Looking Back and Thinking Ahead
Ann Jones, Curator, Arts Council Collection
Introduction to 4th Edition of The Women’s Art Collection catalogue, 2015
Peter Kinley, Christopher Le Brun, Trevor Bell, Tom Phillips: a list of male artists might seem a strange way to open a text about a collection of women’s art, but these were the works on view in the dome and walkways of New Hall* in the early 1990s. On long loan from the Arts Council Collection, they were good paintings, but for an institution committed to nurturing and promoting the best in women’s education, it was perhaps slightly surprising not to have work by women artists more prominently on view. The one exception was Mary Kelly’s wonderful six-part Extase which was acquired when she was Artist Fellow at New Hall and Kettle’s Yard in 1985/86 – an important and forward-looking step in the history of The Women’s Art Collection. In 1991 I was at a fundraising dinner at the college when we were asked for ideas about people to approach. I didn’t know many millionaires, but I did know artists who might be interested in showing their work, both in the context of a women’s college and within New Hall’s outstanding 1960s architecture. The collection began in a relatively modest way, with an approach to ten women artists who I thought might wish to donate or lend works to the college on the condition that they would be on view around the buildings and so become an integral part of the life of the young women studying at New Hall. Nine responded positively, almost within the week, which prompted then President Dr Valerie Pearl to suggest we should set about expanding the list. Valerie’s interest in art had developed through the artists she came to know at the Slade during her years at UCL, as well as through her daughter Sara Holdsworth, a curator at Manchester Art Gallery. This second list received an equally positive response and soon some of the artists began to suggest other artists to approach and some of the Fellows recommended more names. A number of gifts also began to appear, including a wonderful 1963 Anne Redpath painting donated by Jean Chamberlin in memory of her husband, New Hall architect Peter Chamberlin. Among the early acquisitions were established names like Sandra Blow, Maria Chevska, Mary Fedden, Elisabeth Frink, Rose Garrard, Maggi Hambling, Alexis Hunter, Tess Jaray, Ghisha Koenig, Mali Morris, Paula Rego and Kate Whiteford, as well as a younger generation, which included Zarina Bhimji, Rebecca Fortnum, Laura Godfrey-Isaacs, Gwen Hardie, Jo Stockham and Maud Sulter.
Perhaps one of the most satisfying aspects of the growing collection is the way in which the works become part of the fabric of the college. I remember a porter telling me late at night that he had been pondering about the meaning of one work that he encountered on his nightly rounds, while those in the dome provoke animated debates at high table, not always favourably of course, but always with passion. The launch, which took place in September 1992, was a way of thanking the growing number of artists for their immense generosity, as well as publicising an increasing unique collection. At this time in the early 1990s, painting was prominent and acquisitions focused mainly on paintings, drawings and prints. This was also partly for practical reasons: Murray Edwards College is not a museum or gallery, and there has always been an awareness of the great responsibility involved in looking after the works housed in the college.
Now, nearly twenty-five years later, aims and ambitions have shifted. The contemporary art world has moved on and there are no longer gaps to fill on the walls. The initial aim was to provide a visual stimulus and inspiration for those who were living and studying at the college. The ethos of education in its various ways was paramount: this is still at the heart of the collection. Some of the most fascinating moments continue to be dialogues between artists and academics, often with each side throwing a new light on some aspect. The challenge now is to continue to care for and manage the collection as it develops and grows, and alongside this to integrate it into the academic life of the college in inspiring and innovative ways: placing art by women artists at the heart of a women’s college.
*The college was founded in 1954 as New Hall; in 2008 it was renamed Murray Edwards College to recognise the vision of its Founder President, Rosemary Murray, and the generosity of the Edwards family.