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23 October 2013

In a period of limited arts funding, the notion of buying and collecting artworks can seem like an impossible venture. Museums have to be strategic about investing in their collections and some, such as the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, are treading difficult ground as they seek to honour bequest conditions whilst maintaining public access.

Rebecca Travis spoke to Rebecca Morrill, Head of Collector Development for the Contemporary Arts Society North East, about working with regional collections.

What does your role within the Contemporary Arts Society (CAS) entail?

The regional branches of CAS emerged as the Arts Council sought to develop a buying market outside of London. My role is to get people interested in CAS membership, to show them what’s out there and to make the whole process of being engaged in the art world, whether you’re looking to buy or not, a little less intimidating. It’s also about supporting emerging artists. CAS has tried to develop a reputation for acquiring artists’ works early; for example they invested in the first Picasso bought for a collection in the UK.

How does CAS work with museum collections?

There’s a network of museums across the UK who pay to be CAS members: in return they receive that investment back and more to purchase new works. We work closely with them to think about acquisitions and how they form an identity for their collection. As an example, York Gallery is developing a contemporary collection all around ‘flesh’ as an alternative way of thinking about the figure, which connects well with pieces in their historic collection.

The Burrell Collection in Glasgow has been in the press recently, as a plan to tour the exhibition internationally contravenes the wishes of the donor William Burrell. How does CAS manage donor stipulations while also ensuring the collection is accessible to the public?

In general there’s a very different attitude towards bequests now compared to Burrell’s period. One of the things CAS offers is advice about legacies and leaving works in a will. Obviously it can be a delicate matter to consider where art will go after someone dies, but we try to make it as easy and enjoyable a process for people as possible.

We’ve just had a large bequest from Eric and Jean Cass, who are major collectors, particularly of modern British art. They were keen for the works to be placed in public collections, so we worked with them to consider where they might go, and helped to research places with conservation capabilities. As far as possible, it’s about making sure there’s a ‘live’ conversation happening, as opposed to working from a piece of paper that becomes dated and stuck in time.

In a time of limited arts funding, is there pressure for collections to tour and extend their profile internationally?

Absolutely. I think collections are quite smart to do that – they have to realise that for most people even a trip from Newcastle to Manchester is quite a journey, so it makes sense to have exhibitions that tour. When budgets are tight, museums can also use their own assets, presenting existing collections that perhaps can’t be shown all the time, or moving works into new rooms and groupings. There’s definitely something to be said for presenting things in a new context, or to a different audience.

What’s next for CAS North East?

CAS collaborated with Granary Gallery, Berwick, on an exhibition called ‘Multiple Choice’ that brings together prints and editions from personal collections. It is now on show in Hexham, drawing together two towns from the region with a strong connection to the arts. I’ve also co-curated an exhibition ‘Tip of the Iceberg: Art from Up North’ – a cross-generational exhibition of local practitioners, which is currently showing at the CAS public space in London.

Another project is ‘Art in the Home’, which CAS piloted last year in the North West. We asked members to host pop-up exhibitions in their houses so people could literally imagine living with a piece of contemporary art. It was a great success, so we hope to stage it again in other regions.

‘Multiple Choice’ is at Queens Hall, Hexham until 23 November 2013.

Tip of the Iceberg: Art from Up North is at Contemporary Art Society, London until 3rd January 2014.

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