Patrick John Mills is an artist and gallery owner who resides in Ottawa, Canada. I was referred to him through an artist I know who lives in Montreal. I’m thrilled that Mills agreed to an interview with me because this is the best interview I’ve done with anyone in the art world to date. Mills is warm, refreshingly candid and passionate about “real” art and artists. Read our chat and see for yourself.
MICHAEL: Hey Patrick. First off, I must say that you’re probably one of the most daring art dealers I’ve come across.
PATRICK: I understand that I am an art dealer. But I have difficulty with that word. I am an artist. I own a gallery www.patrickjohnmills.ca I promote art and sell art. I try to show and promote art that is less commercial, less safe. I try to show art that is less likely to be exhibited due to its raw, expressive nature. I am tired of going to art galleries that are more like places to purchase pretty pictures. Tired is not really the correct word … bored, not stimulated or inspired. Years ago, I was pissed off, but it grew out of my own frustration. Now I am still pissed off, but not angry … if that makes sense. I am just bored with commercial art galleries that show safe, happy, juried, family-friendly art. I love artists who need to create. Need ... not wish to paint … HAVE to paint. It is essential for them to create and express.
MICHAEL: I think it’s interesting that you’re also an artist.
PATRICK: I started painting at age twenty. After six years of painting, I started approaching art galleries in the hope to exhibit and sell my paintings. At the time I was living in Vancouver. Finally I felt I had a healthy body of work. I selected my twelve best works out of three to four hundred paintings. I got countless letters of rejection. For two years, every month I visited the art galleries in Vancouver. The art that was being show I considered to be very professional, commercial, well done, but it failed to emotionally stimulate any inner dialogue. The only response I encountered after visiting 12 or more galleries was frustration. The art was just too safe, too happy or too pleasant. I left to London England. I lived there for six years. I managed to make something happen. When I returned to Ottawa I knew I had to start my own gallery.
MICHAEL: And you clearly did.
PATRICK: I have always been attracted to the “Group of Seven.” I especially love A.Y. Jackson’s paintings and Lawren Harris’ work. In Canada, I have found that we have an abundance of culture. But this culture is happy, joyful, juried, family-friendly culture. So I made 120 black and white posters “Call to Artists – I Killed the Group of Seven” and posted it on the internet. The response I received was overwhelming. I had over five hundred artists submit from around the world and over two thousand email in less than a month.
MICHAEL: You know, I visit international art fairs and on the rare occasions when I do actually see really cool, challenging or "difficult" work, I'm usually the only one standing there admiring it. Meantime, the art dealer will always come over and say something like, "Well, we're trying to give people something different." Galleries are businesses that always seem to be struggling. I think more galleries would love to exhibit challenging work, but can you blame them for promoting things they believe will appeal to a mass audience?
PATRICK: Paying rent, making car payments, wages, lights, water, the costs of running a gallery.... yes galleries have a lot of bills. Selling art for the masses makes sense. (But) over the years, I have gone to art galleries only to notice that they exhibit artists that repeat the same style of work. The artist keeps painting the same thing over and over again. The artists got so tired of being poor... tired of trying to find shows and make sales. So once they finally get some results, they keep painting the same body of work. So, the gallery is happy and clients are happy. It seems like a cage. It seems like the art inside the artist is lost.
MICHAEL: How did this affect your work as an artist?
PATRICK: For the first ten plus years, I experienced being excluded from this above successful painting and selling. But I kept painting. Galleries would not represent my art. Changing series and developing thoughts made it very confusing for art dealers to promote and sell. But I had clients that would find me. Clients would come to my studio. It was uncommon that an individual would purchase only one painting. They would see all the expression and wish to have a few or many paintings. Most clients would purchase 3 or more paintings. Some collectors would purchase 5, 10, 18 and are still following my art. Every painting is different. So the clients can purchase and collect more.
MICHAEL: I love that. I know some artists who do different things all the time. As a collector, I find it very exciting.
PATRICK: Collectors get excited about purchasing art from multi-leveled artists. It is a common complaint I have heard, but I get it in terms of a compliment. The clients keep visiting the gallery every month. And where people go is where people shop. There are different kinds of customers. Some people simply wish to have a painting that will go in their living room. These clients do not return and do not purchase a lot of art. Collectors visit the gallery regularly. They love art. Collectors do not purchase art to decorate their walls. Collectors stuff their homes and offices. They are addicted to creative expression.
MICHAEL: That’s me!
PATRICK: I do not blame galleries or businesses for showing and selling works that appeal to the masses. I would simply encourage them to keep an open mind and try to expand their business plan to meet the needs of customers and collectors and help artists who really need to paint. My economic situation is very different. I struggled for ten years, but I had a lot of success in London, England. So when I returned to Canada, I had a significant amount of money. I own my gallery. I also have 6 rental incomes that pay all my expenses. So if I have a few bad months, there is no pressure. I can afford to take chances. I can afford to take risks in showing challenging, difficult art. The clients return every month to see something new and in the big picture, I service the needs of my clients.
