Wednesday, 17 May 2017

An education in art: The University of Salford Art Collection

Darren Nixon, The Intern (2016)
Mixed media
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Museum Photography North West

Fifty years ago, the newly inaugurated University of Salford – previously a mechanics institute and technical college – started an art collection for the benefit of its students, staff and the public. This followed a national trend towards the establishment of art collections with educational aims. In the post-war period many local authorities became patrons of art, alongside education committees and sometimes schools. Teacher training colleges also started collections, as did some universities, including the University of Warwick, founded in 1965, whose collection is still on display around the campus today, and which still actively acquires work. These collections were part investment and part expression of prestige and modernity at a time when not just physical but social, cultural and educational experiences were changing.

The precedent for collecting contemporary art for educational purposes lay partly in the ideas of influential educationalists like Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire, who sought to create beauty in educational environments – and believed in the potential for the places by which people were surrounded everyday to be visually and aesthetically educational. In the 1930s Morris commissioned renowned architects such as Walter Gropius to design school buildings, and after the Second World War he worked with the planners of new towns. He also advocated displaying works of art in educational buildings, believing that they would act as a ‘silent teacher’.

Although aspects of these ideas are laudable, including taking art out of the museum to be encountered and experienced as part of everyday life, today the University of Salford Art Collection is challenging ideas about what form a collection should take, who it’s for – and where and how it should be displayed. Although there are a number of items from the collection around campus in communal spaces, and the New Adelphi Building hosts changing exhibitions, this isn’t the main focus of the collection. “Buildings change and offices move, but the collection is for public benefit,” explains Art Curator Lindsay Taylor. For this reason, she explains, “we don’t just put it on the walls but carefully consider what stories we want to tell or what themes we want to identify when installing work across the campus”.

As part of the University of Salford’s 50th anniversary celebrations a new exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, What’s in Store?, displays highlights from the collection, showing how the collection has evolved and what has influenced collecting themes over time. It also offers an insight into how the notion of collecting for educational purposes has changed over the decades.

The exhibition references the collection’s historical context, containing paintings by twentieth century northern artists such as LS Lowry and Adolphe Valette. Lindsay explains that print-making was also historically important, including prints from the Manchester Print Workshop, which was based at the university in the 1970s. The collection also acquired international work from early on and includes the archive of South African painter Albert Adams, paint brushes and all; changing works by Adams are now hung in a room dedicated to his work in the university’s Old Fire Station building.

Lindsay, who joined the collection in 2013 after many years of working at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston, admits that “there is historically a lack of documentation and knowledge about the collection”. She explains: “There are some works that we don’t know who they are by and we don’t know if they’ve been shown before. There has always been an interest in collecting contemporary art – however sadly documentation procedures and collections care were not as important as they should have been!” Eventually, one of Lindsay’s aims is to build the archive material in the collection in order to enable its story to be told better, and to work with other collections such as the University Archive and Special Collections, Salford Museum and Art Gallery, and the nearby Working Class Movement Library.

Today, Lindsay’s priority is commissioning new work for the collection, particularly in digital media, and by Chinese and northern artists, often working in partnership with other galleries and studios in the area. At the Harris, Lindsay had assumed that established artists working in new media were in collections, but found that this often wasn’t the case. She explains that the aim is to “take a risk and help artists make new work they wouldn’t do otherwise” and, by collecting work by artists at different stages of their careers, show that “there is a story to tell”. Co-commissioning has been a way to raise the profile of the collection and the university: work has been loaned to galleries across the north, shown at festivals and exhibited internationally.

One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in Manchester, which has thirty years of expertise but no collection. Lindsay explains: “We live in the Chinese century but no-one else is really collecting Chinese art in a significant way.” When displayed alongside one another pieces from the collection can show “surprising connections between artists”. For example, both Cao Fei’s 2013 work ‘Haze and Fog’, which examines the new middle- and working-classes in China, and Lowry’s paintings of workers in the UK in the early to mid-twentieth century, are engulfed in smog and pollution. Contemporary art is important, says Lindsay, because it “addresses the issues of the day and represents the time we’re in: ideas about what’s ‘contemporary’ change”.

Another collecting theme is ‘About the Digital’ because, as Lindsay says, we live in the digital age. This does not necessarily mean work created digitally: Jai Redman’s painting ‘The Lovers’, on show in the exhibition, concerns communications, showing “invisible threads and networks”. Other work in What’s in Store? includes the trailer for the young Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s film ‘It’s What’s Inside That Counts’, first shown as part of an exhibition at Home in Manchester in 2016, as well as composite aerial images by Mishka Henner using digital technology.

Mishka Henner, Wasson Oil and Gas Field, Yoakum County, Texas (2013-2014)
Archival pigment print mounted to aluminium
Courtesy the artist and Carroll/Fletcher gallery

Another focus is acquiring work by artists based in the immediate area, such as Maurice Carlin and Rachel Goodyear, both of whom have a long association with Islington Mill in Salford. “It’s really important to work with artists living and working in the region,” Lindsay explains. “There are some great artists here and they deserve to be at the next level. Artists can trial things here; we can be a stepping stone to them achieving the national or international recognition they deserve. I feel it is important to understand that all the different aspects of the ecology are needed.”

For Assistant Curator Steph Fletcher one of the highlights of the collection is Manchester artist Darren Nixon’s ‘The Awkward Ambassador’, which came about through a partnership with Mark Devereux Projects. This comprises a series of unstable-looking wooden sculptural constructions responding to the collection that have been “purposefully installed into the collection, fit into the store and hide among the other works”.

Darren Nixon, The Awkward Ambassador (2016) 
Mixed media 
Courtesy the artist, photograph courtesy Arthur Siuksta

Perhaps most significantly for a collection with educational value at its heart the University of Salford Art Collection is committed to supporting students’ practice as artists through schemes such as the Graduate Scholarship Programme, where a small number of graduates are given studio space and opportunities such as mentoring for a year in return for giving work to the collection. Another initiative involves commissioning students to make formal portraits of the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Students also have the chance to have their work shown to a professional standard in the Old Fire Station, which houses the offices of the Vice-Chancellor.

Claudia Alonso, Jackie Kay (2015) 
Digital photograph 
Courtesy the artist

Lindsay aims to ask “what can make Salford different?” and create “real world links” with the city’s studio spaces such as Islington Mill, Artwork Atelier and Hotbed Press, as well as the International 3 gallery. She explains: “We really want to develop an ongoing relationship with students. It’s really important to demonstrate to students that you can live and work here without going to London or Berlin. It’s about changing how you think as an artist.”

Salford Museum and Art Gallery itself has a “really good and relatively unknown collection of modern British art”, says Lindsay, and an aspiration to show more contemporary art. Lindsay hopes that the show will enable the collection to “feel more valued and understood” as it’s “public and for everyone to enjoy”.

At a time when both Salford and Manchester are undergoing extensive redevelopment, including the relocation of long-established studio group Rogue from Manchester city centre due to property speculation, Lindsay says she is interested in Salford “as it’s not Manchester, but can complement Manchester”. She explains: “There are a number of artists relocating to Salford and it has the potential to be such an exciting time. I want to bring together the good things happening here: there is potential to make a difference.”

What’s In Store? is at Salford Museum and Art Gallery from Saturday 20 May-Sunday 19 November and will be accompanied by a series of talks and events. For more information visit