At the Contemporary Art Society we buy works by today’s foremost living artists, and place them in museum collections for the nation to enjoy. This means future generations can see how artists have reflected the spirit of their age. We’ve been doing this for over 100 years; the works we’ve bought connect us to new ideas and experiences, connect us to each other now, and to the people of earlier times and places.
Looking back through the acquisitions we’ve made for the nation, you can chart artist’s responses to major events over the past century. At Tate, you can see how Christopher Nevinson’s experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War is translated through Vorticism’s harsh angles to describe soldiers in battle, or at Gallery Oldham, you can look through the eyes of Peter Phillips at the Pop Art revolution of the swinging sixties.
We recently helped National Museum Wales and the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne purchase John Akomfrah’s magisterial 2015 film essay Vertigo Sea – a work that encompasses climate change, ecological disaster, migration and the history of the transatlantic slave trade. Last year, we supported Graves Gallery in Sheffield to purchase 64 drawings by the Sheffield-born street artist Phlegm. His Pandemic Diary drawings were posted to his Instagram through the first lockdown, recording our every collective experience. It seems impossible now, but with time we will forget these details and want to be reminded.
Working so closely with 71 museums nationwide during this time has highlighted to me not only how hard they’re all working to welcome visitors back through their doors when they can (17 May in England, 26 April in Scotland), but also how contemporary art has a role to play as we emerge from lockdown.
That’s why the Contemporary Art Society launched CHOOSE ART – a campaign to support museums across the UK, raising money to purchase outstanding new work and support our network of museums as they reopen – bringing them closer to the communities that they serve. This campaign, in collaboration with Katharine Hamnett London, is a clarion call to the entire nation – encouraging them to support their local museum or art gallery as soon as they can. Our museum network welcomes 21 million visitors a year, and we need them to return as soon as they’re able to do so.
Art is at the heart of our towns and cities, right in the centre of our lives. Our museums and galleries are cherished hubs in our communities and play an important civic role. Many were built in the 19th century with lofty, and now frankly outdated ideals of educating and civilising the populace. Today we recognise them as powerful agents of social cohesion and civic pride, places of solace and healing in hard times, places for revelation and self-discovery.
Manchester Art Gallery, for example, is pioneering the idea of the Mindful Museum, but emphasises the power of just “letting thoughts come and go while looking at a painting”. Through this year of the pandemic, so many of us have longed for this ostensibly simple, yet so very rewarding experience.
Olafur Eliasson’s 1998 work The Forked Forest Path – that we helped The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne to purchase – is soon to be on show at Fabrica in Brighton. This breath-taking installation takes visitors on an immersive journey through a silvery forest of birch branches, reconnecting them to the sights, sounds and smells of the natural world. This work has accrued new significance with the passage of time, as we have found solace in nature during lockdown.
We may be waiting longer than we want to go back to the museums and galleries – the reasons for the delay in reopening remain hard to understand – but we will go back to them, secure in the knowledge that the people who run them have done everything possible to make that a safe, as well as a profoundly nourishing experience. We must continue to vote with our feet, supporting them with our presence whenever we can and showing why, above all else, we choose art.
We are entering the last two days of the CHOOSE ART campaign. During this period I’m delighted that, thanks to a generous supporter, donations will be match-funded. To make a donation, click here.