Arts Council Collection


Andrew Dempsey

Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009

When were you at the Arts Council and what was your role?

AD - Well, I had two periods there, one was between 1966 - 71 and at that stage I was a regional art officer and then in 1968, when the Hayward Gallery opened, I was one of the exhibition organisers. We all did a variety of things back then, we all organised exhibitions and, in my case, in 1968 I was also called the curator of the Collection, but back then it was something that you did with one hand, while doing something else with the other. The Collection then was smaller and its use much simpler, it had not been developed, it was already a large collection, but nothing like as it is today. At that point they had not appointed somebody with a particular responsibility for the Collection. That was an important move. It would have been Katherine Kinnear. At that moment, as soon as a curator was appointed, the Collection was addressed in a more systematic way, up until that stage there had been a lot of exhibitions and we were continually lending to museums.
Were the exhibitions at that particular moment formed predominantly through the appointment of external members purchasing for exhibitions?
AD - Well, that came later, I don't think that happened until the 70s and 80s, when they began to ask people to make exhibitions.
At that stage the Arts Council had an old fashioned advisory structure, a kind of apparatus of fairness to ensure distance from government. At one stage it was scrapped and it doesn't exist any longer, but at that point there was an art panel and a sub-committee for exhibitions. The art panel would have been asked to recommend purchasers for the Collection. Art panel members could purchase individually for the Collection and also appoint individual selectors. It was quite important that they were individuals. They would have appointed more than one person so as to spread the minds and the eyes, as it were. So in 1964 there were five people. I don't think then they were purchasing for exhibitions, but really just buying for the Collection in general and they would always be supporting young artists. It's a very big collection and there are some things in it that have not withstood the test of time, but there are also a lot of things that have.
To what extent did the art panel examine the Collection and decide to purchase particular works from artists where it perceived there to be gaps within the Collection?
AD - I don't know, I think it was more cumulative, certainly in the early years it was more organic and intuitive. There was a feeling that the Council should not only concentrate purchases on new forms of art but should also buy different kinds of art. You can see a kind of catholic nature to the Collection, the different kinds of art that were bought, so there must have been a deliberate intention not to restrict purchases to particular areas of art.
During the first period I worked there I was responsible for the Collection, seeing works out on loan and producing and overseeing whatever exhibitions were being organised at that time. I did not however attend art panel meetings, the meetings that agreed purchases and purchasers, though you could make particular recommendations. There was scope for initiative. For example, when I was a regional arts officer, the north west was my area, including Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham etc. It was the early days of the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, very early days. I got to know people involved in that gallery, a painter called David Prentice, whose work I admired. So I suggested to the Council that something might be bought for the Collection, and a work was collected, and purchased in 1968. But there must have been 50 or 70 works bought that year.
What makes the Arts Council Collection so deeply fascinating is the fact that it is informed by so many individuals over such a long period of time and that's why to some extent there is such a great mix and depth of objects, but that's the nature of the Collection. In terms of how works enter the Collection, we are interested in understanding these different influences, what takes place when individuals are appointed to purchase for the Collection?
AD - Well, this was a long time ago and much of it I can't remember. The exhibitions then were a series devised by Alan Bowness, acting as adviser to the Art Department. In the 1960s they had just started to make exhibitions of 'British painting from 1940 - 49, 50 - 57, and 'British sculpture since the war' etc. etc. They circulated for a long time. They were eventually replaced by more thematic exhibitions. When I was a student in Glasgow an exhibition from the series came to the local museum and it was a fantastic opportunity to see new painting by Roger Hilton, for example, someone you had not come across before.
Within the UK the only other national institution circulating works of contemporary art would have been the Victoria and Albert Museum. I remember Nigel Greenwood, a very important dealer and promoter of new art, telling me that the Circulation Department of the V&A was the most adventurous collector in the country of contemporary art. That would have been the work of Carol Hogben who was the deputy keeper of the circulation department there. It was more part of the art world then than later. I went from the Arts Council to the V&A and then back again. I went there because it was all part of the same world, but these things change.
