Art is not studied at Stirling, yet the University of Stirling art collections are a central feature of university life. Stirling’s curators display their collections throughout the campus, with works located throughout the landscaped grounds, and the corridors and courtyards of the striking mid-century ‘Pathfoot’ building. Art surrounds the students, staff and visitors, sensitising them to the distinctive features of their environment, and illuminating the academic activity that is happening behind the scenes (there is a curatorial drive to ‘make knowledge visible’ through collaborations between artists and academics).
Embodiment of Modernism
Stirling University has its aesthetic and philosophic roots in modernism. Founded in 1967, it was the first new university in Scotland since 1582, and signalled a sea change in the wider approach to higher education and research institutions.
This modernity was embodied by Pathfoot. Designed by architect John Richards, the first of the campus’s new buildings had a gridded footprint, a wide indoor boulevard, gently stepped levels leading to the Crush Hall, and no less than 29 glazed courtyards, 19 of which are enclosed. Pathfoot incorporates such a high quality of vintage mid-century design, that the building has recently been listed. In a review in 1970, David Baxandall, then Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, called it “probably the most beautiful, the most civilized, the most sensitive and intelligent piece of large scale modern architecture and planning that has been achieved in Scotland," noting also the abundance of art works sited therein, and “the very unusual atmosphere of this place […] Mary Martin’s great mural construction shows, in a heightened and more concentrated form, some of the qualities that make this building so distinguished".
Art as a gift
The first university Principal, Dr. Tom Cottrell, had insisted that the budget for campus development include funds for commissioning art. Mary Martin’s afore-mentioned aluminium mural (1968), originally designed for the dining room, now hangs in the central hall of Pathfoot, and Justin Knowles’s ‘Two Stainless Steel Forms with White’ (1969) is still maintained on the grounds.
The collection has also been strengthened by two major bequests. The first, in 1968 was the J. D. Fergusson Memorial Collection given by Fergusson’s partner Margaret Morris. Her substantial gift of fourteen paintings places Stirling’s collection as central to the Scottish art narrative. The second gift in 1997 came from the Scottish Arts Council, who presented the University with works from Scottish artists Anne Redpath, John Bellany, Joan Eardley and Elizabeth Blackadder in addition to a bronze sculpture from Barbara Hepworth (which had already been on loan to the University since 1967).
A culture of research
Art Curator Jane Cameron continues Cottrell’s commitment to the contemporary, and in augmenting Stirling’s collection today, seeks to reflect three main aspects of the collection’s institutional context: its spatial/sculptural environment, its research activity and the internationalism of the University community.
Thanks to the strength of Stirling’s painting collection, the walls are well endowed, and the curators are now keen to turn their attention to acquiring objects. ‘The campus is the art’, Cameron explains, and the buildings within it act like sculptural entities within the landscape. The contemporary works that are being brought into the collection are intended to enhance this creative ‘whole’. Recent acquisitions by Lotte Glob and Nick Evans, for instance, have introduced striking forms and textures to the Pathfoot courtyards, while also provoking questions about the nature of creativity and the process of making.
Cameron and Jacqueline McKenna, Head of Gardens and Grounds are determined to develop a considered plan for siting works within their modernist landscapes, and have recently visited Louisiana Museum Denmark in June 2015 to share ideas about the influence of original 1960’s architecture on the land, the use of lighting, architectural detailing, furnishing, planting and ideas for installation and display of artworks using the glazed walls and the landscape beyond.
The campus grounds already host a number of large public sculptures, but there have also been commissions that explore what public sculpture might be. Alec Finlay, a former student, returned in 2013 as an artist-in-residence, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. Collaborating with Stirling’s Schools of Natural Sciences and Arts & Humanities he drew on Stirling’s renown in apicultural research and their investigations into pesticide impacts on bee populations. Finlay’s ‘bee library’ provided bee shelters around the rural campus, and now forms a trail around the grounds.
As well as communicating particular currents of research undertaken within the institution, Cameron also seeks to acquire works that share the outward outlook of academic exploration and international exchange. In its campus in the Ochil Hills, Stirling University may seem modest and somewhat tucked away, but its community is international.
Arguably, this outward perspective finds its most expansive form in Katie Paterson’s “Future Library”. Paterson peers into realms as remote as deep space, necessitating relationships with all sorts of collaborators across time zones, disciplines and sciences. Future Library conjures the future of thought itself: an editioned certificate entitles the bearer in 100 years’ time to a collection of specially commissioned writings, one written every year of the project, and printed on paper from a specially planted forest in Oslo, Norway.
Collections curators inevitably think about how the future will come to regard our present. In the context of a university’s regularly replenishing generations, and Stirling’s 50-year anniversary in 2017, Cameron is particularly attuned to capturing contemporary scientific and cultural conversations, and to representing this present for future generations.