University of Edinburgh Art Collections
In a city full of cultural treasures, The University of Edinburgh can lay claim to a fair few. The Rare Books and Manuscripts, and the Musical Instruments Collections are widely acclaimed, and the Art Collection has been 400 years in the making - with the Torrie Collection’s seventeeth century Dutch and Italian masterworks and renowned Scottish portraits of key Enlightenment figures as centerpieces. Following the University’s merger with Edinburgh College of Art in 2011, the ECA collection brought with it a unique insight into the production of the College, particularly in the early to mid twentieth century. Since the amalgamation of these collections, Art Collections Curator and Deputy Head of Museums, Neil Lebeter, has also embarked on creating two new collections, with contemporary art as their focus.
The Modern and Contemporary Collection
The Modern and Contemporary Collection seeks to reflect the creative production that is happening within the University’s purview, and includes works by artists that have studied, taught or exhibited at the University.
The first acquisition into this new collection was “Exposed Painting Charcoal Grey” (2011) by Callum Innes, which redressed the notable absence of Innes’ work in the existing ECA Collection. Innes remains based in Edinburgh, where he employs several younger artists as studio assistants. His ongoing series of exposed paintings forms a signature strand in his practice. The distinctive effects are created by the considered mixing and layering of paint, combined with its dissolution and removal.
Further key alumni include Jessica Harrison, who completed both her undergraduate study and her practice-based Phd at ECA. With a wide-ranging practice using photographic, painterly, ceramic and sculptural materials, Harrison explores the complexity of the sensory body and of bodily representations.
Katie Paterson’s ambitious projects often involve collaborations with scientists, and for “Timepieces” - an installation of 9 clocks that tell the time on the different planets in our solar system based on their respective day lengths measured in hours - she worked with, amongst others, Professor Ian Robson, recently retired Director of the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh.
Constellations of creativity
The remit encompasses spotting artists like Marisa Stoffer, as they emerge from education with their Degree Show exhibitions, as well as acquiring work by established artists on ECA’s teaching staff, such as Kenny Hunter, whose “Portrait of Andrew Grant” pays tribute to ECA’s main benefactor and alludes to Grant’s enlightened and significant support for the education of generations of artists.
The Modern and Contemporary Collection also recognizes the importance of the Talbot Rice Gallery in bringing distinctive exhibitions of contemporary art not only to the University community, but to Edinburgh art audiences more broadly. David Batchelor exhibited at Talbot Rice in 2007, and Lebeter later acquired a work from his 2013 exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket Gallery.
Contemporary Art Research Collection
In an innovative approach to institutional collecting, the thematic parameters of the University’s new Contemporary Art Research Collection are being determined in collaboration with academics in the History of Art department. Kirsten Lloyd and Angela Dimitrikaki have set out the academic focus for the first tranche. With globalisation as its central theme, the collection will analyse what the transformation of geographic, political, cultural and economic boundaries has meant in terms of artistic practice. Though driven by current research undertaken within the School of History of Art, the theme has been selected for its potential to build links across disciplines and research communities within the University.
This broad topic will be given an explicitly feminist inflection. Partly, Kirsten Lloyd explains, this aims to redress the imbalance within the wider art collections in the University, but more significantly, it acknowledges the impact of “the intensified processes of globalisation and the re-privatisation of previously shared services, responsibilities and risks” on traditional female roles and current female experience. “A common term within feminist political economy, ‘social reproduction’ concerns everything that relates to how we live, survive and thrive, from childrearing and cleaning to education and healthcare… Our research considers how social reproduction has been negotiated in the field of art.”
Using the collections
Building on an active commitment to loaning works and making them accessible to the wider public, as well as students and staff for teaching and research purposes, Lebeter and his academic collaborators are committed to exploring the potential of object-based learning, and indeed are keen to encourage its introduction on as wide a basis as possible.
The University is uniquely placed to offer such experiences, and a recently gifted mosaic by Eduardo Paolozzi provides one such opportunity. Following the renovations at Tottenham Court Road Tube Station, the disassembled Paolozzi mosaics were gifted to the University by Transport for London. The fragments will be photographed, digitally mapped, virtually reconstructed and physically re-assembled by students, researchers and ceramics conservators. Eventually, the murals will become an important part of the campus.
The excitement of object-based learning is that it need not be restricted to art historical teaching, but can be effective across numerous disciplines. Lebeter cites Stan Altman at the City University in New York, who describes 51 courses that use collection objects in their teaching, including law and mathematics. Handling objects brings palpable life to a case study, and generates a conversation that is likely to be more memorable and experientially vivid than any lecture.