Founders of the international Eye Programme, directors of the London STARTnet Fair and collectors of contemporary Asian art, Serenella and David Ciclitira announced the launch of a new digital art platform STARTnet in October 2020. Having been a serious driving force in the contemporary art world for over a decade, they are admired for their ethos, pioneering vision and a strong passion for emerging contemporary art.

Professionally, David and Serenella come from a media background. David is Chairman of Live Company Group plc (LVCG) and has played a significant role in shaping today's satellite broadcasting and sponsorship landscape. However, it is Serenella who has been trained as an art professional (she holds an Honours Degree in Art History from Trinity College, Dublin). Therefore, curating and selecting artworks for the exhibitions is her responsibility. “I am not involved in any commercial activity”, she says, emphatically. “I collect, I buy art, but religiously stay away from the selection of artworks”, confirms David. “I have a wonderful wife who has an incredible eye”.

They both are incredible people.

Their philanthropy started in the late 1980s, when they established two annual awards for graduates of the Royal College of Art in London: the Parallel Prize for painting and the Serenella Ciclitira Scholarship for Sculpture. Their numerous initiatives and projects around the globe have been running for almost thirty years. Importantly, in 2014 the couple established the Ciclitira Prize, which they present annually to a graduate of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts in London. This year, the works of Lucy Morrish, the winner of Ciclitira Prize 2019, featured in STARTnet projects section.

As for collecting, this habit goes back to the early days of their marriage. “We are hoarders”, laughs Serenella. “We have been married for forty years. And when we were young and poor, we would go to small art fairs in hotels and collect decanters. We have quite a range of them now.”

When asked about the art in their collection, she responds: “We have travelled extensively to exhibitions and events, so we hold a lot of African art, some European art, a little of Italian… My house in Italy is full of all sorts of artworks, and we also bought art at graduation shows. There is another point: we never sell anything that we have previously bought. We mainly acquire art to live with: we love what we buy, and we like to have it around.”

“Hope to help the artist” is another major incentive in collecting emerging art, according to Serenella. “I was recently approached by a Korean lady, whose work we acquired twelve years ago. Since then she had won prizes, received honours and awards, and it was an immense pleasure to reconnect with someone, who was very young when we first met, and was trying to make it in the art world, and eventually became a successful and established artist”.

The couple’s taste for contemporary Asian art has taken at least a decade to mature. Their first encounter with contemporary Asian art took place when they visited Seoul in 2007, helping to create a golf tournament for the South Korean capital. Predictably, they were invited to a new exhibition called Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves which brought together the works of more than 100 artists from about 20 Asian countries, including Korea, China and Japan. “What we saw, was staggering”, reminisces Serenella, “but we could not find any information in English and there were only sparse notes in Korean available in the gallery catalogues, and that was it. We ended up buying some Korean art, anyway. However, when purchasing an artwork from an art gallery, one needs to know its context, the story behind it, the school it comes from. And that was how we arrived at the idea that it would be interesting to bring those artists together and organise a Korean art show”. And this is how the idea of Parallel Contemporary Art was born.

It seems that Korean art played a significant role in shaping the tastes and projects of the Ciclitiras. Their first major initiative in 2009 was called Korean Eye. Then it was followed by Indonesian Eye (2011), Korean Eye 2 (2012), Hong Kong Eye (2013), Malaysian Eye (2014), Singapore Eye (2015), Thailand Eye (2016), Vietnam Eye (2017). All catalogues for these shows were edited by Serenella Ciclitira herself. However, the couple made sure that they were working with the leading art specialists when exploring new art scenes. “Johnson Chang is the greatest curator who knows more of Hong Kong art than anybody else, so he co-curated and co-wrote the book with Serenella and was credited as a Hong Kong Eye curator. We may be global-thinking, but we also involve and welcome the local people”, states David.

In 2020 yet another Korean Eye, involving Heesun Park and SunJu Lee at ARTWA, Korea, marked the programme’s 11 anniversary. This time, however, everything was scheduled to take place across three global locations: first, at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, thus, celebrating the 30 anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Russia and South Korea; then in London at the Saatchi Gallery this autumn; and finally, in Seoul, South Korea early in 2021.

The Eye Programme founded by collectors in 2009 aimed to develop the art infrastructure in the countries where it was lacking, in order to provide artists with the platforms, support and recognition they needed to develop their careers. In January 2014 the Eye Programme launched its annual award, catapulting the careers of many emerging artists throughout the Asian region.

