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Private collections may be a good thing for public institutions

16 January 2017

I’m a collector who wants to share the enjoyment of these works with as many people as possible. I mean, whose cultural life is it?’ So says Chris Ingram, who began collecting modern British art in 2002. The Ingram Collection – privately owned and supported – now contains 705 works of art, of which 435 were shown publicly in the UK over the past year.

The collection (of which I am the director) has lent works to 40 different venues and 84 per cent of the core collection of modern British art has been on public display. Sharing this private collection publicly began when works from the Ingram Collection were lent to a new public gallery and museum being opened in Woking – the Lightbox – in 2007. It was ‘a lightbulb moment’, Ingram confirms. Since then, pieces have been lent to traditional galleries and museums, such as Dulwich Picture Gallery, Pallant House, and the Royal Academy. Our loans to institutions such as these are normally in response to specific requests from curators who know the collection, and want to augment their temporary exhibitions, such as Nathaniel Hepburn’s excellent touring exhibition ‘Barbara Hepworth: The Hospital Drawings’ (2012–13) or Ann Elliot’s recent celebration of the centenary of the birth of Kenneth Armitage at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath.

Rye Harbour, (1938), Eric Ravilious

Rye Harbour (1938), Eric Ravilious, loaned from the Ingram Collection to Dulwich Picture Gallery for ‘Ravilious’ in 2015 Courtesy of Ingram Collection

More interesting for us, and bringing creative involvement, is approaching venues ourselves, offering and organising touring shows drawn entirely from the collection. In early 2016, we lent the exhibition ‘The Human Face’ to Aberystwyth Arts Centre, allowing a display of 20th-century British portraits, by artists such as Stanley Spencer and Elisabeth Frink, to be seen by a new audience. Aberystwyth Arts Centre is recognised as a ‘national flagship for the arts’, receiving more than 700,000 visitors a year.

There has certainly been a shift in the landscape since I started approaching UK galleries and museums three years ago, offering a private collection for public exhibition. Initially, I was met with mystified suspicion. Motives were questioned: a private collector exhibiting a collection is only looking to enhance its provenance and reputation, therefore increasing its ultimate value. Mammon first. It took some thoughtful and dynamic directors, such as Alison Bevan of the Royal West of England Academy, to see the potential. We successfully held a show of 20th-century drawings from the collection there, alongside the RWA open submission exhibition, and we simultaneously supported aspects of the gallery’s education and outreach programme.

In our relationship with the Lightbox – a publicly funded, Art Fund prize-winning gallery and museum in Woking – we are trialling, hopefully pioneering, a new form of collaboration between private individuals with a philanthropic mind and public institutions. We stage three shows in the galleries there annually, populate the sculpture gallery and lend to the education studio. The success of this means that we are currently in discussions with other regional arts trusts and institutions to foster new partnerships.

Meat Porters, (1959), Ralph Brown

Meat Porters (1959), Ralph Brown, on loan from the Ingram Collection to the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 2014 Photo: JP Bland

The Ingram Collection seems to be part of a growing trend in the way private collectors interact with public bodies. Private individuals pondering their collections cannot help but read continually of funding cuts to the galleries and museums sector, and of course statistics keep circulating about the number of publicly owned artworks which never see the light of day. Due to the volume of the Ingram Collection’s loans and exhibitions, we now have a formal programme – which means extra staff and complicated logistical considerations – all of which would be daunting to a private collector with no experience or support. So, if they do want to share their collection publicly, where should they turn?

Tim Sayer, who in 2016 announced the lifetime gift of his collection of over 400 works, by artists such as Henry Moore, Bridget Riley and David Hockney, to the Hepworth Wakefield, agrees that more should be done to help and encourage private collectors to collaborate with museums and galleries. ‘I believe it essential to share this passion [for collecting art] with the public and, indeed, other collectors who might be wondering what to do with their art. I can’t emphasise too much how I hope that our gift will encourage others to do the same.’ But the very nature of a private collection means it is someone’s personal passion, and the practical considerations people give to other aspects of their life can sometimes go out of the window when thinking about the artworks they have acquired. As Sayer counsels, ‘Don’t lose your critical faculties.’

Another collector paving the way is Valeria Napoleone. Highlights from her celebrated collection of works by women artists are on display at Touchstones Rochdale until 11 March, having previously been exhibited at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield. This show forms part of an initiative by Museums Sheffield to encourage collaboration between private collectors and regional museums. In a statement, Napoleone has said that the ‘Going Public’ project ‘shares my goals of supporting realities which are too often overlooked by the mainstream and creating a catalyst for change’. It is true that private collectors can take more risks, and therefore the exhibitions they create engender necessary debate. Certainly, the landscape has changed and there is now an acknowledgement of the need to engage private collectors and use their collections in public spaces. A report authored by Louisa Buck as part of the Museums Sheffield ‘Going Public’ project contributes to the growing consensus to harness the potential of private philanthropy. She urges galleries and museums across the UK to ‘reconnect with the concept of philanthropy as a vital part of the cultural infrastructure’.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) recently announced it would conduct a ‘wide-ranging’ review of museums, looking particularly at the national infrastructure, how museums can work better together, and the roles of Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund in supporting our local and regional galleries. It would be a shame if this study did not take into consideration the growing role that private collections could have. A new generation of cultural philanthropists – optimistic and energetic successors to the 19th-century benefactors of most of these institutions – need to be engaged and mobilised. Indeed, of Tim Sayer’s relationship with the Hepworth Wakefield, Nicholas Serota has said that, ‘At times like these, with public funding cutbacks, arts and heritage organisations need all the private help they can get.’

From the January 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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One comment

  1. Patrick A. Goff Jan 16 2017 at 1:45 pm

    I am in the process of giving my small collection of 20th century prints (Warhol, Caulfield, both the Phillips, Hughes, Tillyer etc.) to the Towner in Eastbourne. 31 pieces so far, and I see no reason why collectors shouldn’t just donate collections where they are needed not just loan a few out at a time

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