Q&A with Rob Airey

The Hatton Gallery’s keeper of art on winning the Hallett Award
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Eleanor Mills
Rob Airey is the keeper of art at the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University. The gallery has expanded its print collection after winning the Hallett Independent Acquisitions Award.

The £8,000 award has been used to purchase 14 works for the collection at the London Original Print Fair.

The award is a joint initiative between the London Original Print Fair and Hallett Independent, brokers specialising in fine art and heritage insurance.

Did you expect to receive the Hallett award at the London Original Print Fair?

We were delighted to make the shortlist for the 2017 Hallet Award. Although I felt we’d made a strong case for the Hatton Gallery, we were joined by some exceptional galleries in the shortlist, so it was a wonderful surprise to be selected as the winner.

What did you put in your application that you think stood out?

Our application emphasised that printmaking is a central part of Hatton Gallery’s permanent collection and exhibition programme.

The strong and diverse holdings of prints range from early 16th-century woodcuts to two complete Antoni Tapies portfolios. We have a fantastic range of early British printmaking focusing on the etching revival of artists such as James Whistler and Arthur Briscoe.

Also represented are 20th-century British works including Victor Pasmore, Graham Sutherland, Richard Hamilton and Joe Tilson, and contemporary prints by leading artists such as Paula Rego and Bruce Mclean.

What did you buy with the prize money and why?

We acquired five prints from two contrasting contemporary artists, selecting works that particularly stood out or caught my eye while walking around the fair, but are also relevant for the Hatton Gallery collection.

Bruce McLean has been a leading figure in British art since the 1960s and this recent set of screenprints, Mixed Grillings, draws explicitly on narratives within his autobiography.

Bronwen Sleigh graduated from the Royal College of Art in 2008 and her wonderful etchings are inspired by architecture, urban spaces and environments.

We have also been able to add important individual works to our existing holdings of prints by both Paula Rego and Joe Tilson, and acquire the first work by Richard Smith to enter the collection. For all these artists, printmaking forms a central part of their practice.

Finally, the artist Fred Uhlman has very close connections with the Hatton Gallery, so it was very pleasing to be able to add to our Uhlman-related collections his lithograph of The Tower of London, 1953, made for the Coronation Suite – a series of 40 prints mostly by tutors and past students of the Royal College of Art celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

When will the new prints go on display to the public?

Hatton Gallery is closed for a £3.8 million redevelopment supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. As well as conserving the architectural and historical elements of the building, we are modernising the gallery to allow for flexible exhibition facilities and improving the lighting.

A new dedicated multi-purpose learning space will be created as well as a new picture store. And we are conserving and reinterpretating Kurt Schwitters’ iconic Merz Barn Wall, which was incorporated into the architecture of the Hatton Gallery in 1965.

There will also be a new public resource centre which make accessing the collection and archive much easier.

The gallery will reopen in the autumn, and we plan to incorporate the new acquisitions into an exhibition of prints from the Hatton collection in summer 2018.

How do you hope these will affect the Hatton Gallery’s future?

Winning the acquisitions prize and the prints we’ve been able to acquire add to the optimism and excitement currently surrounding the Hatton, its redevelopment and reopening.

The prize and prints will certainly play a part in continuing this momentum over the coming years and will be a useful focus for the both Hatton’s permanent collection and future exhibition and events programming.   

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