Magazine article The Spectator

A Bank's Flutter

Magazine article The Spectator

A Bank's Flutter

Article excerpt

The NatWest Group Art Collection (Lothbury Gallery, 41 Lothbury EC2, till 2 May)

During the Sixties and Seventies when abstraction ruled and most people were still baffled by it, British artists were mainly patronised by the state. The success of their latest shows in London galleries depended heavily on selling to the Tate, the Arts Council, the British Council or the Leicestershire Education Authority, with the charitable Contemporary Arts Society chipping in to buy works for presentation to public galleries. Private buyers in this country were few and far between, and if, as I did, they bought on tick without interest, their support must have been more valuable psychologically than financially. Given such measly patronage, it is extraordinary how much ambitious, innovative, buoyant and even flamboyant work was produced.

With the revival of figuration in the Seventies and determined efforts in the early Eighties by the Contemporary Arts Society and others to persuade people that they could both like and afford contemporary work, the private market increased for small-scale, cheaper work, but at the same time government cutbacks meant that the state's patronage shrank. Nevertheless, the whole 33-year period from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Eighties can now be seen as the golden age of British art, more energetic, confident and diverse than any other since the Romantic period at the end of the 18th century.

The people who really missed out on this bonanza were the big private institutions, the banks and businesses who might have cheered up their foyers, corridors and offices and amused or stirred up their employees by spending a few thousand a year in galleries and studios all round the country. One bank, however, did every so often have a flutter on the contemporary British art market. These `acquisition initiatives', as NatWest's press handout calls them, `were often linked to building projects', so after the NatWest Tower was built in the City in the late Seventies, its enviable and civilised owners, who had already bought contemporary art in the Sixties to hang in their regional head office in Manchester, went out and acquired 100 more works for the Tower.

The whole collection is now to be shown to the public in a series of changing exhibitions in the newly opened Lothbury Gallery, beside the Bank of England, and the process has begun with a selection of 46 works representing four standard `subjects of art': landscape, still-life, the figure and abstraction. …

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