Gill Hedleyback

Writer and Curator

The Mag Collection

Gill Hedley speaking at Site Gallery, Sheffield, in 2006

The Mag Collection

Essay on collecting policy in the context of the The Mag Collection and Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, 

photo of the Ferens Art Gallery

Introduction to The Mag Collection – catalogue of image-based art in Britain in the late twentieth century.

To celebrate a varied and extensive range of contemporary art being given into the care of the Ferens Art Gallery, Kingston upon Hull City Museums, Art Galleries and Archives in 1997.

Gill Hedley, Director, Contemporary Art Society

A glance through any art directory will reveal that many British museums have at their core collections formed by individuals: Tate, Burrell, Graves, Courtauld, Whitworth, Laing, Shipley, Usher, Russell-Cotes, Towner, Sainsbury, Walker and Ferens among them.

Other collectors may not have museums named after them but their gifts and bequests are often carefully placed in public collections throughout the country so that the identity and coherence of these groups of work can still be felt.

The relationship between the nation's museums and those individuals who amass serious collections using their own instincts and resources is a fascinating one. Who has the most exciting and satisfying role to play: the public curator or the private collector?

The curator in charge of a public collection has to be answerable to the tax payer, and decisions are normally made through layers of committees (sometimes composed of art experts, often not). The purchase of each work must be thoroughly justified in terms of finance, conservation standards and relationships to the rest of the collection. Frequently, appeals for further funding have to be launched. Diplomatic discussions with artists and galleries are undertaken to allow for the months of negotiation before a purchase can be completed. It is rare for a curator to be able to act on swift gut reactions to art in an auction or at an exhibition of a sought-after artist. Often, the process of making an acquisition follows months or years of watching and waiting, usually while prices increase.

However, it is only reasonable that each purchase in a public collection should be the result of thoughtful and painstaking decisions. Contemporary works of art must take their place in collections alongside historic and modern counterparts where they will remain in public ownership for generations, coping with shifts in taste and display. Most importantly, they must function on many levels for as wide and diverse an audience as the museum professionals can attract to the gallery.

Get the selection right and there is a feeling of immense achievement. Success becomes tangible when a work of art is displayed to effect in the context of an historic programme; when it is requested for loan by other institutions; or when the artist asks to include it in a retrospective. A curator can derive much satisfaction from the knowledge that a collection has been extended and kept alive by an acquisition made according to the highest professional standards.

But a private collector can move so much more freely: perhaps the only other people to consider are members of the family and the bank manager. Instant decisions can be made. A private collector can buy early work by young artists, encouraging them, maintaining contact, developing a relationship until a more substantial purchase of a mature work is made.

The private collector can, above all, take risks, experiment, and need not be overly judgmental about the medium or scale of works. Concerns relating to value, uniqueness, or whether a work is representative - the attributes sought by most stamp collectors and some art buyers - do not necessarily have to be taken into consideration. The private purchaser can collect for pure quality or personal preference.

The Mag Collection, put together by Paul Wilson, confounds preconceptions of what a private collection might and should do. It is not an encyclopaedic collection, nor is its rhythm predictable. A selection that features 75 per cent more women artists than men, where photography as a medium is celebrated, where metropolitan concerns do not predominate and where there are decades between the oldest and the youngest artists represented, clearly intends to redress the balance. Much work selected from the late 1970s to the early 1990s is by senior painters and printmakers who have enjoyed sustained and successful careers, but not all of whom would have figured in fashionable surveys of the time, when sculpture would have dominated. British Conceptualism is well-represented through the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay, Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, but it is in photography that the Mag Collection shows its strengths and variety.

In this country, photography has rarely been acquired for public collections, except as historical document or reportage, outside the Victoria & Albert Museum. Scale is not the issue here, but rather, an outdated sense that it might not be a serious medium or that it has adverse conservation implications. Nothing could be further from the truth and private collectors have often led the way in this field.

The Mag Collection's delight in colour and the technical possibilities of printmaking has developed into a fascination with the possibilities of photography; and perhaps its most significant achievement is in drawing attention to the impact that medium, in all its forms, has had on young British artists of the 1990s.

The Mag is an individual's collection, a personal view of twenty vital years with an underlying sense of curatorial direction and thoroughness, but it is not simply a private collection. The collector is a private individual but has put together this group of works for public use. The remarkable range of the Mag Collection represents a particularly interesting set of decisions: what not to include has been as important as its opposite.

Increasingly, curators and artists have begun to question aspects of collections and collecting but I am not aware of any other individual collector who is driven by such a strong ambition to critique the very act of collecting itself. Paul Wilson is to be congratulated on his determination and breadth of vision in forming this body of work.

Though the collection was deliberately and thoughtfully put together for public use, Wilson did not have a particular home in mind. Rather, there has been a notion of a generic - rather than an ideal — public museum behind the selection. It was always likely that the work would be shown in the company of a strong historic collection but what those strengths might be were not known. Curatorial choices had to be made, but without specific points of reference. The collection had to be coherent enough to function as a whole and to be more than the sum of its parts.

How does one autonomous collection function inside another? Added values are conferred on works of art when they are purchased for public or private collections. The acquisition of art for a museum gives it an air of respectability and establishment weight; the company of Old Masters, ancient and modern, is a state to which most artists, regardless of their subversive or maverick intentions, greatly aspire.

For the museum visitor too, there is often an added frisson of delight or disbelief in learning from the label that the work has provoked in an individual collector the instinct to purchase it. Those who could never become collectors themselves still know what it feels like to covet something, and the private collection is suffused with the positive implications of enthusiasm and selectivity.

A significant function of a private collection within a public one is that it can question and reveal the role played by those who create museum collections, where personal taste may be sublimated in professional decisions. Gradually, histories of art are acknowledging the role of key players in public collecting in Britain's post-war period.

The Ferens Art Gallery has its own distinctive and carefully structured collection policy. Since 1931, it has been a member of the Contemporary Art Society, receiving gifts or works of art often purchased on our behalf by private collectors. This is the distinguishing feature of CAS. It was founded by private collectors and curators in 1910 to acquire outstanding works of contemporary art selected by individuals and not by committees of taste, for presentation to museums throughout Britain that show commitment and flair in the display and interpretation of the work of living artists.

Recently the Ferens has been able to extend its collection in partnership with the Contemporary Art Society. In 1992, the Ferens was selected as one of three museums (along with the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne and Wolverhampton Art Gallery) to be part of a Special Collection Scheme funded jointly by the City of Hull, the Arts Council of England and the CAS, with a generous grant from the Baring Foundation. This enabled the gallery to make purchases of work by living artists that reflect the existing collection's strengths in portraiture and works responding to the sea, while developing a particular emphasis on photography, including film and video.

What the Scheme has revealed is that the most important element a collector, private or public, can bring to acquiring art is that of dedicating sufficient time to looking and thinking before buying. There may be a revolution in high street shopping but art purchases should not be made from catalogues and for the curator and private collector alike, familiarity with all sorts of venues must be established with a wide geographical remit.

The Mag Collection is the result of many years of looking at and discussing art in studios, and commercial and independent galleries throughout Britain. Wilson also thoroughly researched the museum world before finding an appropriate and empathetic partnership with the Ferens. No regional museum in the last twenty years could have hoped to amass a collection as varied, challenging and lively as the Mag Collection, which in turn, finds a splendid context at the Ferens.