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Mark Cass, founder of Cass Art, on bridging the divide between people, places and art

Mark Cass started a quiet revolution in 1984 when he opened up Cass Art, an art supply shop with a passion for production and a history of collection. Since the first store opened in Charing Cross, the brand has grown on the mantle of creating artists.

In 2015, Cass Art opened in Liverpool, and as they do when they move in anywhere, “Let’s fill this town with artists” was branded around everywhere. Since then, the shop has got busier and busier, with more and more artists using the space as their go to supplier. How though, in 2019, do physical art supply shops still make sure they are at the forefront of creating new talent?

Carol Emmas asks Mark Cass, founder a CEO of the national group, just that:

CE: Now we are living in a computerised world, are you seeing more people turn to their computers to produce art, or is the internet instead enticing people into wanting to create something real?

Mark Cass: Embracing technology is not a new notion within the art world, artists are, and have always been the innovators – from inventor & artist Leonardo Da Vinci, to the first photographers and the artists and designers of the 1950’s using analogue computers to create the first digital images.

There is of course a growing community of artist’s using digital media to produce their work, with advancements in VR, AI and digital programming, but I think that realness is still important to most artists.

And as I’ve said before, it’s time for us to use our hands for something other than just picking up our phones. Creativity – and importantly real world creativity allows us to escape the screen and the day-to-day constraints of modern societal living. The physical feeling of a brush against canvas or clay between fingers cannot (yet) be replicated.

What artistic trends are you seeing coming to the fore? What are people enquiring about and buying?

MC: We’re seeing that more people are enquiring about professional quality products despite them perhaps not being a professional artist themselves. Fundamental to our beliefs as a business is giving all access to the best materials from the world’s top suppliers at the most affordable prices – from Winsor and Newton, to Daler – Rowney, Michael Harding, Sennelier and our Own Brand professional products.

Our customers take great care in what they buy – whether they are a professional, student or hobbyist it is important that the materials enhance their work. Our mission to fill every town with artists is underpinned by our long standing manifesto. The Cass Art Collection is a direct manifestation of this ethos. Launched in 2013 in collaboration with award-winning designer Angus Hyland, a Partner at Pentagram We’ve recently expanded the Collection for professionals with our Artists’ Oil Colour, Artists’ Watercolour, Exhibition Grade canvas and Cass Art Acrylic.

When a customer purchases a new product they’re making an investment in their craft – an investment in time and also money. We want to support them in this investment by providing materials that will not only last, but help them to elevate their creativity.
Sustainability and environmental awareness is increasing across all industries, and that includes the arts. Customers are increasingly aware of what they purchase and how they purchase them and a move to vegan products. We use recyclable packaging for our e-commerce footprint, and of course our award winning bags for life – the Cass Art Tote bag have been on the arm of Cass Art customers since 2008.

This year we launched a Cupcycling Cartridge Pad online and in store – a multi award winning pad made entirely from recycled coffee cups! Lots more to do in this area so watch this space.

Art shops seem to be one of the current survivors of the high street? Is there an explanation?

MC: We’ve had a successful online presence since 2013, a brilliant platform where we can stock a much wider range of materials, size and colour. But physical high street stores are still the lifeblood of Cass Art. Today we have 13 stores across the UK in university towns they offer a different service. All of our staff are artists; you can walk into any Cass Art store in any city and know that you will be talking with an expert. With the ability to converse face to face about materials, try them for yourself in store on our try me tables, and feel the materials in your hands. Where else can you try out these materials?

Wherever there are people there is creativity and wherever there is creativity there is art. And where there is art, there is the need for the art shop.

What’s your best-selling product?

MC: Working directly with the world’s top suppliers and manufacturers enables us to provide the best quality materials at the best prices; importantly it also means that we can bring our customers exclusive and unique products. For this reason our best sellers are often these exclusive products. From the small: Staedtler Pigment Liner Set of 6 to the colourful: Winsor & Newton Cotman Set of 36 Half Pan plus most of Wooden Oil Set with Michael Harding Colours, Brushes & Box.

Our price match guarantee means that we promise to offer the best quality materials at the best possible prices. So our customers can rest safe in the knowledge that they will never over-pay for their essential materials.

These days, there seems to be artist collectives everywhere. Also, through social media it seems as though everyone is an artist now. Is this an illusion or a contemporary reality?

MC: Everyone is an artist! That is the beautiful thing. In the words of Pablo Picasso and one of my favourite quotes “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” At Cass Art our role is to be a reminder of this fact, when we “fill a town with artists” we are reigniting the creative potential in every person – whether they are 3 or 103, professional or amateur.

It is true that social media puts individuals on a platform the like we have never seen before. They have the ability to show their creativity to the world with no limitation, those individuals who may once have been isolated in their creative endeavors now have a full community of support. We encourage our customers and community to share their creativity with us on Instagram by hash-tagging #cassart – a call to arms that has been answered over 33 thousand times!

What do you find most inspirational about art and artists in the UK today?

MC: You may be surprised but one of my yearly great inspirations is the Fourth Plinth Schools Award. In 1998 the Royal Society of Arts conceived the Forth Plinth Project, repurposing the empty plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square to house a series of contemporary artworks. The Cass Sculpture Foundation, founded by my father Wilfred Cass, commissioned the first three pieces to adorn the plinth, pathing the way for a succession of sculptures, performances and happenings.

The success of the commissions led to a plethora of community arts programmes relating to the plinth, and the Fourth Plinth Schools Award from the London Mayors office support by Cass Art is one of such initiatives. The imagination and potential in these child artists brings me such joy each year!

Akin to this is the work produced by the fantastic art schools up and down the country. Students are the future of art, and in turn the future of Cass Art. I have yet to visit a Degree Show where I find myself leaving with a feeling other than excitement in what’s to come in the creative industry. We acknowledge this importance by supporting students up and down the country, firstly with our Cobalt Blue Student Card which gives a 10% discount, to our Student Days and degree show prizes, bursaries and studio awards.

How is Liverpool shaping up for you?

MC: If London is the UK’s creative heart the regions are its arteries and veins, therefore continuing to extend our regional footprint is vital. I was thrilled to open a Liverpool store in 2015 and for Cass Art to contribute to the cities rich cultural history; from the fantastic artist-led spaces and galleries to the leading Art Festival, the Liverpool Biennial.

Liverpool was selected as the capital of culture in 2008 and 11 years later that legacy is very much alive. You can see Cass Art materials in action all around the city, our customers in Liverpool range from renowned mural artist Paul Curtis, to students, retirees and professional artists. The diverse customers that visit our store reflect the diverse residents of Liverpool – as creative and exciting today as those before them.