Arts Council Collection

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Guy Brett

Guy Brett
Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009

In the mid 70s the Collection used to purchase for exhibitions and after that they employed a system of rolling selectors, which I think coincided with the time that you were there, between 1998 and 2000. I was interested in your relationship to a number of artists that you had written about in various catalogues that then had entered the Collection during your period as a selector. Can you expand a little on the relationships you had with artists.

GB - Well, for me all this happened more than ten years ago. My memory is patchy. I do remember that we saw, or considered, a huge amount of work. Artists were encouraged to ask the Collection to consider their work -- rather than simply hope to be contacted - and we did. As panel members we could also propose artists ourselves. It worked on the principle that the more expensive a work was the more people on the panel would have to support its purchase. There was certainly a huge range of prices involved. Then, if there was something I really wanted but nobody else did, I could buy it out of the personal allowance that each of us had. If you managed to get, say, two selectors to agree then you had a bit more money to spend. It was good as a device, to allow the Collection to be as diverse as possible.
 
Can you tell us of some works you purchased with your personal allowance?
 
GB - Yes, I can't remember exactly all that I purchased with my allocation, but I do remember some well. I had checked to see if they were already in the Collection and I was particularly keen that some absent artists should be visible and validated there. One of these was Carlyle Reedy. Reedy, born in the US and resident here for many years, is an artist, poet, and one of the pioneers of performance in this country. She is the maker of particularly beautiful collages, which only a small circle of people know, and I was able to acquire five of these with support from the very admirable Curator of the Collection, Isobel Johnstone. I also remember going it largely alone in buying an extraordinary work between painting and writing by the artist Sarah Jacobs.
 
You had written a book on David Medalla before being a selector for the Arts Council Collection and before bringing his work into the Collection. How influential were you in putting him forward?
 
GB - I put him forward and my proposal was accepted by three other members, so we were able to buy two large colour photographs of Medalla wearing torn-paper masks he had made from the pages of illustrated magazines. The pictures were taken in Brooklyn I believe, when the trees were full of spring blossom. Rich, wonderful images. They were mounted on aluminium. I realized that, some years before, the Collection had bought a small oil painting by Medalla and I thought this could be enhanced by the recent performance masks.
 
Another artist I proposed was Tony Morgan. He was a British artist who spent most of his working life abroad in different parts of Europe, but he began his career in England and showed at the old Indica Gallery. I kept up with his work over the years and thought that his work should be better known here in Britain. I had support from other members and we bought a beautiful, tall, expressive painting of the word "Vulnerability". It was one of a series of paintings of single words or phrases in different types of script. Morgan was a brave and vital man who struggled against illness all his life and was in and out of hospital.
 
What about Susan Hillers work 'Wild Talents', which was purchased during your time as a selector, what do you remember about that work?
 
GB - I seem to remember that its purchase had been recommended by the previous panel but for some reason had not taken place. Everyone in our group was keen on "Wild Talents", so we bought it, along with the projection and other electrical equipment needed to show it. Quite apart from the distinction of Susan Hiller's work itself, we generally wanted to encourage the ACGB Collection to be open to, and acquire, video, film and mixed media work. The ACGB's worries were mainly technical, that video and projection might be difficult to install in some of the many venues that borrowed from the Collection. Or that equipment would serve only one work. I think what happened in the end was that equipment was bought that was essential to the specific work being acquired in the hope that it would serve for later on for other works too. As well as Hiller, Mona Hatoum and Tina Keane were represented by a video work.
 
You mentioned in relation to both Tony Morgan and Carlyle Reedy there was a particular reason for bringing these artists into the Collection; did you have a rationale for the way that you viewed your role as a selector for the Arts Council Collection?
 
GB - I certainly wanted to get the Arts Council Collection to buy works by artists that I thought were marginalized: artists that had no dealers behind them. Neither Tony Morgan nor Carlyle Reedy had dealers.
 
What was your relationship like with both Pavel Buchler and Yinka Shonibare?
 
GB - Excellent, we each had different enthusiasms which was as it should be.
 
You also brought into the Collection Anne Bean, was it the same case for her too, was she a marginalised artist at the time?
 
GB - In relation to the British mainstream or the establishment, yes, but that was partly because she liked to work outside museums and galleries, in the environment. Part of the time she was a member of the Bow Gamelan ensemble which included Paul Burwell and Richard Wilson: music, sound, pyrotechnics was their language. The Thames featured highly in their choice of site.
 
Was there anything that you were particularly pleased the Collection purchased or that you fought for?
 
GB - Aside from the artists I've mentioned, I believe we bought fine works by, among others, Liliane Lijn, Andrew Stahl, Kate Smith, Lynn Silverman, Ben Cook, Ian Breakwell, Mona Hatoum, Jacques Nimki, Adam Nankervis, Bill Furlong, Ingrid Pollard, Derek Boshier and Tina Keane.
 
In relation to both Morgan and Reedy, what did bringing them in to the Collection do for them as artists?
 
GB - It's hard to say. Obviously they were pleased to be represented, but it's difficult to say if it directly led to anything. Tony Morgan is no longer with us. Reedy continues to work on her art and publish her poetry. Work still needs to be done to bring them the audience they deserve.
 
One aspect of purchasing for the Collection I forgot to mention. It was a policy that we would go beyond London and look into art produced in different parts of the country. We did make a group visit to Manchester and bought a number of works by artists there. Pavel Buchler was teaching in Manchester at the time, so he was able to introduce us to people we didn't know. There were at lease three artists that we purchased from our visit there.
 
To what extent were you aware of what previous purchasing committees had bought?
 
GB - It was part of the process to survey what was already in the Collection, more from the point of view of bringing new people in, than of excluding further work by artists already represented.
 
It seems that this is a moment where your particular interest in contemporary art translates into a set of works purchased for the Collection.
 
GB - Yes, I think inevitably it does, given that we all had to reconcile our different views. Obviously we are not chosen to form a sort of pressure group for a particular kind of art.
 
Isn't that what makes the Collection interesting, the fact that it is formed around a series of independent influences that continue to inform it.
 
GB - That's right. I think that must have been a principal from the beginning, as otherwise it would just be an Arts Council view of British art. I also remember that as we came towards the end of our period, with the amount of money we had left, there may have been some hard decisions to take and that needed a bit of time to work out.
 
Looking back at your time with the Arts Council Collection, is there any way in which it has influenced you?
 
GB - Yes, in terms of coming into contact with artists that I had not heard of before. There were many artists that I didn't know and none of us knew.
 
During your time as a selector for the collection Charles Saatchi donated a large number of works, what was your role in relation to the donation and to what extent did it impact upon your decisions when considering artists?
 
GB - Neither I nor the other non-Arts Council panel members played any role in that. It was just announced to us that the Arts Council was accepting a gift from the Collection of Charles Saatchi. We were given a list of these works so we could judge them in relation to what we were planning on purchasing. It struck me as quite a dominating thing to do, to accept so many works from one person into the Collection, I don't know if a selection was made, or if the ACGB had to accept what Saatchi thought fit. Of course there were some wonderful works involved. As the panel, we just went on concentrating on what we were trying to do.
 
As for the Collection itself, it's hard to know as a totality what it is. It must be an extraordinary and strange hotchpotch of things. I imagine there must be some things that never get shown, that nobody ever asks for and are simply stored for long periods of time, but I suppose that is part of the nature of such a collection.