National Treasure

With the launch of New Works, Walker Art Gallery volunteer Emma Sumner delves into the secret treasures of our public art collection usually kept under lock and key …

The Walker Art Gallery sticks in my mind as the sort of place people come to pay homage to their favourite works of art that have been on display for years. Visitors go to bask in the bewildering landscapes; be stared at by endless portraits; it’s a tourist hot spot displaying the wealth of a very fine art collection.

What you may not know is that the Walker’s display is only a fraction of a much wider collection kept in vaults and cellars. Part of the National Museums Liverpool (NML) branch, it is funded directly by the Department for Culture Media and Sport, making it a national collection of significant importance, and the only DCMS national museum based entirely outside London. The latest exhibition at the Walker, simply titled New Works, is at once a peek into what we actually have in the city, and a demonstration of how the current curators are taking the historic collection forward.

The gallery is constantly acquiring new works, and this exhibition is a fascinating (and sometimes controversial) insight into what is chosen and why. There is a vast diversity that gives the exhibition a sort of degree show feel; taking in art that delights or confuses at every turn, almost like the gallery has simply tidied their art store and let us go in for a wander round. Its theme is to show us, the public, our collection and how the gallery is adding to it.

After its opening I took the opportunity to delve deeper into what the collection means to the city and its people, and to try to find out exactly how our collections work. I took a tour with the exhibition curators Ann Bukantas, Head of Fine Art, and Lucy Gardener, Assistant Curator, and they tried to explain the various works, their significance as new purchases, and the difficult process this actually entails.

On entering the first gallery, the first work to greet you is Marcus Coates’s video installation Journey to the Lower World, 2004 (main picture). Bukantas explained that the work, like many in the Walker’s collection, was produced by the artist as part of a residency within the city. This specific collection criterion has become prevalent with Liverpool Biennial’s influx of international artists every two years. This influence has found the collection acquiring work by international artists that are part of the legacy of the arts festival (take Yoko Ono’s Liverpool Skyladders, 2008, for example).

Further into the second gallery, Haroon Mirza’s A Sleek Dry Yell, 2008, buzzes in the corner, reminding you of its presence. The work has been acquired as part of a joint purchase between five different North West galleries (The Walker Art Gallery,Victoria Gallery & Museum, Grundy Art Gallery) through the Contemporary Art Society’s (CAS) sculpture fund. Sharing an artwork between five different galleries seems a little too complicated to work, but if it gets new works purchased and onto gallery walls it can’t be a bad thing, even if it does seem like a recipe for art gallery turmoil.

When collecting, I learn, art galleries have various charities and government organisations who offer funding to help encourage them to purchase new works. The Walker work closely with the Art Fund, who help UK museums replenish and develop existing collections, and CAS, who work to encourage an appreciation and understanding of contemporary art by a wide audience and to donate works by important and new artists to museums and public galleries across the UK.

An integral part of the application for funding from these organisations is detailed facts and figures of how often the gallery would expect to display the work and how many people they expect to see it when displayed. It seems as though these organisations have become savvy to the issue of public collections sitting in storage and are trying, in some fashion, to correct it.

“These organisations have become savvy to the issue of public collections sitting in storage and are trying to correct it”

Although the collection has a definite focus on links to Liverpool, it is a national collection and aims to collect works of international significance. One of the works which is clear demonstration of this is Louise Bourgeois’s Ears, 2004, but other examples are seen in the work of Paula Rego and Helen Chadwick. Although locally relevant works are important, the collection strikes a balance between this by also collecting works that help to enhance international links.

Another fact gleaned from Bukantas was how the galleries have, over time, had donated or bequeathed to them collections of eminent Liverpudlians, such as William Roscoe, whose own private collection is the very foundation of the collection we see today. It seems that the collection not only reflects the artistic endeavours and influences of the city, but also the tastes of its more wealthy citizens. The Walker still has patron’s today who assist in the acquisition of works; one such person being Phil Redmond, the current Chairman of NML.

If you’re an artist (or an art collector) reading this, unfortunately not just anyone can decide that they want to donate work! Within strictly set guidelines, there is a specific rule on what the gallery can be gifted due to its storage capacity and minimal wall space. It’s a very tightly controlled policy where curators work closely with conservation staff to decide if a work is fit for the collection, and won’t cause any major long term conservation issues. If you think about all the time it takes to look after the works, this starts to make sense. There are also national and international laws and codes of practice that a DCMS funded organisation must abide by. The whole acquisitions process is lengthy, taking on average around 6 months to complete.

Considering NML’s Art Galleries rather strict Collecting plan (which guides what the collection currently contains and details what future acquisitions will be and what they won’t be), I wonder if the policy allows only the collection of new works and none that are more ‘historical’? Bukantas explained that all aspects of the collection are important, but there are certain ‘gaps’ that have been recognised. Work by Whistler, for example, who has links with many of the other artists of that time within the collection and is continually referred to within interpretation, but is not represented within the archive.

The collection policy is all about compromise; what’s more important at the time to the collection, and if this is the only chance to get a piece of an artists work. Maintaining relationships with artists means that work could still yet be purchased in the future.

The New Works exhibition made me think about the works on show in other rooms and how often they change, many seeming to be the same works that you saw on visits as a child. Bukantas explained that some of the rooms don’t get changed unless the works go on loan (such as in Rooms 12 to 15 where works are very large and heavy, creating complicated hangs). There is a core list of works that are always on display; visitors come specifically to see them, or they may just be the most famous works within the collection. Overall, it seems lack of man power and staff make it difficult to change the core galleries on a regular basis, surely the bane of the majority of galleries nationally.

The smaller Rooms 9 and 14 have been set aside to provide opportunities to put more of the collection on show. The exhibitions tend to be of significance to the time of their hang, like the recent Munich 1972:  Olympic Posters display. These rooms are ways to show the works in new contexts that are relevant to current events or events on an international scale, as well as create opportunities for current artists to work with the collection in new ways.

This show is surely the result of a tightening of the purse strings, but I want to see the collection that I, as a member of the public, own. If we need to cut back, I don’t need to see works that have costs thousands of pounds to ship in from across the world. New Works acts as a demonstration of how much more there is to discover about the collections of other galleries and museums within Liverpool, and is well worth a visit to get a sense of the fantastic diversity that we have within our city’s collections.

Emma Sumner

New Works is open to the public until further notice, free admission, 10am-5pm

Posted on 18/02/2013 by thedoublenegative