Museums

A Collector’s Passion for All Things British

by Ana Alvarez on September 27, 2011

Installation view of "Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection." (all images courtesy the Museum of Art Rhode Island School of Design, Providence)

PROVIDENCE, RHODE ISLAND — Ever since Pollock splattered his ego onto a canvas in the 1950s, a decided geographical shift across the Atlantic occurred — Europe lost its ruling power as center of the art world and New York stepped into it shoes as the new authoritative hub of contemporary art. Yet, the new exhibition at The Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design, Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection reminds us that notion may be a tad overhyped and that some pretty fantastic art continued to be made on the other side of the Atlantic. The exhibition displays work by British artist from the past 60 years, including exemplary works of Britain’s contributions to decidedly international art movements like Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Op Art.

Bridget Riley, "Gather" (1981). Bequest of Richard Brown Baker. © Bridget Riley 2011. All rights reserved, courtesy Karsten Schubert, London.

As the title suggest, the whole show is based around the collection of one man — Richard Brown Baker. This exhibition of a whopping 83 artists is just as much about British art as it is a testament and portrait of man through his collection. A CIA analyst turned art collector and connoisseur, Baker turned what were modest means into a respectable contemporary art collection. His keen eye led him to spot soon to be art-world successes early on. As he said in a New York Times interview, “I get there early and I make fast decisions.”

As Jan Howard, who curated the show along with Judith Tannenbaum, puts it: “He never lost the thrill of discovering new talent, and, as he could afford it, continuing to support those whose work he had previously collected.” After his death, Baker donated most of collection to Yale, his alma mater. Yet as a Rhode Island native, he left what was the British section of his collection, a total of 136 contemporary works, to the RISD Museum of Art — those works are what are on display.

While the works that Baker collected are stunning , the best gift Baker gave the RISD Museum of Art was a stipend and a contemporary art curator to spend it. The Richard Brown Baker Fund for Contemporary British Art allows the Museum to expand the collection with newer works until 2020. His generosity also established a contemporary art curatorial position at the Museum, which is currently filled by Tannenbaum.

Damien Hirst, "Utopia" (2008). Richard Brown Baker Fund for Contemporary British Art. © Damien Hirst.

It is almost as if Baker foresaw what would happen in the late 1990s London art scene — namely the outburst of the Young British Artists, usually known as the “YBAs.” While his collection of post-war British art is strong, it is the work of the YBAs — including Damien Hirts’s butterflies and Tracey Emin’s needlework — that provides it with its highlights.

Thanks to the passion of one man, Rhode Island of all places can boast at having one of the most impressive collections of contemporary British art in the United States.

Made in the UK: Contemporary Art from the Richard Brown Baker Collection opened September 23 and runs through January 8 at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit Street, Providence, Rhode Island).

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