Friday 16 May 2008

A little sugar in my bowl

I've been pondering recently what it must be like to be a curator in charge of buying for a contemporary art collection. How do you spend your budget?

Do you collect horizontally (as widely as possible across the spectrum of art being made at any given time) or vertically (collecting in depth a few artists who you believe to be of greatest importance)? Do you try to represent an artist's oeuvre with a single outstanding (probably expensive) piece, or do you buy around the fringes - a small painting, a set of prints, a couple of drawings instead of the epic canvas?

Do you focus your acquisitions on works to appear in/which have appeared in your exhibitions? I s'pose this is particularly significant when you're commissioning new work for a show - but what do you do if the commission produces a dud work?

How much of a personal take is desirable? And what about staff turnover: are 5 different personal takes in the span of 20 years going to create an invigorated or a haphazard collection? Might buying by committee result in a well-rounded collection, or will the usual death-by-committee rule apply?

To try to answer some of my mulling, I went to some websites. Auckland Art Gallery told me that they were NZ's oldest and biggest arts institution, but didn't give me a collections policy to look at, or an outline of the areas they're actively collecting in. Te Papa has a collections policy page, but it didn't give me any specific information about how works are selected for the art collection (although I did find out that they have a responsibility to "collect works of art and items relating to history and the natural environment" a sentence which puzzled me until I inserted a mental comma after the word 'art'). Christchurch confirmed that they focus on significant Cantabrians, but the link to their Collections Policy brought up a quite terrifying Community Artworks Process Diagram (warning: PDF. second warning: I think this illustrates my 'death-by-committee' point). Dunedin is focusing on contemporary work.

The gallery that gave me the most information was the Govett-Brewster. Even if the recent acquisitions page doesn't appear to have been updated for a while, they give interesting detail, including acknowledging their deaccessioning policy. Normally I find the GBAG site frustrating, but today they win the rosette.

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