I had little money, but as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The landlord had heard of my family and I opened the store and employed a manager who was himself an artist. That was my first moment of realisation that our products need to be explained by someone who has knowledge of using them.

What challenges did you face?

The fantastic chaps at Winsor & Newton quite insightfully recognised that a great many art supply stores in London had ceased trading, and advised me to turn my attention to filling that gap. After doing my homework, it appeared that most of the closures were as a result of the emergence of the digital world.

I sat down with Angus Hyland – one of the partners of the world’s largest independent design consultancy, Pentagram – and developed the Cass Art brand, from its styling and product range, to our wider approach and company mission. We wanted to swim against the tide of the increasingly digital world and get everybody using their hands to make things again.

How did you make your store stand out?

I was very clear that art shops were not a new idea; they’d existed for years, so to be successful we’d need to reinvent ourselves. We knew the key would be recruiting staff that could unlock and demystify the products. London’s siren call to artists served us well, so there was a pool of newly-graduated artists on our doorstep. We were overjoyed both to share their knowledge and help them through their journey to pursuing their careers. Having the best products was always going to be key. We were strongly supported by some of the best suppliers and manufacturers in the world – many of whom have been operating since the 18th and 19th centuries.

It interests me that we seem to overlap a great deal with where your Castle Fine Art galleries are located. It speaks of our mutual company instincts to recognise where art communities are thriving and where our products will be best-received. So perhaps I should look to where you are opening your next gallery to gauge where the next Cass Art ought to be!

We love your motto, ‘Let’s fill this town with artists’. What does that mean to you?

It’s intentionally aspirational. We recently commissioned a survey that told us around 65% of people we asked would describe themselves as creative. The upsurge of art as a hobby amongst professionals such as doctors, architects and lawyers is one of the most noticeable growth areas. Not everyone has to be a gifted painter or be able to draw – anyone can derive pleasure from pouring paint onto canvas, working with colours, and finding their own way and method. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is for all.

"We wanted to swim against the tide of the increasingly digital world and get everybody using their hands to make things again."

Mark Cass

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Download this archive issue of our magazine for exclusive interviews, video content and art news. Plus in this special 25th anniversary edition, we reveal our best moments so far.

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