Blog: Art Fund International

Ben Harman, Curator of Contemporary Art at Glasgow Museums, writes about the impact of the Art Fund International scheme on his work.

Ben Harman is a Curator of Contemporary Art for Glasgow Museums. Based at the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow (GoMA), he is one of two curators responsible for GoMA’s programme of temporary exhibitions and the fine art collections of Glasgow Museums dating from 1960 to the present day. Since 2007 Ben has been Lead Curator on Glasgow’s Art Fund International project which, a £1 million collecting partnership between GoMA and The Common Guild, Glasgow.

Escaping the desk

'Just remember, if you’ve got nothing to write, don’t write anything' was the golden rule suggested to me by a respected work colleague and well-versed online diarist when I told her that the Art Fund had offered me this opportunity to write down some experiences during the last six months of Glasgow’s Art Fund International (AFI) collecting project.

The truth is, I have had a lot to write about since November 2007 when GoMA, in partnership with The Common Guild, was awarded £1 million as one of the five UK-based AFI collecting partnerships.

Since then AFI has transformed GoMA’s international collections and this year we will illustrate the impact of the project with Tales of the City, a building-wide exhibition that will focus on the world-class purchases we have made. The Art Fund has frequently highlighted the necessity of nurturing curatorial expertise and for me, working on a project to collect art from outside the UK, this has become inextricably linked to travel and research in the UK and abroad.

Put simply, AFI - with additional support from Glasgow Life, which manages Glasgow Museums - has enabled me to escape from my desk and to have the first-hand experiences that should go hand in hand with buying artworks for public collections. Travel is something that most curators in the UK, particularly those working for local authority collections, are not given the chance to undertake.

In this first batch of writing I hope, if nothing else, to convey some of the value and long-term benefits that such trips can bring to museum collections and future generations of museum visitors.

Frieze New York

Last week I was in the Big Apple for four days to attend Frieze New York, the newest art fair juggernaut to arrive on the international art circuit on the back of London's hugely successful Frieze Art Fair, which is now in its ninth year. It seemed very much business as usual within the fair with familiar objects, names and prices exhibited by more than 180 galleries from around the world. The fair itself was located inside a 250,000 square-foot ‘caterpillar tent’ located on Randall’s Island, a short distance from the upper east corner of Manhattan, a location that seemed to be baffling a lot of resident New Yorkers.

Aside from the obvious opportunity to reserve or buy works, art fairs such as this present unique chances to see brand new work by some of the best artists from around the world. Highlights for me ranged from the gently crafted wall sculptures of Sara Barker to the conceptually lyrical work of Jason Dodge. A bold new text piece by the American artist Barbara Kruger greeted every visitor at the fair's south entrance with the poignant statement: TOO BIG TO FAIL.

Elsewhere it was a pleasure to see older works by artists such as Ana Mendieta, Robert Barry, John McCracken and Joseph Kosuth resonating with the work of artists from younger generations from around the world.

The value of art fairs

Working as a representative of a public collection I have often paused to question the ethics of my own participation in such events as this, where unimaginable amounts of money change hands for the good of mostly private markets. But in recent years I have come to appreciate the lasting value of the research that art fairs can provide for visiting curators.

At GoMA, through the AFI collecting I have witnessed first-hand how this knowledge can be crucial in making the right decision over a purchase for a collection; how it can add to the all-important knowledge capture around objects, allowing for clearer and more accurate interpretation and better displays leading to greater visitor experiences.

Appointments and exhibitions

As with other international trips that I have undertaken during AFI this visit gave me the opportunity to make appointments with artists, archives and galleries. In between I visited exhibitions such as the Whitney Biennial, a prestigious survey of contemporary art from America; Weegee: Murder Is My Business at ICP, an incredible display of rare material by the self-proclaimed 'staff photographer for Murder Inc'; and a stunning exhibition of drawings by Dan Flavin at the Morgan Library, the latter reminding me of the incredible collection of American drawings that mima, Middlesbrough have acquired through AFI.

From the galleries in Chelsea a highlight was the Moyra Davey exhibition of posters, photographs and film at Murray Guy. In the same area I stumbled across David Shrigley’s billboard How Are You Feeling? at the High Line (a landscaped public park on a disused railway line). Shrigley is a Glasgow-based artist that has contributed to this city’s phenomenal reputation as an internationally-celebrated centre for contemporary art and so it is entirely appropriate for him to have such a prominent presence in New York at this time.

From the horse's mouth

There have been several moments over the last few years when I have had to pause to take stock of the incredible situation that I have found myself in. The latest occurred last week when I visited the Greenwich village home and studio of the artist Lawrence Weiner, who talked to me about his current projects and showed me around his house.

Lawrence had generously given up his time to show me archive material relating to his exhibition history in Scotland, specifically projects at Tramway and Transmission gallery, and to continue discussions with me about a future project in Glasgow.

Wrapping up

My final appointment in New York took me to the archive of the photographer Peter Hujar and I am extremely grateful to Stephen Koch and his assistant Rebecca for showing me some incredible material and for talking to me at great length about Hujar’s life and work. One of our first acquisitions through the Glasgow AFI project in 2008 was a group of seven black-and-white photographic prints by this extraordinary photographer (and absolute master of photographic printing) who died in 1987 and deserves much greater attention from museums in the UK than that which he has received so far.

It was a privilege to meet Stephen Koch, a personal friend of Hujar, who in the 1980s, accepted his late friend’s request to look after his estate in the event of his death. On this visit I learned and recorded more than two hours of intriguing and inspiring information that will now be kept in our archives to inform many future displays of our Hujar prints.

Over the next six months there will be many more exciting times ahead as I finish Glasgow’s AFI project with our collecting partners, The Common Guild. I am grateful to the Art Fund for giving me this voice for our project and a chance to highlight my experiences, all of which will lead to far reaching benefits for our museum visitors in the years to come.

Read more about Art Fund International.

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