Kathy Prendergast, "Land" (1990), currently on view in 'Somewhat Abstract' at Nottingham Contemporary

Kathy Prendergast, “Land” (1990), currently on view in ‘Somewhat Abstract’ at Nottingham Contemporary (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

NOTTINGHAM, UK — A cultural mission to enlighten and educate the public is, it might be said, as British as the BBC. This mindset has been called Reithian, after Lord Reith, first general manager of the broadcasting organisation. For a good example of Reithianism, look no further than the 13-part documentary Civilisation, presented on the BBC in 1969 by art historian Kenneth Clark.

As BBC producers look to remake that landmark show for a new audience, a lesser-known legacy of Clark’s is still very much with us. In the years leading up to 1951’s Festival of Britain, the art historian initiated the Arts Council Collection, a so-called “gallery without walls.” This loan collection now has more than 7,500 works in all media. Following a visit to see 98 of those in a new show at Nottingham Contemporary, I was inspired to find out more.

In 1946 the Arts Council Collection’s mission was: “Promoting and enriching the nation’s knowledge and appreciation of contemporary and modern British art.” Current acting head of the Collection Jill Constantine confirms these founding principles and adds that the Collection’s pragmatic role now is to supply contemporary art on loan to regional venues that might otherwise find acquisition difficult.

Bridget Riley, “Movement in Squares” (1962), on view in ‘Somewhat Abstract’ (click to enlarge)

Some 25% of the Collection, a remarkable proportion, is on loan at any one time, whereas only 3% is generally on view in London. Constantine explains that hospitals, schools, charities, universities, and other public institutions apply for works, and talks about “a remit to reach out to a public who might not actually go to a museum or gallery.” That’s still a certain amount of high-minded thinking of which Clark would almost certainly approve.

What he might not have liked as much is the extremely forward-looking acquisitions policy. An annual grant of £180,000 (~$304,000) won’t go very far on work by Old or even Modern Masters, so the Collection looks for emerging artists at a stage in their career where they deserve both recognition and a payday. “We’re trying to spot artists at that critical moment in their career,” says Constantine. (From time to time, with help from the Art Fund or the Henry Moore Foundation, work by more established artists may also be acquired.)

Barbara Hepworth, “Spring” (1966), on view in ‘Somewhat Abstract’ (click to enlarge)

Curators keen to work with the Collection can avail themselves of several weighty catalogues or their annual acquisitions brochure. They can also browse the many works online, although the digital side of the operation is awaiting an imminent upgrade. Central management comes from the South Bank Centre in London, and the Collection shares a gallery in the North with Yorkshire Sculpture Park. That site also offers a research and conservation facility.

Overall, the Arts Council Collection offers “a pretty comprehensive record of British postwar artistic practice,” says Constantine, even if it pales in comparison with the 70,000 works owned by Tate. “It’s different from Tate’s collection because we’re not there filling historical gaps, as such,” she explains. Still, within its constraints, the Collection mounts some exemplary shows, including a touring land art exhibition called Uncommon Ground, for which more than half of the pieces came from storage. “That’s an example of the Collection at its best,” says Constantine, “supporting a very radical art movement. And we were fortunate to be able to buy a number of works at that period.”

Acquisitions to the Collection are made by three external advisors, who hold that post for just two years. One of the current advisors is Alex Farquharson, director of Nottingham Contemporary, the leading regional gallery. Its current exhibition, Somewhat Abstract, is drawn solely from Arts Council holdings, and features Jeremy Deller alongside Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro rubbing shoulders with Cerith Wyn Evans. The eclectic survey of differing degrees of abstraction in British art could hold its own with a show at, say, Tate Britain, thanks largely to the depth of the Collection.

Jeremy Deller, “Karl Marx 18-12-2000” (2000), on view in ‘Somewhat Abstract’

Constantine sounds thrilled about Somewhat Abstract. “I hope people will get to know us a bit better from that experience,” she says. Then again, the director is equally pleased to see works going to hospitals and schools. “What we have done is lend about 80 works to Paintings in Hospitals, as a loan for them to distribute around the country,” she explains.

Paintings in Hospitals is matched by Masterpieces in Schools. Constantine recalls a 2013 project in which Norton Knatchbull school in Kent took temporary ownership of a painting by Ben Nicholson. “It was the most heartening experience,” she says. The school rearranged its curriculum and had a day of drama, music, and, at a safe distance, chemistry. Now, that’s how to foster a love of art that Clark would be proud of.

Somewhat Abstract continues at Nottingham Contemporary (Weekday Cross, Nottingham, UK) through June 29.

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Mark Sheerin

Mark Sheerin is an art writer from the UK. He also contributes to Culture24 and Frame & Reference, together with his own blog Criticismism. In 2012 he appeared...