What we put on our walls

Huw David Jones reports on a symposium on collecting contemporary art at the National Museum Cardiff.

Creating a market for contemporary art has long been an aim of the Welsh art world. In the 1950s and 1960s the Welsh Arts Council organised its annual Open Exhibition of Contemporary Welsh Painting and Sculpture to “find a market for [Welsh artists] by encouraging industrial and public bodies in Wales to become patrons”. In 1983 it launched the Collectorplan scheme to provide interest free credit for the purchase of original works of contemporary art and craft. This has since facilitated over 26,461 interest-free loans to the value of £11.9 million, and has been subsequently adapted by Arts Council England and the Scottish Arts Council. Meanwhile, Wales has seen a steady growth in the number of commercial galleries, not to mention the new sales being generated from art auctions and the internet.

But despite these developments, artists still struggle to find a market for their work. That was the view expressed at the recent symposium On Collecting at the National Museum Cardiff.

Convened by the Cardiff-based art agency Mermaid and Monster, On Collecting heard from a panel of four speakers, representing three different arts organisations in Britain and Germany. First up was Sorcha Dallas, who runs a contemporary art gallery in Glasgow’s trendy Merchant City. Dallas paid tribute to the vibrancy of the Glasgow art scene and the stimulus provided by the Glasgow School of Art and the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art in particular. However, she identified similar problems to Wales in terms of the lack of a market for contemporary art in Scotland. She said that international art fairs, such as London’s annual Frieze Art Fair, were often a better source of trade than the local visitors who daily pass through her gallery.

Karsten Schmitz, a German economist and contemporary art collector, then spoke about his art foundation, Stiftung Federkiel, which he setup with his wife in 2000. In 2001, the Federkei Foundation turned a former GDR cotton factory in Leipzig into an impressive contemporary art space. Its latest project has been the creation of a multipurpose arts centre, Halle 14, whose director, Ute Volz, also spoke at the conference about some of the artists shown at the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei.

Finally, curator Ellen De Wachter talked about the Zabludowicz Collection, which is held in a former Methodist Chapel in Camden Town, London. Set up in 1994 by Finnish businessman Poju Zabludowicz, the collection, which includes work by the Young British Artists, has been a testing ground for new curators. The gallery is also used for art fairs and exhibitions by new contemporary artists.

In the debated that followed, the audience and panel members discussed how to encourage new art collectors to come forward in Wales. Several speakers alluded to the ‘social barriers’ which discourage people from entering contemporary art galleries. Many felt that gallery owners not only needed to show more effort to welcome new visitors, but also to ‘educate’ them about the artwork on sale.

Whilst there is some truth in these observations, it doesn’t quite get to the heart of the matter which is the artwork itself. Wales has produced some excellent contemporary artists, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe our commercial galleries are stocked full of first rate work. At the same time, Wales will only be able to sustain a market for contemporary art if it can continue to develop new talent. That requires investment in art education and training. The challenge will be to sustain that message against the threat of future spending cuts.

Huw David Jones is a freelance writer specialising in the Arts in Wales

Also within Culture