Guest opinion:
Stephen Snoddy, director of New Art Gallery, Walsall, argues that regional museums and public galleries must put more resources into building their collections of contemporary art and photography.

Directors in regional museums in Britain need to place the buying of contemporary art at the top of their institutions' agenda. It is as simple and important as that.

Research has shown that a great deal of people in this country would like to buy contemporary art. The public sector has a role to play in developing the kind of self-confidence needed to purchase contemporary art. It is also vital that artists have a growing and dynamic economy to be able to fund and develop their work. And we need collections that are alive and breathing.

[img_assist|nid=8228|title=|desc=This piece is illustrated with photographic works purchased in recent years by New Art Gallery Walsall.
Photo: Mohamed Bourouissa, La rencontre, 2005|link=none|align=none|width=520|height=390]
There appears to be something in the air in places such as Manchester, Bristol, Liverpool, Newcastle/Gateshead, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Norwich, and Birmingham. More artists are staying put after attending their local art college, setting up artist-run spaces to exhibit, and networking with national and international agencies to profile their work. There are art schools, communities of artists, studio co-operatives, historic and modern collections, strong civic infrastructures, influential independent gallery programmes and informed and critical audiences in the regions.

I believe strongly that British regional museums and galleries must balance their public duties regarding exhibitions, education, interpretation, social inclusion and equality with responsibility for acquiring contemporary art - art that creates a history and a legacy for the future. If we were to believe the scepticism of the popular media towards contemporary art, we might conveniently forget our responsibilities, but in the past 25 years in Britain some of the most exciting, challenging and controversial contemporary art has emerged.

Can you imagine in 2018 - 30 years and a single generation after Freeze, the seminal exhibition that kick started the YBAs (Young British Artists), six years after the London Olympics, when the teenagers of the 1980s are in their late 40s - and the public galleries across Britain have virtually stopped collecting contemporary art for 12 years? The 1980s teenagers will have teenagers themselves who will ask mum and dad why they can't see any of the art that made front-page headlines; the 'shark', 'the unmade bed', 'the light going on and off', 'the elephant poo'…

In 1997, the Arts Council of England awarded the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) £2.5m towards a £3.3m project to establish the Special Collection Scheme. This has allowed 15 regional museums throughout England to develop challenging collections of contemporary art over a five-year period, giving each of them £30,000 per year for purchases. The aim was to increase the quality and diversity of contemporary art collections across the country and to extend access, enjoyment and understanding of contemporary art to a wider audience. The scheme has enabled the purchase of 610 works by 313 different artists for 18 collections and ended in March 2005.

But we all must continue what has been started. When I arrived at The New Art Gallery Walsall in May 2005 the first decision I made was to put in place an acquisitions budget that provided continuity on the previous five years' work of the Special Collection Scheme. I then concentrated on saving on the operational budget to pay for acquisitions, without cutting the programme money. Dedicated annual purchase funds are vital to continue the work of the scheme and to make sure there is no break in the collecting momentum.

An early purchase of an artist's work can be of immense economic value. When I was the Director of the Southampton City Art Gallery in 1997 I took the decision to buy a work by Chris Ofili. I did this because the gallery was investing time, money and resources on Ofili's first major solo exhibition and it seemed implausible not to buy a work 12 months before the exhibition opened. It was this exhibition that won the artist the Turner Prize in 1998. This work is now valued at 50 times the purchase price.

To win an argument for more funds from central pots we have to first allocate our own resources. If something else has to go then it has to go. We all have to face difficult budgetary decisions but we have to plan and be responsible for that moment in 2018 when mums and dads are asked the awkward question by the awkward teenager.

Perhaps an enlightened Chancellor of the Exchequer, knowing this, may create tax incentives for the purpose of gifts to British museums or the setting up of endowment funds for purchases. How would it work? The museum puts in part of the money, central government finds a pot - the money is spent on purchases that benefit everybody and the artists pay income tax on the sales, which in turn, goes back to the treasury. Money is recycled and the chancellor and Treasury are happy.

We should think of the CAS Special Collection Scheme as a starting point. An intellectual and emotional investment as well as a financial one has to take place, be sustained and actively encouraged. This requires a collective desire to succeed, as all will benefit. Many of those involved in the scheme have been contemplating the future for collecting contemporary art. All of the 15 museums involved think that it has been immeasurably important in what it has delivered and artists have been unanimous in extolling the benefits of having work in public collections.

The Art Fund (formerly NACF) has committed £5 million over five years from 2007 to assist five partnerships with UK regional galleries to acquire international art. This would enable The New Art Gallery to continue to collect work made by artists working in Britain from our own resources and in parallel acquire international art through collaborations and the commissioning process.

