Arts Council Collection

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Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton

Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton
Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009

What was happening within the Arts Council Collection when you joined?

MAG - It was different then because the Arts Council moved from making exhibitions directly. When the South Bank board was set up and Joanna Drew, who had been Arts Council overall director of visual arts became Director of the independent Hayward Gallery under the South Bank Board , Sandy Naine became the first director of visual arts for the Arts Council without the responsibility for directly making exhibitions. The Collection was used as a resource for exhibitions, but the focus of buying specifically for exhibitions changed somewhat.
 
What was it first like when you started working for the Arts Council?
 
MAG - When I took my job with the Arts Council in 1993 it was a politically sensitive time because the regions were beginning to develop fast in terms of wanting their own autonomy, wanting to make their own shows. There was a certain amount of revisiting the Arts Council Collection as a central provider and of whether it was appropriate for the Arts Council to hold a collection. The idea, which has developed fast since, is that the regions should begin collecting their own contemporary works and make collections of their own.. I came from a regional museum and can remember then how difficult it was to collect or buy modern art because, not only for a lack of money, but also of confidence. To some extent there also was a prejudice against buying modern work, let alone contemporary work. I felt that the Hayward as a major resource for exhibitions for the regions was still needed and that the Arts Council Collection remained important. The main thing was make sure it was seen as widely as possible and there were two other big issues; firstly, making sure it was up to date and able to collect the best work, and to look at the range of media, because there were problems that we hadn't collected photography and film systematically.
 
The Hayward exhibitions were vital to audiences throughout the country and rather than reducing this central resource I thought we should keep it and give opportunities to regional curators to develop their own skills. I felt very strongly that the Hayward could become a major training centre of curating and that has gradually come about.
 
The Hayward was the biggest venue that was directly funded by the Arts Council and had the largest grant . The other main galleries directly funded at that time were the Arnolfini, Modern Art Oxford, the Ikon, The Serpentine and Camden Arts Centre. We had this network, which earlier Alan Bowness, who was at the Arts Council before going to the Tate, thought that the local authorities would not be able to develop, so these galleries had to continue to be directly funded by the Arts Council. Later they were devolved to the regional offices of the Arts Council.
 
I believed strongly that the Hayward was a major venue in itself , a resource for London and the regions , irrespective of the proximity of the Tate, because it was a different kind of venue, it wasn't a museum. The Arts Council Collection wasn't visible there because it was like a library resource. I was a relatively new director, but I took a protectionist view of the Hayward and the Collection because I saw their potential as resources for the regions if they were really well used and that regional curators could be invited to make their own shows from the Collection, which is something that has happened.
 
This didn't happen so much in earlier years. Joanna Drew was very protective of the Collection because when the South Bank board took over the Hayward there really wasn't a great deal of interest in the Collection or in the Hayward's touring role because the focus was on developing the importance of the South Bank Centre as an integrated exhibitions and concert venue for London. I remember Joanna gave me a lot of good advice ; she was a very wise person. The fact that the Hayward has a national role took a long time to be accepted and the money that the Hayward got, half of which was for the touring and to maintain the Collection , I had to fight to protect that. The Collection was not always the focus of the Arts Council or the South Bank board, so the 1994 appraisal was undertaken to address any weaknesses. At that time the Collection wasn't online nor was it very well housed. Back then the Collection was stored at the Arts Council's archive depository in Record Street. The facilities and conditions were inadequate to say the least and that affected the capability of the Collection to operate nationally.
 
What was your main role working for the Arts Council and how did you feel towards the Collection?
 
MAG - When I looked at my role, of course I had many responsibilities: to make sure the regional venues were developed even when they were devolved. The Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a very good example of this, as it was never funded by the national office, but by the Yorkshire office. Frankly at that time it was not well resourced or well supported, so I had to make sure they got extra money. Lately it has become hugely supported regionally, but that was not the case in the beginning.
 
As a result, one of my main priorities was working with Isobel Johnstone , Curator of the Collection and Susan Brades, who became Director of the Hayward and together we looked into how we could get a better storage facility for the Collection. I felt very strongly about the Collection and the national touring programme and I felt they could be drivers for regional development; rather than sucking all the resources from the regions I saw them as potential boosters. Far from getting rid of the Collection I thought it had an integrity of its own, it was hugely important for looking at collecting patterns, key individuals and as the anniversary exhibition Michael Archer organised showed , it is an amazing story of different curatorial perspectives.
 
How did Longside as a space for the Collection develop?
 
