Helen Toomer is a veteran in the creative and cultural industries, spanning 15 years in organising events, exhibitions and residencies.
What attracted you to the world of art?
I don’t think it was a choice really, it just happened. Seeing Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion when I was a teenager changed my life. I remember all my school friends running around and the artwork stopped me in my tracks – I could feel all this pain and sorrow.
Where have you travelled for work recently?
Since January I have been to London, Paris, Dallas, Miami, Chicago and New York.
What’s the key to launching PHOTOFAIRS New York in September?
It was a mammoth task and a sprint to launch. New York hasn’t had an art fair solely dedicated to contemporary photography and new media before. I was so nervous, but it was packed and really joyful.
What did you take away from the inaugural edition?
There’s nothing like experiencing art in person. I’d really like to focus on expanding the communities further. How can we continue to develop that audience experience, so people want to stay longer, converse more?
It felt like it was a snapshot of what’s going on now in the contemporary art world through the lens of the photographic medium and that’s definitely what we want to continue to showcase.
How does the art scene differ in the US to the UK?
They’re both really vibrant. I’m such a hybrid, when I’m in the UK I call the US home and vice versa. I think the US is more fast-paced and direct and the UK has more nuance and longer conversations around art. That’s a generalised statement but I gravitate towards both – I like the mix.
What inspired artist residency Stoneleaf Retreat?
The contemporary art market predominantly gives men chances. We want to support marginalised artists. Stoneleaf is an extension of our home in Hudson Valley, where we renovated the barns to become three studios.
We have three women artists at a time, or family residencies. We’ve had more than 50 artists since its inception in 2017, and about a dozen family residencies. I really do see it as an extension of our family. We welcome back our alumni often.
And what about support group Art Mamas Alliance?
I bonded with co-founder Katy Donoghue over sharing openly about motherhood, which is a rollercoaster. I was very vocal about my experience and the response was incredible.
When the pandemic hit, we started a weekly Zoom and invited friends. More people found out about it and then it became a membership group. Now we have more than 300 members. It’s a safe space to share, listen or support. Whatever serves you in that moment.
We have people that have been on calls and never spoken, but listening to people going through similar struggles has really helped them. I’m so grateful for the community.
Which up-and-coming artist should be on our radar?
Cheryl Mukherji. Her work is beautiful and expansive, and she’s a big burst of light.
Who’s your favourite artist?
Three artists who I’ve loved the longest would be Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Louise Bourgeois.
And your favourite gallery abroad?
Kurimanzutto in Mexico City, and I’d love to visit both TERN Gallery in Nassau, Bahamas, and Embajada in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
What’s been your most rewarding travel experience?
I have three! These are all trips that lasted three weeks to a month. Egypt when I was 19 years old on a gap year totally changed my life. I went with a group of people that I didn’t know and I loved it so much.
When I was 21, I went to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia which blew my mind.
And Peru in 2015 for my honeymoon was really special. We did so much hiking and epic train journeys.
And most challenging?
I got sick on all the trips above! But I also think that it’s when you get out of your comfort zone that it’s the most rewarding. There’s this great David Bowie quote: “Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”
What’s your dream destination?
I’ve always wanted to go to Japan, India and Copenhagen. I’d also love to revisit Morocco.
What’s your inflight entertainment pick?
Movies – I just watched Aftersun and could not stop crying.
What’s your indispensable travel gadget?
A Mary Poppins-style bag of everything. I travel with everything.