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Contemporary Art Society Interview
Lucy Bayley & George Vasey
(David Hockney: 5 June - 16 August 2013)

G: So let’s start at the beginning, what is the Contemporary Art Society’

L: Contemporary Art Society was established in 1910, and it was set up by a group of philanthropists and experts in the art world, including patron of the arts Lady Ottoline Morrell, Keeper of the Tate Gallery since 1906, D S MacColl, Director of National Portrait Gallery, Charles J. Holmes, critic, artist and curator of Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Roger Fry and Director of Whitechapel Gallery Charles Aitken. They were concerned that art being made was not being purchased by museums - that the good work being made by figures such as Picasso and Gauguin was going unnoticed. There is a misconception that the Contemporary Art Society was about British art but actually it was very international in its outlook. Initially it was Modern Art Society but they switched Modern for Contemporary quite quickly.

So they were the first people to use the word contemporary’

Yes, a number of years before the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The intention was to build a fund where wealthy, enlightened individuals would pool their money to buy work and gift it to museums around the country. Museums would become members of the society and in return they would be gifted a work every four years. Initially a committee of experts would be asked to buy works and build a collection that would then be given to various museums and institutions. In the Nineties we had a new scheme called the Special Collections Scheme which allowed us to buy work alongside collection curators at specific museums following an extensive period of research and studio visits.

So there was a turn towards a more embedded and collaborative model’

It was certainly more about developing curatorial expertise rather than keeping this very paternal London-centric approach.

This fits into your programming; developing seminars and conferences to work alongside Contemporary Art Society initiatives etc…

We try to connect up what the patrons are interested in, what the curators are looking at and what the collections are doing. Contemporary Art Society is a unique organisation for bringing in these private and public elements. In 2008 we set up a new Acquisition Scheme where each museum has a set amount of money to buy a work for their collection following a two year period of research for that curator.

So sometimes you’re acquiring works and sometimes commissioning’

It’s mainly acquisitions but we also have our Annual Award for Museums where a museum can win £60,000 to commission a new work for their collection. Recent years have seen Katerina ‘edá, Luke Fowler, and Christina Mackie make new work. We also have different schemes to fund different projects with our patron members.

You have all these different forms of membership!

Historically Contemporary Art Society has been a membership organisation. Our early annual reports illustrate how important it was to the Contemporary Art Society that the participating museums, patrons, collectors etc were treated equally and listed equally, as they all played a critical part in building museum collections. Today, there are sixty five museum members that work with us to build their collections and draw upon the expertise that is inherent in our long-standing networks, and we also run individual membership and patrons schemes. In September 2012, we acquired a new space in Clerkenwell, our first ever permanent home from where we can host talks, events and displays and explain the work we are doing with museums across the country. We’ve naturally evolved into a public-facing organisation due to this new space - it makes sense for us to run displays and related events that are open to all to increase awareness of what we do. We still retain our specialist membership networks and encourage people to join these, but now we’re making the work we’re doing more visible to the public as well.

Contemporary Art Society often seem keen to open up collections to independent curators to offer another perspective on a museum’s collection…

Absolutely, at the moment we’re working on a project with the Whitechapel Gallery where we have invited four Curatorial Fellows to spend time with our Member Museum collections and propose four displays at Whitechapel Gallery that will highlight and at the same time question the notion of philanthropy and its role in supporting public collections.

It’s really integral to the CAS programme, developing partnerships and professional networks. Your conferences seem to bring all these aspects together.

Yes, we have a programme called the National Network which runs alongside the acquisition schemes and has a focus on the development of public collections. We organise international trips, studio and gallery visits, but also look at practical issues like looking at conservation management. The programme emerges very much out of what the curators are interested in, we do this by surveying what the curators want and responding to that.

So you’re building cross-institutional discussion’

It’s about supporting museums and utilising different resources - seeing where we can offer help. Bringing together different areas of expertise. Even when facilitating a bequest we think it’s important to think about the context of where that work is going, framing it so that we can think about areas of research that could work around it.