We now have one of the most influential museums of modern art in the world in Tate Modern. It has been an inspiration and we should all be prepared to be our own Tate Modern in our own region. We need to be active in providing a positive role model for a region's aspirations in cultural development and social engagement. By collecting contemporary art we are acknowledging artists as part of this equation, part of everyday life, something of which our audiences have an ever more sophisticated understanding. Our contemporary collecting at the New Art Gallery Walsall will continue, but not because artists tick boxes, take part in focus groups or are measured by tracker surveys. It will continue because we are looking always to the future. It directly matters to our teenagers of the future. Artists tell us who we are and the times we live in.

Anecdotal evidence points to British museum audiences getting younger and they are demanding to see contemporary art being bought and collected for their region and being displayed in their public spaces. This is in no small part the result of the excellent education, social inclusion, access and audience-development programmes that we have all heavily invested in.

At The New Art Gallery, Walsall (NAG) we have developed a strong interest in exhibiting photography and have also dedicated a part of our acquisitions funds to purchasing photography. An outstanding example of this policy is buying ten works by Mohamed Bouroussia from the series Peripherique. His work can be described as staged documentary and explores the moments of tension and power relationships that exist in les banlieues (ghetto) regions of Paris. His work is often inspired by neo-classical paintings but takes the disaffected Parisian youth as its subject matter.

[img_assist|nid=8229|title=|desc=Dayanita Singh, Dream Villa series|link=none|align=none|width=520|height=520]

Another important acquisition was eighteen Dayanita Singh photographs from Dream Villa. The series explores how the night transforms what seems ordinary by day into something mysterious. These lush photographs are saturated with intense colour, they present a landscape which exists as much in the artist's imagination as in the real world; Singh travels to many different cities never knowing where Dream Villa or its inhabitants will present themselves. The empty streets, the arrangements of neon lights and the silent façades have an unsettling and at times sinister atmosphere, this is a place where nothing is quite as it seems – it comes into being at night, when all is lit by artificial light and the moon is just ornamentation.

In 2006 we bought six works by Stuart Whipps from the body of work, Ming Jue. This is a reference to the re-branding of MG Rover since its move from the Longbridge plant in Birmingham to the new site for production in Nanjing, China. Originally "Morris Garages", MG now translates as "Modern Gentleman".

[img_assist|nid=8231|title=|desc=Stuart Whipps, Longbridge, 2008|link=none|align=none|width=520|height=520]

Whipps said "I began to photograph the MG Rover plant at Longbridge, Birmingham, UK in 2004. In 2005, the 6,000+ staff were informed of its temporary closure. Most never came back. What started as an attempt to explore the relationships between the factory, the workers and the town became a study of absence and change."

This body of work brings together photographs of both the Longbridge and Nanjing plants. Though relating to a very specific context, these images address the transformation of heavy industry in the 21st century and its wider implications. Since this work was made the Longbridge Factory has now reopened.

[img_assist|nid=8232|title=|desc=Richard Billingham, The Black Country at Night, 2003|link=none|align=left|width=220|height=177]In 2006 the NAG bought a major work by Richard Billingham from The Black Country series in which he revisits the neighbourhood of his childhood, Cradley Heath. He carried a light meter and a tripod, and in contrast to his earlier pictures of the degenerated urban sites, the new photographs represent atmospheric scenes, responding to the artist's sense of mystery and poetic beauty. Although still isolated, the streets now appear mysterious, supernatural and even magical, beyond any social concerns. Billingham has changed the atmosphere by emphasising the importance of light, which glows in the colours of intense green, yellow, blue, orange and turquoise. In doing so, his work demonstrates how colour influences the ways we understand pictures.

In Brian Griffin's exhibition The Black Country at the NAG he restaged his childhood memories of living among the factories on Stocking Street in Lye. The predominant focus of the exhibition is the factory worker, a position Griffin held down for a while after leaving school at 16, and the job both his parents did all through their working lives. Many of the photos were taken on location in factories in Lye and Cradley Heath. The photographs are accompanied by family snapshots and Griffin's own accounts of his childhood, revealing how the factories and their workers, the surrounding landscape and local traditions inspired him from an early age. As part of the commissioning process four works become part of the NAG Collection.

Clare Smart, a young photographer who was selected for the NPG Taylor Wessing Photography Portrait Prize, which was exhibited at the NAG, was commissioned to take portraits of Walsall clubbers to extend her ongoing Liberty Club series of work and to give the NPG exhibition and prize a local connection. Six of her portraits entered the collection. Other photographers' work that has been purchased include Martin Parr, Alison Jackson, Giacamo Brunelli, Phil Brooks and Ole Kolehmainen, and in the last five years in the region of 60 photographs have been added to the NAG collection of contemporary art.

The moment has now come to reallocate some resources into the collecting of contemporary art. A future generation will thank us at The New Art Gallery Walsall for our determination to maintain and extend our collecting of contemporary art. Will they thank anybody else?

[img_assist|nid=8233|title=|desc=Brian Griffin, The Black Country, installation shot, The New Art Gallery Walsall 2011.
Photo: Jonathan Shaw|link=none|align=left|width=520|height=347]

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