So I would have been responsible for framing and casing and circulating some of these exhibitions at that time, in the late 60s. But it was an absolutely key moment, the appointment of curator for the Collection, a special person whose only responsibility was for the Collection. This was when the Collection developed, in exhibition terms especially. It is marked by the shift from survey to thematic exhibitions. But there always was a belief in getting the work out, on loan museums and into schools and hospitals etc.
I returned to the Arts Council in 1975 as someone with responsibility for the London programme at the Hayward and to some extent the Serpentine, as the two were part of the Arts Council structure at that stage. I was the assistant director of exhibitions, then when the Director of Exhibitions, Joanna Drew, was appointed as Director of Art, I took over the responsibility of the London programme, the Hayward and the Serpentine, and Michael Harrison became responsible for the regional touring programme, which included responsibility for the Arts Council Collection. He is a key person in this story. It was Michael working initially with Karen Amiel and then with Isobel Johnstone, Curators, in succession, of the Collection, who developed a lot of the thematic exhibitions that took place in the later 1970s and 80s.
During the 1970s there is a real shift form the purchaser-based exhibitions to internal exhibitions organised by Isobel Johnstone and Jill Constantine, along with exhibitions organised by external curators, but there certainly seems to have been more internal exhibitions organised at that point in relation to the Collection.
AD - Yes, I think it would have been partly putting Michael in charge of the regional programme and appointing Isobel as the curator of the Collection, which meant that there was more thinking about what could be done with this resource. It happened between them, with Michael thinking that this was a great resource for regional exhibitions and the touring programme, and Isobel thinking of ways of developing the use of the Collection.
The calibre of people working for the Arts Council and contributing to discussions and decisions about the Arts Council Collection in that period was exceptional. Nicolas Serota was an early departure going to Oxford and then on to the Whitechapel; Richard Francis became the first Director of Tate Liverpool; Catherine Lampert was later Director of the Whitechapel; David Elliott of the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, Anthony Reynolds was in the art department then and he is still running his gallery after twenty years; Alister Warman became the Director of the Serpentine Gallery and is now the Principal of the Byam Shaw School. All these people made major contributions towards the art situation at that time, both within and outside the Arts Council. There was a real commitment to supporting artists through buying work. I think the Collection has always had a high standard that has been maintained and a good track record for finding the right people to seek advice from.
What was the Collection's relationship with photography during the period of the late 1970s?
AD - I think photographs were not probably bought until the 1970s, I am not entirely sure of the dates. At some point within the structure of the Arts Council, a photography officer was appointed. There was pressure from the photography world to embrace this within the official art apparatus. At that stage the art world had changed and photography had long been part of art work, but that was something that was happening in parallel - the photography lobby was not so much from that area but from independent photographers themselves needing support. Some of them came out of a documentary tradition, that was maybe the strongest body of pressure to get help, people working in that tradition but outside the agencies, newspapers etc. It must have been agreed at some stage that funds should be devoted to buying photography. It would have been a result of internal pressure supported by external pressure.
What was the relationship with an exhibition like Rudi Fuch's Language in 1979, which is an exhibition that purchased a great deal of artists work who incorporated photography as a medium and work purchased through the photography committee?
AD - Those works within the exhibition would have been purchased with the general purchasing fund. Ear-marked photography purchases were more towards a specific area of photography, the kind of photographers for whom the Photographers Gallery was created at about that time. In relation to Rudi's exhibition, photographers might have said, that's all very well and good, but you are ignoring a whole other strand of photography that also needs support and is not catered for by the commercial world; Chris Killip, Graham Smith, Jo Spence, its that sort of photography, which was quite rightly needing some support in publishing and in exhibition making. The early period was quite difficult, it did seem like a foreign body, but I think that it became more integrated at a later stage. There was a very good and timely exhibition at the Serpentine called, I think, Another Country, photographs of the North East, at a time when there was a growing divide between North and South. It wasn't out of place at the Serpentine. The pressure brought about important and necessary changes.