Much of what you read in our annual report on museum attendance is concerned with big numbers. But amid the hordes are thousands of unique, intimate communions between art and people. We asked leading art world figures to recall an early encounter that inspired them to pursue art as a career. For some, there was no such event: when the artist Mark Wallinger was invited to contribute to this article, he simply said: “To be honest, I always wanted to be an artist.” But others have had Damascene moments. Here are their stories.
Frances Morris. Image: Hugo Glendinning 2016, courtesy Tate
Director, Tate Modern, London
Morris studied history at Cambridge and art history at the Courtauld Institute before joining Tate in 1987 as a curator of Modern art. She became Tate Modern’s director in 2016.
I saw Malevich’s 1978 retrospective at the Pompidou Centre one Sunday when I was an au pair and very miserable, in Enghien-les-Bains [the Parisian suburb]. The Pompidou was my first adult museum, really. And I loved Russian history; I had been to Russia in 1977 and experienced the Soviet Union, and was weirdly in love with it. So having this immersion in Malevich’s work and just this complete and utter puzzle of the Black Square, I thought: “I want to know why this is so compelling. How did we get here? How did it connect with the revolution?” I went on to study history, followed by art history, and I realised then what I have always felt very strongly—that history of art is really part of history. I’ve always slightly baulked at the slightly connoisseurial echo chamber of art history as taught then at Cambridge. Art history arrived for me in a museum setting, not in a university setting. And that’s why, in the end, I had to leave the academic world and wanted to be a curator.
Malevich exhibition at Tate Modern in 2014. Image: © Tate Photography, courtesy Tate
Rashid Johnson. Image: Eric Vogel, courtesy Hauser & Wirth
After studying photography in Chicago, Johnson quickly gained prominence and has since diversified his practice to include sculpture and painting.
When I was 19, I worked at a one-hour photo development place called Wolf Camera and I was in the back room in a glass cage, just printing out photos. I was listening to National Public Radio throughout the day and there was an interview show hosted by Terry Gross called Fresh Air, and on that show was the photographer Roy DeCarava. He was talking about an exhibition he was opening at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hearing him talk about the images and about his approach was almost everything I needed; it just changed how I saw the world, how I saw photography and how I saw what images were capable of. It was honest and earnest and serious; it was poetic. And you know what I fell in love with? The fact that he was in love with something as simple as clicking the shutter of a camera and being able to be a storyteller as a result of those moments. That radio interview solidified that I wanted to be an artist. They teach you in undergrad and grad school about making art, but they never told me to fall in love with art. And I think it’s the thing you need most. You have to love it because it’s going to fucking kill you every day to do it.
The photographer Roy DeCarava, Image: AP Photo/Martin Cabrera
Huma Bhabha. Image: courtesy Huma Bhabha and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Bhabha makes totemic sculptures that conjure a wealth of historic references. She is among five shortlisted artists for the next Fourth Plinth commission in London’s Trafalgar Square.
I saw the Charioteer (around 474BC) in the museum of Delphi when I went with my college to Greece on a two-week trip. I was already studying art and making art, but that’s the one piece that has always stood out as something exceptional for me. I had travelled to Rome and Athens with my parents when I was younger, around nine, but this time I was 22 and I was with my college, the Rhode Island School of Design. I was older, and able to truly appreciate how exquisite this bronze is—how something that is made out of metal and is hollow inside can make you feel like it’s something real. It’s a very intense sculpture. It has these beautiful eyes, and I was drawn to that power.
Bhabha was drawn to the Charioteer sculpture during a college trip. Image: Dennis Jarvis
Philip-Lorca diCorcia. Image: Norbert Miguletz, courtesy David Zwirner
A key artist-photographer of recent decades, diCorcia creates colour images that fuse chance and orchestration, the real and the fictional, which have been shown widely internationally.
In the town where I grew up, Hartford, Connecticut, there was a good museum, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and I was always drawn to one thing there. It’s typical of a child’s imagination—it was a Salvador Dalí painting, Paranoiac-Astral Image (1934). It’s very small and it’s not like his other works. It doesn’t have secret images or anything like that; it’s basically a beach scene. Its size really drew me to it. It has a certain photographic quality. When I was a teenager, I would take off from home with my duffle bag and I had a Salvador Dalí book that was bound in metal. It must have weighed half the weight of my duffle bag. I dragged that thing around and I finally abandoned it in the Midwest somewhere. So I must have had some affection for him. The element of chance, which was a part of Surrealism both technically and conceptually, was something that influenced me. Being a photographer, there is always an element of chance. Now that I talk about it, I can see why I was interested in it and why it led to me becoming a photographer.
