Contemporary British Masterpieces for our Collections: A New Scheme to Acquire Great Works

11 December 2015 By

Great Works, a new scheme launched by The Contemporary Art Society (CAS) today, aims to address the absence in museums across the UK of works by British contemporary artists who have established international reputations over the last 20 years.

Outside Tate, the British Council, Arts Council and Government Art Collections, there are very few or no works by many leading British-based artists such as Sarah Lucas, Mark Wallinger, Rachel Whiteread and Wolfgang Tillmans. It is increasingly clear that as the market rises exponentially, museums across the country are struggling to collect the work of living artists of established international reputation.

With generous support from the Sfumato Foundation, a new Great Works award will be established which will enable one major work by a leading British artist to be purchased each year for a UK museum or gallery. The 69 museums across the UK that make up the CAS’s Museum Membership will be eligible to apply for the scheme, the majority of which are outside London. It also replaces the Contemporary Art Society’s Annual Award, which ran for seven years between 2009 and 2015.

The winning museum will be asked to make a strong case for how an acquisition of this scale would benefit the institution in relation to their audiences, scholarship and profile of the museum. In particular, the successful applicant will make the case for the acquisition of work by an artist with a substantial connection to the museum’s existing collections, city or region.

The deadline for applications will be the end of February 2016 and the successful applicant informed in March 2016. The work acquired will go on show to the public at the winning museum in 2016/17.

Caroline Douglas, Director of the CAS: “Collecting the art of our time is the lifeblood of a museum and it has now become practically impossible for many museums in the UK to do so without philanthropic support. It is particularly important because contemporary art appeals to young people and is often the way that they are introduced to our great museum collections.”

For over 100 years the CAS has channeled philanthropic support of contemporary art to museums the length and breadth of the country.  In addition to landmark gifts to Tate that have included Picasso, Matisse, Anthony Caro and Damien Hirst, the CAS has a track record of substantial support to regional museums: CAS gifted a major painting by Francis Bacon to Huddersfield in the mid-40s, an installation by Olafur Eliasson to Eastbourne in the late 90s and most recently donated a work by rising star Hito Steyerl to GOMA in Glasgow, the first work by this artist to enter a public collection in this country.

Up and down the country museum collections help to define cities:  the Kurt Schwitters Merzbau at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle is a case in point; Birmingham is famous for its world class collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, Derby for the work of the first painter of the spirit of the industrial revolution, Joseph Wright of Derby; the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool has collected many outstanding works through its John Moores painting prize, the SNGMA in Edinburgh is notable for its collection of British and European Surrealism.  Great works make for destination museums, and contemporary art in particular connects people to the culture of their own time.

Great Works is generously supported by the Sfumato Foundation.


Key Contemporary Art Society Acquisitions:

  •  1917: The Contemporary Art Society gave the first Paul Gauguin, Tahitians (circa 1891) to Tate, the first work by Gaugin to enter a UK public collection
  • 1928: The first Barbara Hepworth (Barbara Skeaping as she was known then) was purchased in 1928:, the Terracotta Goose – was purchased by Ernest Marsh through the Contemporary Art Society Pottery and Crafts Fund in 1928 from Beaux Arts for £15 15s
  • 1933: Pablo Picasso, Flowers (1901) is gifted to Tate, it was the first work by Picasso to be acquired by Tate
  • 1946: The first work by Francis Bacon is purchased, Figure Study II, for £175 and is donated to Kirklees Museums and Galleries in 1952
  • 1950: Lucian Freud, Still Life with Squid and Sea Urchin (1949) was purchased in 1950 and gifted to Harris Museum in 1952. Purchased for £75
  • 1965: Picasso Three Dancers gifted to Tate
  • 1992: Damien Hirst, Forms Without Life (1991) is donated to Tate, the first Hirst to enter a UK public collection
  • 1994: Peter Doig, Concrete Cabin (1991/2) was purchased in 1994. It was gifted to New Walk Museum & Art Gallery.
  • 1999: Grayson Perry – Designer Rebellion (1999) and Video Installation (1999) were purchased in 1999 for The Potteries through the Special Collection Scheme.  The first work by the artist in a UK public collection.
  • 2003: Olafur Eliasson, The Forked Forest Path (1998) purchased for Towner Eastbourne in 2003, the first of his works to enter a regional UK collection.
  • 2013: Lynette Yiadom Boakye (nominated for Turner Prize 2013) The work we purchased for Plymouth, To Tell Them Where It’s Got To (2013), was purchased for £5,000.
  • 2015: Hito Steyerl, Abstract (2012) was purchased for the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow, the first work by Steyerl to enter a UK public collection.