What was the Special Collection Scheme? (1998-2005)

Comfort or Death
Comfort or Death, oil painting on Scotchlite, 2004, 145 x 225 x 4cm, © the artist, image courtesy:Simon Lee Gallery, London, photo by:Angelo Plantamura

In 1997 the Contemporary Art Society successfully applied to Arts Council Lottery for funding to enable fifteen regional museums to take part in what became known as the Special Collection Scheme.

Lottery funding for the scheme came to an end in December 2004.

With generous funding from Arts Council England and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Contemporary Art Society has since commissioned consultant Valerie Millington to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the SCS, so that the lessons learned can stimulate debate about the future of collecting in our regional museums and inform future initiatives. Below is a summary of her key findings.

What happened?
Over seven years:15 museums acquired 610 works of fine art and craft By 313 different artists and makers With a total purchase price of almost £3 million.

Significant works by leading contemporary artists can now be seen in regional museums across the country, for example:

Olafur Eliasson in Eastbourne
Douglas Gordon in Southampton
Juan Munoz in Manchester
Mike Nelson in Walsall
Thomas Ruff in Hull
Catherine Yass in Nottingham
Santiago Sierra in Leeds

Important works by leading designers and makers have also been purchased: Furniture and lighting by Ron Arad
Ingo Maurer and Marc Newson for Manchester
Textiles by Michael Brennand-Wood
Liz Rideal for Nottingham
Ceramics by Jacqueline Poncelet and Edmund de Waal for Stoke
Metalwork by Junko Mori and Michael Rowe for Birmingham

How did it work?
Each participating museum spent £30,000 each year on acquisitions and a further £2,500 on curatorial research and travel. Museums were required to provide 25% of their total purchasing and travel budget as partnership funding. The Contemporary Art Society helped put the museums in touch with advisers, organised research trips and undertook much of the administration of purchases. Curators taking part rated the support of the Contemporary Art Society very highly and valued the opportunity to discuss their acquisitions with knowledgeable colleagues: the Contemporary Art Society handled the whole thing really well… they were interested in stretching my parameters, making me think more critically about what was being acquired and why.

What was the impact?


Many acquisitions made through the scheme were international in scope.

Christian Boltanski, James Casebere, John Coplans, Thomas Demand, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Ori Gersht, Nan Goldin, Candida Hofer, Tatsuo Miyajima, Shirin Neshat, Gabriel Orozco, Tony Oursler, Thomas Schutte, Shirana Shahbazi, Philippe Starck, Annelies Strba, Wolfgang Tillmans, Lawrence Weiner, Shizuka Yokomizo – these are just a few of the artists now represented in regional collections as a result of the SCS.

Participating museums were asked to identify an idea or theme which would guide their decision-making. To take just one example, Worcester Museum and Art Gallery chose to focus on landscape, with particular reference to work which challenges or presents another view of the rural idyll and especially work which addresses the interface of city and countryside, the tensions and possibilities where the two overlap.

The scheme has helped create distinctive and important collections across the country. It is no exaggeration to say that Birmingham’s contemporary metalwork collection is now one of the finest – perhaps even the finest – in Europe.

New audiences
Curators are using these collections in new and dynamic ways; re-invigorating and making links with historic collections; lending works to major exhibitions in this country and abroad; and using the contemporaneity of the work to reach out to new (and often younger) audiences.

For example, Leeds City Art Gallery has the youngest profile of all West Yorkshire galleries (18-25 years) and attributes this at least in part to the contemporary work acquired through SCS. Southampton City Art Gallery notes the impact its collection has had on the fast-growing community of artists in the city: Southampton has a burgeoning grass roots network of artists, and there are artists’ studios too. The greater presence of new media work feeds into these sorts of initiatives and helps to stimulate them.

New buildings, new landmarks
The SCS has provided several galleries with a rationale for new or refurbished buildings. Works acquired through the scheme will have pride of place in the new extension to Wolverhampton Art Gallery which opens next year, while Middlesbrough’s strong collection of contemporary drawings will form a central part of the new £19.6 million Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art currently under construction. Refurbishment plans in Leeds have been directly informed by the curators’ involvement with the SCS. It has fed into the refurbishment plans for the art gallery. Visiting other spaces has given me ideas about public spaces, display and so on. We are trying to have four special areas for showing sound work, which will be sound-proofed been built into the refurbishment plans more space and more specialist type of space.

At the Mead Gallery at Warwick University, specially commissioned works by such artists as Ian Davenport and Simon Patterson have quickly attained iconic status as symbols of the university’s commitment to contemporaneity and leading edge research.

Professional development
For an increasingly beleaguered profession the SCS has been an invaluable vehicle for professional development. One museum curator noted that in normal circumstances, travel outside the local area is frowned upon and requires authorisation from no less than five senior local authority officers.

With funding from SCS, however, curators were able to travel widely and to meet artists, dealers and curators in the UK and abroad. Destinations for curatorial research and travel included: Vienna, Luxembourg, Scandinavia, New York, Slovenia and Canada.

Involvement in the scheme has made me less doctrinaire, more curious to see more, more open to taking advice and loosening things up a bit. It raised my game. It developed and honed my skills in terms of judging – being able to weigh up the characteristics of work. I now know it’s important to go to Basel etc. We are all much more interdependent. The balance of scholarship has shifted towards the commercial sector. We need to pull that level of scholarship back into public institutions, our museums and galleries. I will be more confident about applying to grant giving bodies in the future. – Museum Curator

Commercial sector
Fine art purchases were made from 78 different galleries and dealers in both the UK and overseas.

We are really grateful and see the Scheme as very significant. Museum sales mean a lot to artists. For artists it is much more significant than selling to a private collector because the work will be more available, in principle, to the public. They hope it will come to educational use and will be more relevant.
– Maureen Paley

What next?
Some galleries have found innovative ways of sustaining their collecting. In Middlesbrough, a pioneering agreement with Northern Rock Building Society will provide £30,000 per year for the next five years to support the acquisition of new work for the collection.

The Contemporary Art Society is now also leading a collecting scheme in Scotland, The National Collecting Scheme for Scotland [NCSS] which builds on the experience of the SCS and is funded by the Lottery, through The Scottish Arts Council, at least until April 2006. But the outlook generally is far from encouraging: If there is one message I would like to get across; it is that we need Government support to enable the flourishing of contemporary collections. – Museum curator

The Contemporary Art Society can continue to develop short to medium term initiatives with a range of funding partners, including some trusts and foundations, but any long-term, sustained development will require a national plan or framework, backed by all the key players and supported with the necessary resources. In some ways, the climate seems favourable for a successor scheme, but in reality the next steps are not obvious, neither is it clear who should be making the running.

Valerie Millington’s evaluation of the SCS concludes that what regional gallery sector needs is a national framework and some joined-up thinking around contemporary collecting. Above all, we urgently need an informed debate about where the responsibility for this should lie.

How did it work?
Each participating museum spent £30,000 each year on acquisitions and a further £2,500 on curatorial research and travel. Museums were required to provide 25% of their total purchasing and travel budget as partnership funding.


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