Dalí’s Paranoiac-Astral Image (1934). Image: Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art
David Shrigley. Image: Robert Perry, The Scotsman. Courtesy David Shrigley and Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
With works like the giant thumb that currently occupies the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, Shrigley has pulled off that rare feat of achieving both wide public and niche art world acclaim.
In 1982, my father took me to what is now called Tate Britain to see a Jean Tinguely show. It made a really big impression on me. I grew up in the suburbs of Leicester and one wasn’t exposed to contemporary art at all, really. The Tinguely show was the first time that I saw art that wasn’t formal painting or sculpture. These giant machines had a real presence in the space. Tinguely is a slightly random point at which to access the world of contemporary art, but I started to read about him and New Realism, which is a slight footnote in the pantheon of contemporary art. And from that I became really interested in Dada. Getting an interest in Dada via Jean Tinguely is something that has stayed with me. Whenever anybody asks me who my favourite artist is, I always say Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol and, in a way, liking Duchamp is a signifier for liking the Dada movement.
Jean Tinguely’s Heureka (1964) at Zürichhorn, Zürich. Image: Roland Fischer
Sean Scully. Image: Liliane Tomasko, courtesy Timothy Taylor Gallery
For five decades, Scully has made abstract paintings that are monumental yet poetically painterly. He has shown in major museums worldwide and recently gained broad acclaim in China.
When I was about 17, I was working as a messenger boy and graphic designer on Chancery Lane [in central London] and there was an exhibition in a little gallery on Charing Cross Road, the kind of gallery that doesn’t exist anymore. There were paintings by John Bratby of Volkswagens and kitchens and views into the street and sunflowers. I went on my lunch hour and saw these paintings and they seemed so extraordinarily accessible, and of things that were also in my world—the same kind of kitchen sink, the same kind of view out the window where I lived, because I also lived in suburbia, in Sydenham. I thought the paintings were just extraordinarily honest and direct and utterly disarming. It’s a source of great disappointment that he didn’t go on to become a great genius, which he certainly could have. I still like his paintings, and I have since bought four of them.
Scully has bought four of John Bratby’s paintings. Image: courtesy Sean Scully
Taco Dibbits. Image: Ben Roberts, courtesy Rijksmuseum
Director, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Dibbits began his career as a curator at the Rijksmuseum and then moved to Christie’s before returning to the Rijskmuseum in 2002. He became its director in 2016.
When I was 17, I was going to study industrial design at the technical university in Amsterdam, which was very much science. I had suddenly decided I wanted take a gap year, and went to Siena and was completely bowled over by the Maestà (1308-11) by Duccio. First of all, the centrepiece of the Madonna is deeply moving. It has an abstract quality to it in its simplicity. On the other hand, I found the composition of the entire altarpiece, which consists of so many different panels, deeply fascinating. It was mainly an emotional experience that drew me to it, even though I am not religious. And then I stayed much longer in Siena than planned; I spent three months there. That visit was when I decided I wanted to professionally be involved in art. It was the end of industrial design; it became about art history.
Duccio’s Maestà (1308-11), in Siena cathedral
Though she grew up in the UK, Kher lives and works in Delhi. She makes paintings and sculptures, and is best known for her creative use of bindis, the forehead decoration worn in India.
I had a really great art teacher at school [in Surrey, southern England]: Martin Shaw. He took us on a trip to Amsterdam—I think I must have been 11 or 12. We went to the museums, but what was really extraordinary was that we went to an artist’s studio. It was on the canal and the studio was magical. You walked in, and you could smell turpentine and oil paint. And he was a polymathic artist; he was making sculpture, painting, drawing. I don’t remember the name of the artist; I just remember looking at this amazing studio. I have this one very vivid memory of coffee stains on a table, and brushes and plaster everywhere, and just thinking: “This feels like the nicest room I’ve ever been in.” We did life drawing classes in his studio and that, for me, was the most exciting thing I had ever done.
