Public collections

Public Collections

How are public collections formed?

Collections come alive through displays and exhibitions, where we are invited to explore a collection’s objects, make connections, and find cultural meaning. But how are public collections in Scotland formed and developed in the first place? What influences a curator's decisions when adding works to a collection? Collecting in the public realm generates dilemmas, debates and opportunities for institutions and audiences. Our profiles shed light on how various museums have approached the collecting of contemporary art.

Creating a collecting policy

All the curators we spoke to felt a sense of responsibility to engage with art that is being made now. Every public institution has a unique history and a distinctive collection, and each one creates a colourful context for the acquisition of new artworks. Each public institution discussed here has crafted a collecting policy that builds on this character, and has devised a resonant and fruitful theme around which to acquire contemporary art.

Every new arrival into a collection brings fresh stories and starts new conversations - with the potential, on occasion, to transform the whole. Introducing a newly conceived art work into a collection, or presenting an artist’s distinctive personal take on a collection, not only provides stimulation to an audience; it can profoundly influence a collection’s guiding principles in the future. In many of the cases discussed here, the curators testify to the fact that institutions can learn about themselves through their work with contemporary artists.

What does a curator do?

Although their specific tasks may vary, the curator is a critical figure in the formation and presentation of an institution’s collection. In the 1990s, critic Lawrence Alloway defined museum curators’ roles as: “acquiring art for the museum; supervising its preservation in store; and displaying it, putting it in an exhibition.”[1] The well-documented transformation of the curator since the 1990s, however, (influenced by the advent of the ‘independent curator’ operating in the international art scene largely outside of, or between, institutional contexts), has resulted in a museum profession that has been considerably transformed, even if it might occasionally appear to be stuck in the past.

Nowadays, as Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak explain, “the curator’s task is not only the safeguarding, analysis and presentation of a cultural heritage; it includes enriching it, principally through the acquisition of contemporary works…”[2] In other words, the challenge of caring for a historic collection does not end with the preservation of the collection alone - the further challenge is to grow the collection. As a result of this engagement with the art of the present, the act of institutional collecting has become more closely intertwined with artistic production. “Museums preserve the art of the past,” Martha Buskirk explains, “even as they actively help produce the art of the present.”[3]




[1] Lawrence Alloway, ‘The Great Curatorial Dim-Out’, in Ferguson, B., et al, “Thinking About Exhibitions”, 1st ed. (United Kingdom: Routledge, 1996), 221.

[2] Nathalie Heinich and Michael Pollak, ‘Museum Curator to Exhibition Auteur’ in Ferguson, B et al, “Thinking About Exhibitions” (Routledge 1996), 233.

[3] Martha Buskirk, “Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art between Museum and Marketplace” (Bloomsbury USA Academic 2012), 3