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Collecting contemporary decorative arts: BADA loan exhibition

It is an exciting time to be a curator of decorative arts in the museum world. Not only is there 'a burgeoning of creative talent in Britain', in the words of Julia Poole, keeper of applied art at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but the ways of obtaining funding for acquisitions through many different sources have become much greater as well as more sophisticated in the past few years. The result is that numerous museums all over the country are making exciting new acquisitions. This year's annual BADA loan exhibition at the Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, 'A Flowering of Talent', celebrates work by contemporary designers that have been bought by public art galleries as well as the Crafts Council.

Contemporary works of art have a broad and immediate appeal. There is no mythology about them. Acquisitions by museums 'are fantastic as it gets one's work seen by a wide variety of people such as schoolchildren who wouldn't necessarily encounter such works of art', says jeweller Jane Adam, one of whose bangles is in the exhibition. The Ulster Museum and the Cleveland Arts Centre are amongst the museums who have recently bought examples of her work. 'It is also an excellent way of getting the message across that there are marvellous works of art still being made.'

'There are a lot of people who don't realise what is going on. I often hear, "Oh that couldn't be made today", but there is continuity. There has not been a break with the past. These objects will become the antiques of the future', says Dr Poole. 'There is something about people devoting their life to creating things by hand', says Mary La Trobe Bateman, who was director of the Contemporary Applied Arts Gallery from 1994 to 2005. Over the years, the CAA has been instrumental in selling many items to museums. 'By building up a relationship with a commercial gallery a good understanding of what a particular curator is looking for is established. It is often very personal: for instance, some like decorative, some like abstract pieces. By purchasing objects, curators become "enablers", contributing money to the craftsmen', says Mrs La Trobe Bateman.
Inevitably, it is the smaller objects that are readily bought, as they are easy to display and store. 'We ought to buy more jewellery, there are some wizard pieces which don't take up much room', says Dr Poole. On the other hand, 'all our galleries are very light, so it does not make sense to buy lots of textiles, especially as they are often very hard to store because of their fragility'. The Fitzwilliam does not just rely on the visionary munificence of Sir Nicholas Goodison, who has generously donated more than fifty contemporary items to the museum. 'There is no great policy, but several purchases have been made with donations from the Friends of the Fitzwilliam. There is also a ricochet effect that once people see that you have contemporary objects on display they begin to donate items.' The Fitzwilliam has a notably wide range of such items, including several pieces of furniture, such as a bench by Jim Partridge and two chairs by Mathew Blunt.

Museum curators are very aware of what each museum buys and are careful to ensure that any new purchase is distinctive. For instance, Christine Rew, keeper of applied art at Aberdeen City Art Gallery, is very interested in the manipulation of metal and has bought metalwork by local Scottish artists through the National Collecting Scheme for Scotland. She has had the ingenious idea of displaying it alongside work by Japanese metalworkers, two working in Japan, Tom Kaneko and Hiroki Iwata, and one, Hiroshi Suzuki, based in England. (A piece by Hiroshi Suzuki from the Shipley Art Gallery is in the BADA exhibition.) 'The display shows off the metalwork sitting within a context of a national and international arena. The metalworkers are not working in isolation and it is fascinating to see their individual responses to what they are all seeing around them, whether they are in Scotland, England or Japan', says Victoria Wood, assistant keeper of applied arts at Aberdeen.

Furniture is more of a problem for any museum investing in contemporary decorative arts, as no large body of work is available for acquisition, since individual pieces of furniture tend to be made to commission. There is also the problem of display and storage. However the Fitzwilliam did buy a cabinet in 1975 by John Makepeace designed specifically for the display of smaller objects.

It would be a brave but imaginative curator who could take this idea one step further by displaying contemporary objects in a historic interior. There is a growing fashion for contemporary collectors and the younger generation of country-house owners to juxtapose the old and the new, such as a group of pots by Edmund de Waal on top of a walnut tallboy. A museum such as the Geffrye, well known for its superbly displayed historic interiors, could add an early-twenty-first century room, showing that it is possible to combine the best of the past with the best of the new in a modern idiom.

'Public collections are there for you to enjoy. It is important to add to them', says Adrian Sassoon, a leading international dealer in contemporary ceramics, glass, metalwork and jewellery as well as historic porcelain. Mr Sassoon set up the 'Adrian Sassoon Award for the Arts of the Kiln' in 2005 to purchase works of art in glass and ceramics from artists exhibiting at the Crafts Council's annual Chelsea Crafts Fair, for donation to public collections in the United Kingdom. This is an enlightened award, encouraging the artists whilst providing museums a wonderful opportunity to add to their collections. Amongst the museums that have benefited are the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, the Abingdon Museum in Buckinghamshire and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

The advent of 'Collect' in 2004, an annual three-day fair for contemporary objects organised by the Crafts Council at the Victoria and Albert Museum, has been of enormous benefit to both provincial and international museum curators. In one setting they can see a huge and diverse range of work from more than 350 artists, shown under the aegis of leading European and American galleries. 'Collect has given curators a wonderful focal point and the chance to see a lot of work all at once', says Mr Sassoon. 'As the Crafts Council does not have on display a permanent collection, it is a brilliant idea by the Crafts Council to celebrate British excellence in a hitherto unexplored way.' All the exhibitions put on by the Crafts Council in the past decade have been much more experimental, exploring areas such as recycling.

There is clearly a need for the Crafts Council to find a permanent exhibition space where it could perhaps show a selection from its extensive collection of more than 1,500 objects on a rotating basis. It would not only be popular with the gallery-visiting public but would be a major source of inspiration for makers. Nearly half the objects in 'A Flowering of Talent' at Grosvenor House are examples of work purchased by the Crafts Council in the past decade, ranging from 'ambitious forms in glass by Rachael Woodman, Bob Crooks and Galia Amsel and a daring statement in tapestry by Shelly Goldsmith to more intimate, eminently wearable pieces of jewellery by Adam Paxon and Jane Adam', says Amanda Fielding, curator of the Crafts Council Collection. This is merely a tantalising glimpse into the rich diversity of its collection, which was begun in 1972. 'We welcome the inclusion of cutting-edge contemporary works in this year's Grosvenor House Art and Antiques Fair, an environment in which the key theme of excellent craftsmanship will be fully recognised and appreciated', says Amanda Fielding. The Crafts Council purchasing panel, which meets once a year, is comprised mainly of practitioners who no doubt are highly critical judges of what should be chosen. As it has unrivalled access to the latest and most innovative of work being produced, by organising both the Chelsea Crafts Fair and Collect, the Crafts Council is in a unique position to form a collection.

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