Philanthropy, once the sole province of Victorian charity, has gained a renewed significance in dialogues around contemporary art. With increased cuts to public funding, it is no news that museums and galleries are being forced to turn to alternative forms of income, whilst many are struggling to continue to add to their collections. The curatorial concept for Going Public takes this issue its starting point; devised by Mark Doyle and Sebastien Montabonel, the project is a series of exhibitions, a debate and a conversation on the relationship between the public and the private sector in the visual arts. Whilst a number of public London art institutions have already entered into working relationships with private collections, it is a pattern that has not yet extended to the regions. Displaying the works of four European collectors across five Sheffield locations, Doyle and Montabonel aim to establish a mode of ‘philanthropic giving to arts and culture [that] can become a social norm in every twenty first century city.’
Works of contemporary art and those of the twentieth-century avant-garde have been selected from the collections of Nicholas Cattelain, Dominique and Sylvain Levy, Egidio Marzona and Patrizia Sandretto Re Rebaudengo for display across the five sites. At the Millennium Gallery the canonical names of 1960s/ 70s Minimalism and Conceptualism from the Cattelain collection brush shoulders with contemporary works; Dan Flavin and Sol Lewitt find themselves juxtaposed against Do Ho Suh’s ‘Wielandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin’ (2011) and Anthony McCall’s ‘Meeting You Halfway II’ (2009). Marking a departure from the earlier works’ focus on industrial materials and forms, the contemporary pieces display a shift towards the encounter with sculptural and architectural space, one requiring the viewer’s presence for completion. The gallery visitor is invited to traverse the ghostly spaces of Do Ho Suh’s life-size replica of a Berlin apartment and enter the screens of haze in McCall’s installation, to be encased in light as a constructive medium.
A focus on material is also present in the Marzona collection’s display of Dada and Surrealism at Graves Gallery. Responding to the Graves’ location above the Sheffield Central Library, the display not only encompasses artworks but correspondence, books, periodicals and exhibition ephemera. Blurring the boundary between artwork and object, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘La Boite-en-valise, Serie B’ (1935-41/1952), a portable museum containing ready-mades and miniature reproductions of Duchamp artworks, and Kurt Schwitters’ 1928 ‘Vollmich’ collage of sweet wrappers and media fragments, question traditional definitions of the ‘art’ object.
At Site Gallery and SIA Gallery, works of contemporary Chinese art from the Dominique and Sylvain Levy collection harbour a social and political resonance. The two video pieces at Site Gallery – Jiang Zhi’s projection ‘Onward, Onward, Onward’ (2006) of three former Chinese presidents, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, running continuously forward, and Zhou Tao’s ‘1,2,3,4’ (2005) footage of the military-like morning drills of different Chinese companies – offer a critical commentary on the capitalist system and its devotion to progress and development. Although at SIA, works such as Xu Tan’s installation ‘Keyword- Survive’ (2005), a nomadic hut-like shelter, and Duan Jianyu’s 2006 ‘Morning’, a series of rural paintings accompanied by model chickens, appear to offer a more hopeful alternative to this system, their apparent utopianism comes under threat from the suggestion of the natural disasters that have likely influenced this mode of living.
Social and political events also resonate within the works of the Sandretto Re Rebaudengo collection at Sheffield Cathedral. Entering into dialogue with the existing religious art of the cathedral, the relationship between the biblical, the historical and the contemporary is emphasised. Jake and Dinos Chapman’s ‘Cyber Iconic Man’ (1996), an upside down mutilated mannequin that spurts blood from its many wounds, simultaneously references crucifixion iconography whilst offering a powerful contemporary anti-war stance. Fiona Tan’s 2001 video installation ‘Saint Sebastian’ similarly enters into important debates regarding the role of women in society, documenting the traditional Toshiya’s ceremony of archery that marks the passage of young women into adulthood.
The Cathedral’s engagement with questions regarding the role of contemporary art within religious spaces is endemic of Going Public’s strength in inviting debate on wider topical issues within the visual arts, including the relationship between London and the provinces, the role of collections within contemporary art and the different formats that such collecting may take. Whilst the project bravely pilots a new model of public and private sector working, its motivation stems from a much older, time-honoured concern, one which first brought regional galleries into existence – that access to the very best art collections is essential for the social, intellectual and educational development of all cities. Philanthropy it seems still has a contemporary relevance, ensuring Sheffield remains at the forefront of developments within contemporary art.
Going Public: International Art Collectors in Sheffield is running across Millennium Gallery, Graves Gallery, Site Gallery, SIA Gallery and Sheffield Cathedral until 12th December 2015. More information can be found here.
Clare Nadal is a writer, curator and art historian based in Sheffield.
Top Image: Fiona Tan, Saint Sebastian (still), 2001 © the artist and DACS, London. Courtesy Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, Turin.
Image: Do Ho Suh, Wielandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin. Courtesy of Cattelain & Millennium. © Doh Ho Suh and Cattelain Collection. Photograph: Nils Clauss.