MAG - Our objective was how can we serve the regions better, retain the Collection and sustain its future development? The only way that I could see this working was to somehow find a regional base for it. When Sandy Naine was director there was the possibility of a site in Sheffield, which was a mixed commercial site, it was called the Abyssinia Site, but that collapsed because the developers collapsed. So Susan and I looked at Halifax at the big Dean Clough development site under the management of Sir Ernest Hall, who was a Yorkshire man, developer and also a member of the Arts Council. The Henry Moore Foundation had a studio there and they organised a lot of major shows there during the 80's and 90's. Behind the studio was a warehouse, I remember talking to Sir Ernst Hall and saying that we were interested in finding a new site for the sculpture for the Collection and he was very keen on trying to accommodate it. But the building we had in mind would have cost around 5 million pounds to develop and the Arts Council would have had to find that money, which would have been incredibly difficult.
 
The Arts Council couldn't fund itself from the Lottery, which was the only capital resource available, so we looked further. Peter Murray, Director of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park had always been keen to help the Collection and he wanted to develop the Longside site. We began to grow an idea to use that opportunity and that's what happened. Fortunately, the Director of Arts at the Arts Council at that time when I was half way through my term was Kim Evans, who had come form the BBC. She was always supportive of the visual arts and I said to her that we need several things in place; we needed an architect and we needed some capital money. I had in mind appointing someone to the visual arts department who was an architect and could project manage. I realised that if we had to outsource that then we would have paid huge amounts in terms of fees. So I appointed Emma King on my team who was a trained architect. Kim was supportive of trying to get the money, so we had to carry out a feasibility study of the Longside building. We got the funding from the Council because they were finally persuaded of the value of the Collection and because to outsource the sculpture to the regions would free up access to the work.. Also if you are going to keep anything to a national standard then you have to keep it in exemplary conditions.
 
Everything came together, we had a fantastic architect, Tony Fretton, an excellent architect project manager, Emma King and a supportive Director of Arts and the Regional Arts board was also very keen to develop the Sculpture Park and to give them another resource. So you had a world class sculpture park, the Leeds institute, the Henry Moore Institute and Bretton Hall, all together a critical mass in which the Arts Council Collection could play a major role. It was a real battle, but a major achievement for me working with Susan Brades and Isobel Johnstone. It took up a lot of my energy, but it was something that I felt absolutely passionate about.
 
What was your role in terms of selecting and purchasing work for the Collection?
 
MAG - I regarded selecting for the Arts Council Collection as a major part of what I did because it kept me informed and gave me a legitimate reason to go out to studios and see artists' work. It was a way of keeping my feet on the ground especially after having been a critic and running Artscribe magazine, I just couldn't drop that part of what I did. I saw it as absolutely vital.
 
The uniqueness of the Collection is that over the years it has involved a lot of different curators, critics, historians and artists which has meant a very free way of collecting because there has been no lengthy committee process and it has been very immediate. It is unusual for a national collection to be bought in that way and of course there have been some duff purchases, but it has ensured the Collection's vitality and bought some star works at a time when the Collection could afford to make the purchase.
 
What was the Collection's relation to photography and video when you were there?
 
MAG - When I joined the Arts Council Sandy Naine had a head of photography and a head of architecture, there were also a number of senior officers who had other responsibilities. Both Rory Coonan, who was head of architecture and Barry Lane, who was head of photography, each wanted their own department. Barry had been responsible through the Green King Photography Awards for collecting the award winners for the Collection; other than that the Arts Council Collection did not actively look at the whole range of photography. Recently David Mellor curated a touring exhibition that examined the whole history of photography in the Arts Council Collection. There are enormous gaps in the 80s and 90s after Barry left. He was always very disappointed that the Arts Council Collection didn't take an all-encompassing view of photography and focused, subsequent to his leaving on fine art photography, not applied photography or documentary photography. I think it comes down to a question of resources; we also did not collect craft or applied art.
 
It was different with video because for thirty years the national office of the Arts Council had a film department and this is again a role that ceased. The Arts Council used to produce films under Director of Film Rodney Wilson who became a co-producer with the BBC and other independent filmmakers. At the time they made major arts documentaries. He had an artist film and video team headed by David Curtis, who was always concerned that the Arts Council was not collecting artist film and video and he was right.. When I joined I thought we really needed to look again at this. From the 90s we did try but we couldn't fill in a twenty year gap, but we did start and we acquired some major pieces.
 
You were passionate in purchasing Steve McQueen's work, what do you remember about bringing his work in to the Collection?
 
