A Private Affair: personal collections of contemporary art

Fighting the Friday night traffic to escape from Liverpool, we battle through the rain and put our lives in the hands of the sat nav as we plunge into the darkness. It was worth it when we arrived at Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, for the opening of A Private Affair: Personal Collections of Contemporary Art. No time to linger over the permanent displays – but they look to be worth a few hours lingering – although we did catch a glimpse of a vast ceramics collection from the balcony above an elegant atrium.

This new temporary exhibition was co-organised by the Contemporary Art Society and the Harris, a local-council funded public gallery. A Private Affair showcases contemporary art taken from private collections based in the north of England. The owners have been convinced to part, for a time, with some of their favourite objects, and also to reveal the personal stories behind their collections.  Collectors are important to the work of the Contemporary Art Society and were historically important in the creation of our public museums and galleries. We are reminded by Paul Hobson, director of the CAS, that The Grundy (Blackpool), the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and the Harris all bear the names of their benefactors. This exhibition is very timely, given the shift in focus from public subsidy to private philanthropy to support the arts. This project makes visible the incredibly important work of the CAS, whose mission it is to support the continued acquisition of contemporary art.

The art in this exhibition is displayed in satisfying quantity and outstanding quality: Gordon Cheung’s Neon Shadows (pictured) depicts a scene of cowboys on horseback in melding layers of neon paint on Cheung’s trademark strips of the Financial Times; Iain Andrews Mythopoela, an intricate landscape etched on to a school desk; Blaise Drummond’s Excerpts from the Western World; and Tracey Emin’s Little Owl – just a handful of the covetable things on display.

Some of the pieces are on a domestic scale, but others such as Laura Ford’s Boy Story II, are hard to imagine in a living room context alongside family photographs. Ford’s sculptural work is most commonly seen in biennales and exhibitions showcasing the best of new British Art, and she is represented in the Tate collection. Here, her sculpture of a life-size faceless child wrapped in army-green, pulls a bundle of wooden sheets as big as him across the floor. Growing out of his face a gas mask reminiscent of a small elephant’s trunk adds to the chilling surrealism and mystery of the moment.

This begs the question, what art could you live with and revisit day after day? Peter Woods and his partner Francis Ryan usually see the artworks in their collection alongside the antique furniture and objects in their Merseyside home. This gives them an opportunity to use contemporary art to create witty interventions, such as displaying their Lisa Milroy painting, Blue Plate, above their collection of blue and white china. Peter says that sometimes he and Francis start to take their collection for granted in a domestic setting and sometimes they “sit with their backs to it”. This exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to experience fantastic creations by Glen Baxter, Roger Hiorns, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and others, but also for the collectors to reacquaint themselves with their own collections. The CAS will certainly be pleased to hear that one of the legacies of this exhibition is that Peter and Francis say the experience has given them the courage to buy more challenging artworks in the future.

Some, such as Catherine Braithwaite, do not have all of their collection on display all of the time.  Catherine, a marketing professional specialising in the visual arts, lends to exhibitions as often as possible. Like many of the collectors, Catherine has bought from Ceri Hand Gallery, Manchester Contemporary and the John Moores Painting Prize. A recent purchase is Samantha Donnelly’s Singapore Sling. This sculptural object combines the visual harmonies of a Naum Gabo mathematical piece with the punky spirit of a Linder Stirling collage, topped off with a suggestive bulldog clip.  Donnelly opened her first solo show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery in January this year, suggesting that the collectors here have their fingers on the pulse of the UK contemporary art world. However, the collectors are all in agreement that art should not be purchased as an investment; they recommend buying something only if you love it and it excites you. None of the collectors talk about regret or being prohibited by the cost of contemporary art; they talk passionately about developing long-lasting relationships with artists and how the process of collecting improves their quality of life.

Private and public are usually presented as adversarial and distinct, but this show demonstrates they can co-exist and are intrinsically linked. Collectors have been the unsung missing piece of the puzzle in an art market, which is dependent as much on dialogues between passionate individuals as it is on finance. This is the first of three exhibitions planned at the Harris on the subject of collections and this year the gallery will open a new Heritage Lottery-funded local history gallery. On the basis of this thoughtful and daring exhibition, I expect any future endeavour at the Harris will be worth a visit.

Linda Pittwood

Exhibition continues until 5th May

First published February 2012

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