The Contemporary Art Society’s Special Collection Scheme (SCS) (1998-2005)

Contemporary art collecting for public collections

In August 2005, the Contemporary Art Society distributed a questionnaire about contemporary art collecting to every collections-based art gallery in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The word ‘art’ was used in its widest possible sense to include applied art and craft; and “contemporary art” was defined as art made in the last 10 years.

Of the 63 questionnaires completed and returned:

46 were from Local Authority galleries

6 were from University galleries

8 fell into the category of independent/private/trust

3 were “other”

Collecting policies

95.1% of respondents either collect or aspire to collect contemporary art and/or craft.

There was a strong emphasis on work of local, regional and national significance; only 46.4% of
respondents have a collecting policy that is international in scope.

Collecting expenditure

Only 62.1% of respondents have a dedicated collecting budget; those who don’t can sometimes
access funds from other budget headings or sources.

Over the last five years, approximate annual expenditure on contemporary art shows a ‘bunching’
at the lower end of the scale.

34.5% spent less than £1,000

51.7% spent less than £2,000

63.8% spent less than £5,000

74.1% spent less than £10,000

Only 3.4% of respondents had spent as much as £40,000 annually on contemporary art in the last
five years.

Asked about patterns of expenditure in the last five years, the response was as follows:

20.7% reported that their budgets had diminished

46.6% reported that their budgets had stayed the same

27.6% reported that their budgets had increased

What kind of work is being collected?

85.7% collect painting

57.1% collect prints

53.6% collect sculpture

51.8% collect applied art and craft

39.3% collect drawings

39.3% collect photography

25% collect video/artists’ film

16.1% collect installation

8.9% collect new media work

8.9% collect artists’ books

7.1% collect wall painting and drawings


Collecting constraints

Asked about the factors that have prevented the acquisition of contemporary art, 88.7% of
respondents cited “lack of funding” as the main constraint; 81.1% mentioned lack of storage
space; and 67.9% referred to lack of display space.

Other factors included conservation considerations (39.6%), lack of ‘in-house technical
expertise’, ‘potential for controversy’ and ‘management/political intervention’. A few
respondents also acknowledged their own lack of confidence in making judgements about what is
worth collecting.

Professional development

Only 52.6% of respondents allocate funding for research and travel to curators working with

62.1% of respondents indicated that research and travel were either a “low priority” or “not a
priority at all”.

27.6% indicated that research and travel are a “medium priority”.

10.3% indicated that research and travel are a “high priority”.

Only 5.3% of respondents were able regularly to travel abroad.

Other remarks from curators:

“The Contemporary Art Society’s Special Collection Scheme has been the first real attempt at raising the base level of curatorial expertise in  UK in relation to acquisition of contemporary art. Curators in the main come from more
traditional historical art background with relatively little experience of contemporary art  scene or dealers. The universities and post-grad courses can do a lot to remedy this if the support is there from museums and professional bodies. Very little evidence of this at present!”

“The greatest problem we face is the continuing downward trend of funds for acquisition – in 2005 we have 16% of what we had in 1980 and face none in 2006. Choice of acquisition is becoming increasingly politician-led, heads of service are wary of allowing purchases of “controversial” works that could ‘disturb’ elected members.”

“Collecting new media = steep learning curve & display implications & conservation issues becoming apparent – as are stresses on technical & curatorial staff to be addressed!”

“Due to staff cuts/managerial changes at the Art Gallery & Museum, decision making over collecting contemporary art has become increasingly frustrating.”

“The greatest problem we face in showing new media work is the spaces in a purpose built 19th century gallery primarily designed for paintings & sculpture. Contemporary works can occupy entire galleries where once 20/30 works were installed. Sound seepage is a problem for visitors’ engagement with other displays. Equipment, the high cost and specialist maintenance is another real operational issue for us. Bulbs for one installation can cost the equivalent of a whole exhibition budget for example.”

“I would love to be able to build up a good collection of contemporary art and craft, but we hardly have room to store the museum objects/paintings we already have, and have no dedicated art display space to speak of. We may move to a new museum in the future, and if so, we might be able to collect more actively.”

“It’s important to acknowledge the significance of personal contacts in collecting contemporary work. Gallerists need to know who might be interested in what to be able to give forewarning of interesting work. I’m currently in negotiation about the purchase of a work from a show that doesn’t open until 17 September – and the real museum-quality work has already been sold. In an output centred climate, it’s sometimes hard to make the case for developing and maintaining a network if it doesn’t bear immediate fruit.”

“The Contemporary Art Society is critical in the continuing advancement of regional contemporary art collecting.
Initiatives like the Special Collecting Scheme should be repeated.”

“Our acquisitions have been declining over the past few years, resulting in more pressure to secure funding from local private trusts and the NACF (both of which have been essential for recent purchases of work by artists such as Rachel Whiteread, Frank Auerbach and Richard Deacon). The acquisitions fund also covers purchases of art from the 17th century onwards and as such our purchasing of contemporary art may decline further. As this is the case, gifts from the Contemporary Art Society  become ever more important.”

Our main issues were as follows:

* lack of dedicated budget for acquisitions

* need for advice/expertise in Research & Development in the field of Contemporary Collecting
for Curatorial staff

* Restrictions on travel for research for curatorial team and opportunities to learn about
appropriate visits etc.


Special Collection Scheme

The participating museums were: Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery; Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne;
Ferens Art Gallery, Hull; Leeds City Art Gallery; Manchester Art Gallery; Whitworth Art Gallery,
University of Manchester; Mead Gallery, University of Warwick; Middlesbrough Institute of Modern
Art; Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery; Southampton City Art Gallery; South London
Gallery; The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent; The New Art Gallery, Walsall;
Wolverhampton Museum and Art Gallery; Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery.

The National Collecting Scheme for Scotland

Using the SCS model, the Contemporary Art Society and the Scottish Arts Council are jointly operating a Lottery-funded
National Collecting Scheme for Scotland. The aim is to develop a strategic approach to collecting and reach a wide audience through imaginative interpretation and marketing.

The six museums taking part were: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums; McManus Galleries, Dundee; City
Art Centre, Edinburgh; The Hunterian Art Gallery and Museum, University of Glasgow; Paisley
Museum and Art Galleries; and the Pier Arts Centre, Orkney.


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