MAG - Steve was a student at Goldsmiths and I think I was an examiner for the BA at the time and Jon Thompson and I looked at Steve's films and we gave him a first. I remember Steve was making the film at Goldsmith's, which at the time didn't have any film resources so everything had to be done somewhere else, he had a tiny little Steinbeck and asked me to come and look at the work. I remember it was on a tiny screen and there was this wonderful, beautiful black man and Steve. Steve was sitting there and he had just got the rushes back from a processing company and he had worked really hard to get the money together, it had cost him £80, everything was costing money and he was getting really worried about it. I looked at the work and said how fantastic it was to Steve and I remember clearly him leaning back on his chair and saying 'God, I'm so ugly' because the other guy with the almond eyes was so beautiful. I remember telling him I though it was great and talking with him as to how he was going to show the work, whether it was going to be on a small monitor or a room installation etc.
 
After that I went to David Curtis at the Arts Council and I said that they really needed to support Steve because I felt he was going somewhere. After that we bought 'Bear' for the Collection as a video and that was one of my most memorable purchases, especially knowing now that Steve has gone on to be a major film maker.
 
You were instrumental in purchasing Peter Doig's work, what do you remember about bringing his work in to the Collection?
 
MAG -I was a selector with Jon Thompson and Bruce McLean of the Barclay's Young Artist Award, 1991, hosted by the Serpentine Gallery. We did all the MA shows and Peter was at Chelsea, he was a fairly mature student, probably in his late twenties and this was the time he was producing the major early pieces. I remember seeing these works and thinking how incredible they were, he really seemed to have a vision. They were strange outback, diseased landscapes, amazing. I said we have to have his work in the show at the Serpentine and I think everyone else was quite keen, so we had it as part of the exhibition.
 
It was a tough show because there was also Jonathan Callan, Alexandre David, Douglas Gordon, Graham Gussin, Stephen Hepworth, Tania Kovats, Nicholas May and Richard Woods. I was really keen on Peter's work but the award went to Tania in the end. So that was how I first came to know Peter Doig and how the work ultimately came into the Arts Council Collection. I am not sure if everyone liked the work as much as I did because I think they thought it was a bit saccharine. I have since been to see Peter in Trinidad where he now works from his studio in an old rum factory.
 
You have had a long relationship with the sculptor Richard Deacon, what was it like to bring his work into the Collection?
 
MAG - I remember Richard Deacon's ceramic piece was one that we bought recently for the Collection. Unusually we have bought several of Richard's works throughout his career, as his works have changed media over time. I remember writing about his work for the show he had at the Whitechapel. Richard is a major figure for me. I have followed his career closely and I do think he is one of our best sculptors.
 
I remember he had a show at the Serpentine of those early big bent wood pieces. When I started writing I was at the Courtauld Institute doing a doctorate and I remember reading reviews and thinking that it was something I wanted to try and do, so I began writing for Art Review. My first review was Bill Woodrow at the Lisson, so I began to get involved there. It was later, after I had begun writing, that I reviewed Richard's show, it was called 'Deaf and Dumb'. I think he must have liked what I wrote because he asked if he could come and talk to me and I remember we sat in the music room in my house and Richard got through about two packets of chocolate digestive biscuits because he talks very slowly. Then he asked me if I would write an essay for his show at the Whitechapel in the 80s, so that was an important commission for me and that was really when I got under the skin of his work. I also went to Paris to see his extraordinary piece with a dance company at the Pompidou. They had black box space underneath and he did a piece called Factory. The work was all about the nature of labour and there were lots of his bent wood pieces. The dancers all wore workman's singlets and the audience was involved and the dancers lay across the sculptures. It was vey sweaty, heavy and physical.
 
When we bought the work we didn't have a policy of purchasing throughout an artist's career, but we felt with a major artist, if they were doing something completely new and different then, we should try and buy a work. The ceramic piece is an important piece and it can be shown outside. All the other works we have by him are internal works and this seemed to be a major development.
 
You were also photographed as part of Catherine Yass's Portrait of the Selecting Committee, 1994, were you pleased that there was a work in the Collection that looked at how works were purchased, did you think this was important in any way?
 
MAG - I remember Catherine had been at Goldsmiths and I was an examiner at Goldsmiths for about twelve years. Then I joined the Council at Goldsmiths, so I always had this long relationship with Goldsmiths. I knew Catherine's work very well and I had always been supportive of her work.
 
I think we approached her and then she proposed a work for us. I remember us all turning up in the morning and feeling pretty sleepy and very self-conscious. I remember the awkwardness of us all, it was cold and we weren't natural celebrity sitters and we had to stand for quite a long time. I don't think any of us took to it with ease.
 
I feel enormous pleasure that this little moment has been recorded and by a major artist. I think her recent work for Artangel has taken her into a completely different realm, but it does sum up a certain point in her trajectory as somebody using light, color and film.