Modern Art for a New Museum; Collecting Contemporary Art Is a Hot Topic. Terry Grimley Reports on the Local Debate
Byline: Terry Grimley
Despite the recession, collecting contemporary art, both for public institutions and private individuals, seems to be a hot topic at the moment.
The Art of Ideas II, the second in a series of cultural debates being held in Birmingham on Wednesday and Thursday this week following last year's inaugural event, has adopted it as this year's theme.
Speakers include Ikon Gallery director Jonathan Watkins, whose proposal for a new museum of contemporary art in Birmingham has now reached the stage of a feasibility study jointly financed by the city council, the Arts Council and Advantage West Midlands. Stephen Snoddy, director of the New Art Gallery, Walsall, has curated an exhibition of recent work by West Midlands artists at Baskerville House to show alongside the debates.
The discussion comes at a time when the profile of contemporary art in West Midlands public collections is higher than for many years.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the New Art Gallery, Walsall, and Ikon Gallery have formed a consortium which was successful in a bid to the Art Fund's "Art Fund International" scheme, designed to get public collections outside London to reconnect with buying international contemporary art.
The consortium has pounds 1 million to spend over the next five years on forming a collection on the theme of "the modern metropolis", and has already begun with a painting by Zhang Enli, a woodcut by Christiane Baumgartner and photographs by Dayanita Singh and Miao Xiaochun.
"It's significant that the Art Fund awarded us that money to acquire contemporary art from all over the world, but very much in the hope that it would form the basis of a museum of contemporary art," says Watkins.
"If it doesn't work out then the idea is that the collection will continue as some sort of collaboration between Birmingham and Walsall, but it was the idea of the new museum that swung it for the West Midlands." The Art Fund initiative follows the Contemporary Art Society's Special Collections Scheme, which ran from 1997 to 2004. Funded by the National Lottery, it gave selected public collections pounds 30,000 a year for seven years to build up themed collections of new art, at the same time offering their staff practical opportunities to increase their expertise.
The West Midlands did particularly well out of the CAS scheme. As well as Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, other collections selected to participate included Walsall, Wolverhampton, the University of Warwick, Worcester and Stoke-on-Trent.
Birmingham also participated in a parallel scheme with the Crafts Council, which enabled it to acquire 84 works in metal by 45 makers - giving it one of the best collections of contemporary metalwork in Europe.
Another West Midlands collection which did not participate in the scheme but whose achievements should not be overlooked is the Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum. It has developed a lively exhibitions and collecting policy since moving to the Royal Pump Room a few years ago, adding works by artists including Damien Hirst, Gillian Wearing, Catherine Yass and Marc Quinn.
As well as buying paintings by artists like Basil Beattie, Callum Innes, Tony Bevan and George Shaw through the CAS scheme, Birmingham also began in the 1990s to back-fill some major gaps in its collection of British painting since 1945 - of which there were many, as it had effectively dropped out of actively collecting contemporary art since the 1960s. …