Hockney’s ‘A Rake’s Progress’ is a really good example of that. It’s being placed in the Whitworth museum collection. They have the original Hogarth etchings that were the basis for Hockney’s version.

Exactly, Dr Ronald Lande contacted us and said that he had these Hockney prints as well as seven Keith Vaughan oil paintings. He was a big collector of British post war art.

So Dr Lande’s aim was that it should go to a good collection’

And be enjoyed by as many people as possible.

Proper philanthropy! Is that quite common’ Do many people come to you with work that they would like to place’

Yes, we get a lot of people coming to us - we’re in a good position as we work with so many museums, if it’s a significant work that we feel should be in public collections we believe we can find the right home for them. When Ronald died, the work came to us and we asked each museum interested in the work to apply for it. We then set up an advisory panel and made a decision from there. We decided on the Whitworth for a number of reasons. It has one of the best collections of prints in the country outside of London, when not on display the prints are still accessible, and more so now with their new Open Access Study Centre (opening this summer). They had shown ‘A Rake’s Progress’ in a number of exhibitions in the past; including Hockney’s first solo show in the UK in 1969 at the Whitworth, so the gallery had a relationship to it from the beginning. We also made the decision because of their links to the university and the possibilities of further research - such as English and American studies, Art History, and Studies of Sexuality and Culture.

It’s fascinating to think that the development of a collection is a starting point for so many other areas of research…

They showed it straight away and planned quite extensive events around it including performing Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rake’s Progress’ alongside it! The curator Helen Stalker will be coming into the Contemporary Art Society on the 13th June to do a talk that looks at the narrative of the ‘A Rake’s Progress’ and Hockney’s influence on other artists. What’s interesting is the combination of the abstract and the figurative and how the two things were separate at the time but how Hockney brings them together…

In a really playful way. Hockney is both a great story teller and formalist, in these prints he is absorbing the influence of abstract expressionism.

They’re quite diaristic as well, drawing directly onto the etching plate.

Well he was a naive in some ways, he was trained as a painter so was new to printing, and he would often make mistakes like getting the words the wrong way around etc.

I think people will really respond to them’the Nottingham Contemporary show a few years ago was very interesting. It looked at his influence on other artists such as Félix González-Torres.

Really’ Torres’

They described the connection as different ways of responding to queer politics, and how Felix Gonzalez Torres responded to it in a more conceptual way.

There is certainly an eroticism in both of their work in different ways. The CAS show represents a good opportunity for a lot of younger people to see that Hockney’s work has shifted so radically over his career, for me these earlier works are his strongest.

Yes, I’ve been thinking a lot about artists that could respond to the prints - it would be interesting to see. These acts of philanthropy like the recent Eric and Jean Cass Gift or Dr Lande are quite rare but because of our position we are in a good place to advice where the strengths and expertise are within museums. We want to encourage this philanthropy and think about the incentives for donors.

Well this is a broader debate about forms of philanthropy in the UK. Maybe there is an argument to be made that CAS plays a more pivotal role because of the continued funding restrictions on public institutions.

Yes, I think primarily our programme is about bringing collectors, curators and institutions closer together in understanding how we build public collections - and now we’re able to show the critical work we do in collection development to a wider audience than ever, thanks to our new public-facing space.

So the new building plays a pivotal role in explaining the CAS in its current form’

Exactly, it’s a place for talks, events and displays to help bring the expertise of curators, museum professionals and experienced collectors closer to public audiences, to reach even those with no prior knowledge of contemporary art or art history and to incite an enthusiasm for understanding art. In that sense, the CAS has a wider reach and influence now than it did 100 years ago. The exhibition programme also enables us to show people the very works that they’ve supported. It’s a way of illustrating to other collectors that the right context for work is pivotal - a good public collection will enable the right people to look after and learn from the work long term.

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