Furthermore, Start Art Fair (now rebranded as STARTnet), was intended to celebrate not only the artists, but also emerging art galleries from around the world. It was launched and welcomed with much praise and acclaim in June 2014. From the outset, Start was developed in close partnership with the Saatchi Gallery and its curatorial team. Serenella and David continue to act as the fair’s directors and adhere to their principal roles: David deals with marketing and commercial aspects, while Serenella works on the curatorial and publishing side.

Talking about the selection of artworks for the show, Serenella has her own criteria: “I believe that art should retain its aesthetic dimension, it has to appeal, to produce a strong emotional impact. And only after that one starts exploring the reality behind it, the story it attempts to tell, the context, the narratives. Art should be aimed at the whole person, not just the intellect. The work should speak to me, and I expect to have a different type of conversation each time I approach it. I need to discover new dimensions and layers of meaning while looking at it. Contemporary artists are the ones who process reality and find their own way of transforming it. They speak through their art. Obviously, art should dwell on important social issues, but if it is only about politics, it leaves me cold. I believe that all great art comes from the place of conflict, -- this way it acquires the dimension of depth”.

Having “much to consider, rethink or get back to” is the main attractive characteristic shared by most Korean artists, in Serenella’s opinion. “They are searching for their roots with the help of traditional methods and techniques whilst creating contemporary images. And they are well aware of the social problems and issues”.

Apparently, 2020 marks the 7 edition of Start and the 11 year of the Eye Programme. Initially, Korean Eye and Start 2020 were scheduled to take place at different times, but due to Covid-19, the final week of Korean Eye overlapped with Start. This was a remarkably fortunate coincidence, as one could see the impressive scope of the Ciclitiras’ activity. Moreover, it was a perfect moment to announce the rebranding of Start and the launch of the art-centric Social Commerce platform STARTnet.

Already in 2018, David Ciclitira foresaw that the art world had yet to integrate fully with technology to broaden its outreach. And now, in anticipation of the post-Covid recovery, when the art world faces a constant challenge to balance and blend physical and digital worlds along with the demand to form a new unified “phygital” immersive experience, the new App that connects the online and offline environments has every chance to become indispensable. The new STARTnet App was developed in partnership with Samsung and was designed to become one of the bold and creative solutions that would launch “a democratic and dynamic virtual platform to help create an opportunity for artists and gallerists to interact, both creatively and commercially”. “It is the combination of everything we have ever wanted to do”, concludes David Ciclitira.

As it has been announced by the organisers, STARTnet would become the first art platform built from the ground up to curate and connect, both emerging, and established global artists, galleries, buyers and collectors. It would also feature powerful mobile sales functionality, whereas the STARTnet omni-channel would showcase news, dynamic content, auctions, collaborations, commissions. Its role would also be to protect the creative and commercial interests of the artists, collectors and gallerists that joined the platform, thus, creating a win-win situation for all involved. The ambition is to build the most creative and socially advanced social art community in the world.

First demo versions of the App were available at the STARTnet fair in October (the “soft launch”), but the full global release of the platform is scheduled for 2021. Subsequently, the App will be available for purchase via the App Store and Google Play. “Technology is central to the art world and STARTnet moving forward”, believes David Ciclitira, “so Samsung is going to be the innovation partner of the fair and the main driving force behind the building of the new digital art platform. The fair itself will start rebranding, becoming more accessible. We will be launching the App next February-March”. As for the languages available on the App, “it will operate in different languages: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Russian, English. It will be about giving artists an opportunity to sell their works worldwide”.

The App will also have a set of unique features: “Every day the curatorial board will select a particular artist as the artist of the day”, continues David. “This person and their work will be given a special spotlight. It is not me, who is going to select artists to be featured on our App. There is a group of six curators from around the world, who will make their selection. The curatorial board is totally independent in their viewpoint”.

Mr. Ciclitira seems to be absolutely fearless in sharing his plans, undaunted by Covid-19. His ability to stay calm in the midst of chaos is remarkable. At that point, I could not resist asking how come that STARTnet took place while FRIEZE was cancelled and the doom of another lockdown was impending (and, indeed, London went into the second lockdown just ten days after the closing of STARTnet)? “I had people asking me ‘How come you are the only one who is still going on?”, agrees David. “Can I be crude? I have got balls. Quite honestly, there had been suggestions to postpone the fair and the exhibition, but we still had to go ahead with the promotion of the Korean Eye. Obviously, we could have had a break period, but we had so many things to do, that I was confident that we would be OK”.

