VISUAL ARTS: Shopping for Posterity; CULTURE in Association with the Art Lounge the Contemporary Art Society's Special Collections Fund Helped Public Collections in the West Midlands to Buy Work by Living Artists. Terry Grimley Looks at Its Impact
Byline: Terry Grimley
There is nothing new about local authority museums buying contemporary art: in a way, that's how they all started.
To take just one example, Stanhope Forbes's painting The Village Philharmonic, a major example of the then innovative Newlyn School of the late 1880s, was bought by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery within a year of it being painted.
But things changed in the 20th century, when the gap between developments in modern art and the public began to widen and museums were vulnerable to accusations of wasting public money.
In 1964 John Hewitt, first director of the Herbert Art Gallery in Coventry, was pilloried in the local press for attempting to buy a painting by Ben Nicholson. This seems to have triggered a failure of political nerve which may help to explain why today Coventry has one of the poorest public art collections, for a city of its size, in the country.
A decade later Wolverhampton Art Gallery found itself under similar attack for buying - for what now seems a derisory sum - a small Peter Blake painting of a cigarette packet. The local newspaper seemed to assume that its subject by definition made the painting worthless.
Fortunately, Wolverhampton stuck to its guns and rode out the storm. Posterity has now judged both these controversies: the curators were right and the newspapers wrong.
Such political sensitivity, combined with a lack of specialist knowledge among curators, helps to explain why the British contemporary art scene has tended to be identified primarily with the capital.
But at the turn of the millennium the Contemporary Art Society set out to address this dislocation between new art and most of the country's museums by introducing its lottery-funded Special Collections Fund. Fifteen public collections took part, including six in the West Midlands, each receiving pounds 30,000 for five years, plus expert advice and a pounds 2,500 annual travel budget.
More than 600 works were eventually acquired under the scheme by collections across the country, and a book surveying the scheme, New Art on View, was published last month.
"The thing about that scheme is that the CAS recognised that to invest in collections you need to invest in curators," says Sheila McGregor, a former curator in Birmingham who wrote the book and recently completed a consultancy for West Midlands museums on their contemporary collecting.
Of the West Midlands collections taking part - Birmingham, Stoke, University of Warwick, Wolverhampton, Worcester and Walsall - Wolverhampton and Warwick had the strongest prior track record of collecting contemporary work.
"We already had good relations with some of the dealers in London, but what it did was broaden our network," says Marguerite Nugent, Wolverhampton's head of curatorial services.
"We bought quite a lot of photography under the CAS scheme because we have this emphasis on the theme of conflict, and because of the nature of that subject a lot of the work is by photographers. We have always collected work with a social/political resonance."
For its participation in the CAS scheme, Birmingham chose to build on existing strengths by concentrating on painting. At the same time a parallel scheme enabled it to build an outstanding collection of new metalwork.
Brendan Flynn, curator of paintings and sculpture, argues that the impetus injected by the CAS scheme means that regional galleries, collectively, are now the major collectors of contemporary art.
"The CAS scheme, which enabled us to flex our muscles for a few years, was a huge impetus which is still reverberating," he says. …