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August 2017

Vol. 159 / No. 1373

Reflected glory: university art collections in Britain

ALTHOUGH UNIVERSITY COLLECTIONS make up only three per cent of museums in the country, they have a prominence that belies their size: according to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport they represent thirty percent of collections designated as ‘of national or international importance’. As a way of drawing attention to the range of university art collections, we have compiled a Supplement surveying acquisitions made by museums and galleries other than those in London, Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow (see pp.677–88).

This is a sequel to the Supplement in our August 2015 issue on recent acquisitions by British regional museums, and is also sponsored by the Michael Marks Charitable Trust. We asked a number of museums to submit acquisitions made over the past decade from which we chose a representative selection. We also talked to directors and curators from a sample of museums across the country. Some of these collections are unfamiliar to many, others – such as the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts – have a national reputation. Nonetheless, several common factors are evident.

The acquisitions are overwhelmingly of twentieth-century and contemporary British art. This is not surprising. Most of these museums, like their universities, are creations of the past century. Many of their works of art, as at Warwick, for example, or the University of Hertfordshire, were acquired primarily to decorate new buildings and landscapes, and were not conceived of as ‘collections’, although with the passage of time many are now treated as such. In other universities, curators with limited resources focused on modern British art as an affordable field for collecting, often with very significant results, as at the University of Hull, where from 1963 onwards Malcolm Easton created an outstanding collection. In addition, works by twentieth-century artists acquired by collectors at the time they were made are now passing to museums as bequests, sometimes through the Acceptance in Lieu scheme. Among the examples in the Supplement are superb paintings by Keith Vaughan and Frank Auerbach (the latter from the estate of Lucian Freud) recently allocated to the Sainsbury Centre. The major exception to this pattern of collecting is the Barber Institute, which collects only works more than thirty years old. It is in the happy position of having both an endowment independent of the university, given by Lady Barber in 1932, and a dedicated fund for acquisitions. One result has been the most significant purchase recorded in the Supplement, George Bellows’s Nude, Miss Bentham, acquired in 2014, and only the second painting by the artist to enter a public collection in the United Kingdom.

A few university museums have benefited greatly in recent years from substantial investment. For example, in 2008 the choice of Liverpool as European Capital of Culture prompted the university to invest £8.6 million in restoring its original nineteenth-century building as a home for the Victoria Gallery & Museum. Similarly, Hull’s nomination as UK City of Culture in 2017 encouraged the university to rehouse its art collection in a new gallery in the Brynmor Jones Library. Although these are exceptions, it might be thought that most university museums could be confident about the future, at least in comparison with the collections owned by local authorities, since they form part of teaching and research institutions. Yet almost all the curators we spoke to reported that their museums had at best a semi-detached relationship with their parent universities. Only in a very few instances, such as the non-European art at the Sainsbury Centre, are the collections a regular focus of taught courses.

It is dispiriting that so few departments of art history use the resources of their university’s collections in any systematic way. The Whitworth shows what can be done: in 2016–17 undergraduates and graduates of the Department of Art History and Visual Studies assisted with the exhibition Marcantonio Raimondi, Raphael and the Image Multiplied,1 and the museum’s curators have for forty years taught on the University’s MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies. Elsewhere, curators reported to us that the art history courses in their universities failed to encourage the close involvement with objects that a museum offers. This disconnection is reflected in funding. In 2016 a funding review by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) resulted in an annual investment for higher education museums, set for 2017–18 at £10.7 million. Almost four-fifths of this (£8.5 million) was allocated to just four universities – London, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester. Only five of the museums we contacted for this Supplement receive HEFCE funding – the Barber, the Whitworth, the Sainsbury Centre, the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery at Leeds and the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle.

This is not surprising, as the bar for funding is set high by HEFCE: an institution must demonstrate a research output with impact beyond its parent university. Most university museums seem to have decided that HEFCE funding is an unrealistic aim and have concentrated on attracting funds by developing partnerships and audiences among a wider public. Here – like many HEFCE-funded museums – they have often been very successful. For example, the Djanogly Gallery at Nottingham, operating under the umbrella of the university funded Lakeside Arts Trust, has become a leading regional gallery for exhibitions, and its role as a showcase for the university’s collections is secondary. The drive by many museums to find audiences outside universities has a negative aspect: to some degree it reflects not only lack of engagement with departments of art history but also a fear, expressed by several of the curators we spoke to, that the study of art history in universities is in long-term decline. How long will it be, therefore, before universities start to question the value of supporting their art collections? One day it may not be enough that, as one director put it to us, ‘they like to bathe in our reflected glory’.  

1 Reviewed in this Magazine, 159 (2017), pp.60–61.