Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

Welcome to the CAS

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

Collector's Version of the 2CV

On Gill Hedley as the Contemporary Art Society's new Director. For the Observer

photo of Gill Hedley
Gill at the Economist in 1988

'Its influence on public collections is incalculable, its strength has been its independence'. Laurence Marks hopes new professionalism at the Contemporary Art Society will not impair its originality.

The English tradition of the cultivated amateur has found its perfect expression in the Contemporary Art Society. But recent changes, culminating in the appointment of a respected exhibitions organiser from the British Council, Gill Hedley, as director, may be about to bureaucratise it. If so, in the view of many members, its value will diminish.

It was founded in 1910 by the critic and painter Roger Fry. He and his Bloomsbury friends kicked in small sums to buy and publicise modern art, which they presented to museums. It has 2,000 members and a secretariat of four.

Publicly endowed institutions like the British Council and Arts Council collections (founded 1946), the Institute of Contemporary Arts (1947), the Hayward Gallery and the Tate Gallery's exhibitions department (1968) and innumerable Kunsthalle might be thought to have hijacked its original function as standard-bearer for the avant-garde. Yet its influence on public collections is incalculable. The manoeuvrable little 2CV can still sometimes run those flashy Porsches off the road.

Its strength has been its independence from institutional taste and bureaucratic pressures. Every year, its chairman and director select two buyers (usually private collectors, occasionally professional curators or critics) and give them an initial £25,000 each, topped-up last year to £40,000, to spend. A crafts buyer is given £10,000. Every three years or so, the CAS exhibits the loot and invites 50 or so subscribing museums to choose one work apiece, listing their first six preferences. It is tremendously popular with museum committees, who receive a triennial bonbon; with curators, who find it a useful way of bowling advanced works past conservative committee chairmen; and with the three buyers, who have a wonderful time gambling with somebody else's money, like house dealers in a poker club.

Gill Hedley's administrative qualifications are unassailable. The daughter of an insurance broker, she was educated at Central Newcastle High School for Girls and at the Courtauld, where she read architectural history, inspired by girlhood enthusiasm for John Dobson's neo-classical buildings in Newcastle.

At the city's Laing Art Gallery and later at Southampton City Art Gallery she organised exhibitions of landscape art. At the British Council she organised the Francis Bacon show that electrified Moscow in 1988, the British presence at the 1989 São Paulo Biennale, and Richard Hamilton's show in Venice this year.

Until half a century ago, museum curatorship was an occupation for scholars and gentlemen. It was professionalised after the Second World War in response to regular public funding and the need for museums to market themselves as a branch of the entertainment business. That evolution barely touched the CAS, which pottered on, quietly expanding the horizons of museum-goers.

Its taste was crotchety. In the early days it was loyal to Bloomsbury artists (Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell, Mark Gertler), and wary of the Vorticists (led by the enemy, Wyndham Lewis). But its list of Derby winners spotted as yearlings is impressive: Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Peter Lanyon, Howard Hodgkin, Roger Hilton, Anthony Caro, Frank Auerbach and many others.

The rise of public patronage threatened its raison d'etre, despite the energetic chairmanship of Nancy Balfour, former American editor of the Economist; and inflation was reducing the buying-power of the subscription income. Ten years ago Lord Sainsbury gloomily suggested amalgamation with the National Art Collections Fund.

The society owes its survival and present prosperity to two remarkable women, neither of them professional arts administrators. Caryl Hubbard, co-founder of the New Art Centre in Sloane Street, became chairman in 1981. She appointed Petronilla Silver, who had been an assistant at the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street, as director. Together they transformed the CAS.

They set up a profitable consultancy to advise corporations on the purchase of recent painting and sculpture for their soulless new office towers, successfully marketing the expertise and contacts built up over 70 years. It yields about £80,000 a year. They also persuaded Salisbury's to sponsor an annual collectors' art market in Covent Garden. It's the hit of the autumn season. Commission on sales brings in another £60,000 a year. Annual income is now £300,000.

If businessmen, baffled by new art, valued the CAS's help, so might provincial curators, most of whom are appointed for their knowledge of the art of the past, don't often get to the London galleries and feel as uncertain as the rest of us in judging contemporary work.

The two women established tripartite purchasing funds for selected municipal museums. There have been four schemes so far: at Preston, Wolverhampton, Hull and Eastbourne. In the most recent, the CAS, the Arts Council and the local authority contribute a total of £90,000 over three years, which can earn a matching 25 per cent from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund.

The society's spectacular turn-around has created its own problems and opportunities, however. The triennial share-out is inevitably a crap game for the beneficiaries. Buyers tend to ask: 'Whom are we buying for?' Why not cut out intermediaries and devote resources to tripartite schemes which are tailored to particular museums' acquisitions policies and attract matching grants, trebling or quadrupling the CAS's stake?

Why, indeed, bother with individual members, who now contribute only 8 per cent of the society's income, and whose membership privileges (courses, lectures, free admission to exhibitions) cannot compete with those of the Friends of the Tate and of the Royal Academy? In other words, why not rationalise the whole operation?

One doesn't need to subscribe to conspiracy theories about the Courtauld mafia and their sinister grip on the art world to see the dangers. Curatorship is a tiny profession of a few hundred people trained in a handful of university departments. Like other professions it subtly encourages conformity to a ruling ideology. Conspicuous dissent can damage the confidence of grant-giving bodies and affect promotion prospects. The society's individual membership acts as a sea-anchor. If the CAS becomes part of a bureaucratic network, its independent spirit will be compromised and its buying decisions influenced.

There will be no sudden change. The society's present chairman, David Gordon, who is chief executive of ITN, says merely that Gill Hedley was appointed to develop closer links with museums. It would certainly be a shame if, with the whole of Creation being parcelled out among professional managers, there were no longer room for a bunch of inspired, quirky, unbiddable gentlemen (and lady) amateurs.

scan of the Observer article