Prepare for the future - Museums Association

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Prepare for the future

Stephen Snoddy, the director of the New Art Gallery Walsall, says museums need to put contemporary collecting at the top of their agenda before it's too late
Stephen Snoddy
Directors need to place the buying of contemporary art at the top of their institutions' agenda. It is as simple and important as that.

Research has shown that many people in this country would like to buy contemporary art. The public sector has a role to play in developing the self-confidence needed to purchase contemporary art. It is also vital that artists have a growing and dynamic economy to be able to fund and develop their work. And we need collections that are alive and breathing.

There appears to be something in the air in places such as Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle/Gateshead, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Norwich, Cambridge, Oxford and Birmingham. More artists are staying put after attending their local art college, setting up artist-run spaces to exhibit, and networking with national and international agencies to profile their work.

I believe strongly that regional museums and galleries must balance their public duties regarding exhibitions, education, interpretation, social inclusion and equality with responsibility for acquiring contemporary art - art that creates a history and a legacy for the future.

If we were to believe the scepticism of the popular media towards contemporary art, we might conveniently forget our responsibilities, but in the past 20 years some of the most exciting, challenging and controversial contemporary art has emerged.

Can you imagine in 2018 (30 years and a single generation after Freeze, the seminal exhibition that kick-started the YBAs [Young British Artists] and six years after the London Olympics) when the teenagers of the 1980s are in their late 40s and the public galleries across England have virtually stopped collecting contemporary art for 12 years?

The 1980s teenagers will have teenagers themselves who will ask why they can't see any of the art that made front-page headlines; the 'shark', 'the unmade bed', 'the light going on and off', 'the elephant poo'…

In 1998, the Arts Council of England awarded the Contemporary Art Society £2.5m towards a £3.3m project to establish the Special Collection Scheme. This allowed 15 museums throughout England to develop challenging collections of contemporary art and craft over a five-year period, giving each of them £30,000 per year for purchases.

The aim was to increase the quality and diversity of contemporary art collections across the country and to extend access, enjoyment and understanding to a wider audience. The scheme enabled the purchase of 610 works by 313 different artists for 18 collections and ended in March 2005.

But we all must continue what has been started. When I arrived at the New Art Gallery Walsall in May 2005, the first decision I made was to put in place an acquisitions budget that carried on the previous five years' work of the Special Collection Scheme. I then concentrated on saving on the operational budget to pay for acquisitions, without cutting the programme money. Dedicated annual purchase funds are vital to continue the work of the scheme and to make sure there is no break in the collecting momentum.

An early purchase of an artist's work can be of immense economic value. When I was the director of the Southampton City Art Gallery in 1997, I bought a work by Chris Ofili (pictured above). I did this because the gallery was investing time, money and resources on Ofili's first major solo exhibition and it seemed implausible not to buy a work 12 months before the exhibition opened. This exhibition won the artist the Turner Prize in 1998.

To win an argument for more funds from central pots, we have to first allocate our own resources. If something else has to go then it has to go. We all have to face difficult budgetary decisions, but we have to plan and be responsible for that moment in 2018 when mums and dads are asked the awkward question by the awkward teenager.

Perhaps an enlightened chancellor, knowing this, may create tax incentives for the purpose of gifts to museums, or the setting up of endowment funds for purchases. How would it work? The museum puts in part of the money, central government finds a pot - the money is spent on purchases that benefit everybody and the artists pay income tax on the sales, which in turn, goes back to the Treasury. Money is recycled and the chancellor is happy.

We should think of the Special Collection Scheme as a starting point. An intellectual and emotional investment as well as a financial one has to take place, be sustained and actively encouraged. This requires a collective desire to succeed, as all will benefit. Many of those involved in the scheme have been contemplating the future for collecting contemporary art. All the 15 museums think that it has been immeasurably important in what it has delivered and artists have been unanimous in extolling the benefits of having work in public collections.

We now have one of the most influential museums of modern art in the world in Tate Modern. It has been an inspiration and we should all be prepared to be our own Tate Modern in our own region. We need to be active in providing a positive role model for a region's aspirations in cultural development and social engagement. By collecting contemporary art, we acknowledge that artists are part of this equation and part of everyday life. I believe our audiences are more clued into this than the bean-counting bureaucrats will ever know.

Our contemporary collecting at the New Art Gallery Walsall will continue, but not because it ticks boxes, or can be easily measured (sometimes it takes longer to gather the evidence than it would to buy a work!), but because it matters to our teenagers of the future. Artists tell us who we are and the times we live in.

Anecdotal evidence points to museum audiences getting younger and they are demanding to see contemporary art being bought and collected for their region and being displayed in their public spaces.

This is in no small part the result of the excellent education, social inclusion, access and audience-development programmes that we have all heavily invested in.

The moment has now come to reallocate some resources into the collecting of contemporary art - start with £35,000 a year and with haggling, negotiation and extra fundraising it can become a budget of at least £50,000. Be brave when you are preparing your budgets in a few weeks' time for the 2007-08 financial year.

A future generation will thank us at the New Art Gallery Walsall for our determination to maintain and extend our collecting of contemporary art. Will they thank anybody else?

Stephen Snoddy is the director of the New Art Gallery Walsall

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