MICHAEL: You're definitely in a cool position and it sounds like you have a great business model. I don't sense the same fear in you that I often
sense in other “art dealers," many of whom are very guarded. You really seem bold and daring. Is that just a natural part of who you are?
PATRICK: Bold and daring are not really words I would use to describe myself. My mother always listened to me. She valued what I said as a child. So I was not pushed to become any less than myself. My mother's open mind has really helped me. While I was growing up we were poor. I have never valued money. If you have a car, it breaks. Clothes get damaged and a house can burn down to the ground, but art is something in the soul. It is something that inspires us as human beings to live. I am very fortunate that I have the freedom to be an artist. Let me explain freedom. If I had a pen and paper I could write … if I have a stick, I can draw in the sand. If I did not have a studio, I would paint outside all year round. Freedom is to not accept walls in the mind. While I was at University, it was late at night … around 4:30 a.m. I was doing another all- nighter. I was in civil engineering. I had a 98% average. I was a young man. I did not know what I was wishing to do with my life. However, I knew that getting a good job, making money, driving an expensive car and putting my children in private schools were not things that I valued. Just because I was good at math, did not mean that I enjoyed it. A few months later Tara Bissett (friend) let me use her paints and brushes. That was the beginning.
MICHAEL: You view art the same way as I do as a collector and writer. Whether you're creating it, collecting it or writing about it, art really does nourish the soul. However, it has become so limited by commerce and the "art market." Most people who know nothing about art only really think about it in terms of monetary value. What more can we do to help change that?
PATRICK: When I listen to a song, I either relate to it, love it embrace it … or I move on. When I look at a painting or work of art, it takes more time. But essentially I am either touched by it or not. I cannot speak for others and art in terms of monetary value. That is an abstract concept that is distant to my soul and spirit. When I was in London, I worked on this series of paintings titled: “Study of the London Underground.” The Prince of Morocco purchased one of them. People started purchasing my work like crazy. People waited outside my home for hours for me to return so that they could purchase some paintings. Then I stopped painting that series. I even destroyed 5 or 6 completed works. A year and a half later, I was working on another series of paintings titled: “Willow World.” Again, everyone started buying them. In under a month, I made $35,000. I purchased a property in London. I could have kept painting those works and made a lot of money, but again I stopped. I was done painting those paintings. It was time to create something new.
MICHAEL: I get it. Appeasing people isn’t your thing. It serves no real purpose.
PATRICK: I am not really interested in trying to change people. I do not have the time or inclination to try. When people come to my gallery, I do not try to sell the art. If the individual needs the art, it’s for sale. If they wish to purchase it … great. I do not try to sell art. I just like people to come to the gallery to experience, appreciate, be stimulated, moved, inspired and talk to the artists. My goal is to welcome people, talk about the art and tell them about the artist … tell them what inspired the artist and tell them what the artist was trying to communicate. I like to listen to what they like and dislike about the art in the gallery. I get to learn other points of view. This is the value of art. The art is the art. If you’re interested in the monetary value of things, I would recommend purchasing properties. If you are interested in some really good art.... my door is open.
MICHAEL: Nice. How do you determine which artists to show in your gallery? Is there some "science" to it or do you just show whoever you like?
PATRICK: When I look at which artists to show, I let my heart decide. There is no science. (It’s based on) when I see art work that is necessary for the artist to create. If it is real, well done, inspired ... I respond. I try to keep an open mind. When I like an artist, I just let them do their thing. I want them to develop in an open and free manner. Sometimes this works, sometimes it fails. But chances and experimentation … life is filled with everything. As should art. Owning my own gallery and having no stress to sell art ... there is no pressure to sell art. Clients, friends, visitors... get to enjoy the art. This is what works for me. I am very thankful that people come to my art openings. I have an open bar, free drinks, self serve ... enjoy. People enjoy themselves. It’s a very relaxed environment. People feel welcomed and they stay longer, talk to others and get to meet the artists. It’s fun. I really love organizing events. It’s just such a joy. This approach is very open. Artists are pretty amazed that I work like this. In Ottawa, for an art gallery to average 300 to 400 people to show up for an art opening … this is a dream for most artists.
50 or less people... never.
100 - 175 people... low turnout.
200 - 300 people... below average
300 - 350 people... average but good
350 - 500 people... good
500 plus... fucking great party.
2000 in a weekend... yes.
All this helps promote art, community, living. I love art. And artists need to share their talent with people. And when so many people come to see the art, I attract more artists, and more people. It is simple.
MICHAEL: Thanks so much for this chat Patrick. Time and space prevents me from including everything we chatted about, but I hope we can do this again soon. You're a rock star!