Wedgwood: The power of the public will

Our director, Stephen Deuchar, reflects on the success of the Art Fund’s campaign to raise funds to ensure the Wedgwood Collection remains intact.

This autumn’s campaign to raise the last £2.75m needed to save the Wedgwood Collection proved to be quite a phenomenon in fundraising terms: thanks to the amazing range and volume of financial support received from public donations and private foundations alike, we achieved in one month what we had confidently expected to take three. What drove this success, this speed? Looking back, I think it was the rare convergence of three factors.

First, this was perceived not just as an ‘art’ cause, but a truly national one; the Wedgwood name and heritage – or rather the prospect of the loss of the Wedgwood Collection that best embodies them – tugged insistently on patriotic heartstrings. Second, with more than three-quarters of the total sum needed already raised before we went to public appeal, this was an eminently achievable goal; the probability of success, rather than just the possibility, is powerfully motivational. Third, the threat of a sell-off at auction – and the deadline we had to meet to prevent it – were both chillingly real; there was little need for campaign rhetoric, for here, all too evidently, was a real heritage crisis in the making if nothing were done to avert it.

But regardless of the reasons, the Art Fund is hugely grateful to everyone who responded to the appeal, from the trustees and executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund – whose clear-sightedness and commitment underpinned the whole campaign – to the many other trusts, foundations and individuals, several thousand in total, who so generously committed their private or personal funds to this very public cause. We no longer hear much of the ‘big society’ – that term invented by political strategists to stimulate private philanthropy in the wake of diminishing government funding for worthy public causes – but this autumn we witnessed a very impressive demonstration of the public will in action, which politicians might note and admire.

New Collecting Awards

The Art Fund has been campaigning over the past five years on behalf of the curatorial profession in Britain’s museums and galleries. Faced with government cutbacks, curatorial posts have disappeared from many institutions, and we see real long-term risks to the maintenance and development of the high levels of curatorial scholarship and expertise for which our museums are rightly renowned.

We are helping when and where we can: our Jonathan Ruffer Fund for curatorial travel and research is proving a lifeline for many small institutions; we have recently renewed (until 2018) our partnership with the National Gallery to help train curators in the area of Old Master paintings in UK regional museums, thanks especially to the Vivmar Foundation; and we have just now established a similar scheme at the Victoria and Albert Museum, with Michael Wilson’s help, to support the development of photography curatorships at collections outside London.

Our latest contribution to this cause is the creation of the New Collecting Awards. This scheme, supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Sir Siegmund Warburg's Voluntary Settlement, The Wolfson Foundation and The Ruddock Foundation for the Arts and other donors, intends to identify a new generation of promising UK curators and to award a selected number with special cash grants with which they can imaginatively build up new areas of collecting in their museums. Armed with an acquisition budget, a young curator may thereby hone the skills needed to choose the right works for his or her collections, forge productive relationships with the art trade, strengthen their own subject and object expertise, and generally develop that passion for collecting which drives all great museums forward.

fig-2: 50 exhibitions in 50 weeks

Another core curatorial skill that must always be encouraged is the making of exhibitions, and there have of course been some very fine examples of exhibition curatorship in action this autumn – with probing, important shows of Rembrandt, Turner, Constable, Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer in London alone.

But at the other end of the scale, a fascinating and potentially astonishing sequence of 50 small exhibitions, each lasting just one week, begins at the ICA on 6 January 2015. This curatorial marathon called fig-2 succeeds and faithfully emulates fig-1, Mark Francis’s now celebrated series of weekly exhibitions in 2000, which featured a roll call of famous names in the arts (though many of them were not so famous then) from Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller to Patti Smith and Philip Treacy. fig-2’s principal sponsor is Outset, but the Art Fund is pleased to be contributing to the project by funding its curator, Fatos Ustek, who worked with Jessica Morgan on the Gwangju Biennale (see Art Quarterly, summer 2014). To Mark, Fatos and their colleagues, our warmest wishes as they take on this formidable curatorial challenge, creating a new window into the world of art in 2015.

This article appears in Art Quarterly's winter 2014 issue. To receive the magazine, buy a National Art Pass and become a member.

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