However, fearless does not mean reckless. The organisers of STARTnet took every precaution to keep visitors and participants safe. In the long run, David Ciclitira acknowledged that STARTnet was badly affected by Covid-19. “Fifty percent of the artists had to pull out because they could not get to London. Three Korean artists arrived in London just for the opening of the fair and went back. Chris Fallows, the 2020 winner of the Global Eye Award, could not leave South Africa”. However, David was not the person to be beaten by the circumstances: “as there was plenty of empty gallery space remaining, I suggested that we should put on display the works of those who might have been joining our art fair as young artists fifty years ago. I discussed this idea with Chris Beetles, the representative of such Royal Academicians, as Anthony Green or Keith Grant, and it became one of our new STARTnet projects. This way we also ended up introducing a series of curated projects that reflect our global agenda. As people said, we enforced a change”. Mr. Ciclitira, with his invincible spirit, can spot an opportunity in every seemingly hopeless situation.

“Sadly, Covid-19 will destroy businesses and galleries, it has been very hard on many people”, says David about the current situation in the art world. “And the government has to perform a balancing act between the economy and safety. Not everybody will see it as an advantage. Nevertheless, it also presents a whole lot of opportunities”.

“First of all, those who had any digital platform (be this their website or online shop) were selling more artworks than they did before because they are reaching out to new audiences. Many people had suddenly lots of free time and some disposable income available during the first lockdown. So, many art sales boomed during that period. I think that the digital world is thriving. Covid-19 has given birth to lots of new concepts”.

Well, and what is his prognosis for the nearest future? “Another matter to consider is the ever-increasing importance of the show. Many people who came to STARTnet or Korean Eye shared that that was the first time they were out since the lockdown. I do believe that there will be a return to normal life. The present situation is going to enhance peoples’ wishes to go to exhibitions. There will be a rebirth of the exhibition activity”, predicts the collector.

As for the future exhibition plans, Mr Ciclitira has so many of them that he regrets, he is not twenty years younger to look after them all and to follow their development in the long-term perspective. Apart from the launch of the new App next spring, the Ciclitiras plan to run two STARTnet fairs in London. The first one is scheduled for 25 May 2021 (“Covid-free, hopefully”), to be followed by the second in the autumn. The couple also consider the launch of the Asian and the USA of STARTnet.

And yet, there is more to follow. “We are going to launch STARTnet in Zurich next September. It will run in collaboration with MCH Group AG – the company that owns Art Basel. MCH has a wonderful space in Zurich at their disposal, and they welcomed the idea of holding STARTnet there. For us, this will be a new formula”. This would hardly be possible even a year ago. “I would not have been asked to go to Zurich if it was full of other fairs. So, Covid-19 situation has opened up a whole new economic dynamic”.

Among other plans, David and Serenella hope to continue their partnership with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. “We do not work with other museums in the same way, as with the Hermitage”, explains Serenella. “We collaborated with major museums in Thailand, Korea and across Asia, but the Hermitage is special”. Apparently, the Ciclitiras forged a strong working relationship with Dr Dmitry Ozerkov, Director of Contemporary Art Department. It was he, who invited Serenella to curate Korean Eye in the State Hermitage, and they decided to work on this project together. “We travelled to South Korea with Dr Ozerkov, where we were also joined by Philippa Adams, Head Curator and Director of the Saatchi Gallery.”

As the first project was a great success “we are going to do our South African Eye show next year together with the Hermitage”, states David. “We have been long negotiating our future collaboration, and Dmitry confirmed that the Hermitage curators would like to be part of this project. He has already been to South Africa with Serenella and explored the contemporary art scene there. Besides, there is an idea to do Russian Eye after South African Eye”.

This said, our conversation veers towards David Ciclitira’s new initiative in Cape Town, South Africa. “Early into the first lockdown, we held discussions about the “Best of Cape Town” festival. The city is well-known for its art, wine and excellent chefs. I do hope that other cities will follow suit. After all, we are a content-related business, and all physical spaces will need content in the post-Covid recovery phase. In our case, it is the way of linking South African Eye with the local tourist board, as everybody needs to restart, reboot, relaunch”.

While the Ciclitiras are brimming with all sorts of ideas running in many exciting directions, they never fail to adhere to their ultimate principle, summed up by David: “Our main ethos (commercial or non-commercial) is that it all is about the artists. What we do makes a difference to them”.