Many of us will have walked around Manchester Art Gallery and marvelled at the works on display from its permanent collection. Priceless world class art, right there on the walls for us all to enjoy entirely free of charge. But how many of us have ever stopped to consider who initially paid for all these masterpieces, which are owned by the gallery and thus the city of Manchester, and therefore by you.
Although some pieces are acquired through corporate donations or philanthropic trusts, much of Manchester Art Gallery’s incredible collection – think particularly of its pre-Rapahelites and Valettes – was bequeathed in the Victorian era by proud local industrialists, who wished to give something back to their home city. Nowadays it is harder to ensure that the collection remains current and contemporary, with new works added on a continual basis.
As I sat on the board of the gallery and also ran Manchester Art Fair, one of the country’s most prestigious art fairs, I decided, on a whim, to establish ‘The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund’. In effect this creates a pot of cash, donated by a number of private individuals, for the gallery’s curators to spend acquiring new works from the ‘The Manchester Contemporary’ section of Manchester Art Fair, which features critically engaged works from emerging artists.
In June the latest works selected for the fund will be hung. Pieces by artists Benoit Aubard, Juno Calypso and Ian McIntyre will be carefully sited amongst the permanent exhibitions, responding to the historical masterpieces they sit alongside. The Manchester Contemporary Art Fund has grown each year, and by the time Manchester Art Fair happens this October it will be one of the largest such art acquisitions funds in the country.
One particular encounter inspired me in all this. It was seeing ‘A Basket of Roses’, an oil painting by French still life artist Henri Fantin-Latour, on the walls of Manchester Art Gallery as part of the New Order exhibition, True Faith. As any fan would know the image appears on the cover of their 1983 album Power, Corruption and Lies. But here was the original, with a small gold plaque saying that it was bequeathed to The National Gallery by a Mrs M.J. Yates, in 1923.
Could she ever have imagined that the piece she had generously given would still be being shown almost a hundred years later, and in such a contemporary context? What a legacy. In effect the Manchester Contemporary Art Fund isn’t just gifting vital and inspiring contemporary art to the people of Manchester, it is buying a kind of immortality for the members who fund it, and who could put a price on that?
This article first appeared in Manchester Evening News on 5 May 2019