A school trip to an artist's studio in Amsterdam "was the most exciting thing I had ever done", Kher says (Image: Lynn Friedman via Flickr)
Originally trained as a musician, the Hong Kong-based Young has gained attention as a sound and installation artist. He features in both Documenta and Venice this year.
I started out as a pianist. I wasn’t amazing but I really wanted to play with the school orchestra, so I picked up two instruments that nobody wanted to learn just so I could get in: the viola and the double bass. In my first concert, we played Fauré’s Pavane and Grainger’s Mock Morris. I’d heard the school orchestra before, but I don’t think I really heard them until I was on stage with them. A whole bunch of people breathing in total synchronicity is an amazing thing to experience, especially up close. I think that was when I decided that I wanted to study music. And then, in 2004, I collaborated with new media artist Christopher Lau on an interactive piece that involved the audience text-messaging their prayers to be visualised and sonified, which was a part of the Microwave Media Art Festival in Hong Kong that year. I wrote music for the work. I was pretty clueless about what Chris was actually doing, but it turned out to be a really important education experience for me. In that show, I saw Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post, and a whole bunch of really interesting pieces involving sound. That was when I realised that the world of sound and music is much bigger than what I knew it to be.
Getting into the school orchestra convinced Young he wanted to study music (Image via Flickr)
Director, Dia Foundation, New York
Morgan made her name on both sides of the Atlantic, as a curator at the ICA, Boston, at Tate Modern for many years, and now as the director of Dia in New York.
Though I could credit my interest in art history to a couple of enlightened teachers, my real interest in museums was probably a result of the many hours I spent in them as a teenager in London. Tate, the Institute of Contemporary Art, The Photographers’ Gallery and the National Gallery provided free spaces for me and friends to meet and occupy a café table undisturbed for hours. They were social spaces with the frisson of spectatorship—looking at art, looking at people, being looked at—and without the obligation to buy anything. Along the way, I became more and more interested in what took place inside them. As hybrid public and yet interior spaces they hold a special importance, and I now have the exceptional pleasure of thinking about how to make Dia’s spaces open to new generations looking for a place to experience together.
The National Gallery (Image: Alex/microwavedboy/Flickr creative commons)
Creed works in a variety of media, from sculpture to rock songs, all of which are given numbers like “Work No. 227: The lights going on and off”, and treated with equal importance.
Martin Creed. Photo: Hugo Glendinning.
I grew up with my mum and dad being very into art, going to a lot of museums and galleries. When I was at school and I was wondering what I should do, I was into lots of things and I wasn't sure. I was really into art but I was reading a lot, and I was really into psychology, and I was into music; I learned the violin and piano. So I was thinking I might study music, English or psychology. But in the end, I think the reason I tried to study art was because I thought it could have all the other things in it. All those other things are kind of like sub-divisions of expressing yourself. Everything was a mystery, I was at the mercy of my feelings and art seemed to be an area where your feelings could be turned into something directly. It felt like studying art was much more free than studying other things, and I think it turned out to be true. I went to the Slade [School of Fine Art], which is part of a university; I knew a lot of people who were studying other things and they all complained that their departments had a very narrow view, whereas at art school you could basically do anything you wanted and say that was your work.
"At art school you could basically do anything you wanted and say that was your work," Creed says
Prouvost’s rich multimedia works blur the borders between fiction and reality, including in her family relationships. She has, for instance, created work as a fictional conceptualist grandfather.
Maybe the family home was the exhibition that was the most important—this display of work that is around us. When I would go to my grandparents’ home, there was this woman with her boobs out just welcoming you. And later, my grandad would ask me: “Why are you making contemporary art? Look at this woman bathing in a waterfall.” It was a copy of a Fragonard painting [the Bathers (1761-65)]. This sort of exchanges that made me position myself as an artist.
Then I went to college in Saint Luc in Tournai in Belgium. They took us on a day trip to Cologne and that was the first time that I saw contemporary art in the flesh. I saw a James Turrell—a blue room—and that had a massive effect on me, as a bodily experience. By chance, my parents were working in Venice; when I visited the city the Biennale was on and I saw a few things randomly there. I was the fact of bumping into art more than going to a show that became another magic element, like bumping into art in your own home. You are in the work, you are not sure where it belongs between life and art. And that’s something I want to work with more and more, where there are fewer limitations between the two and the way they’re experienced.
“Why are you making contemporary art? Look at this woman bathing in a waterfall,” Prouvost's grandfather told her