Isobel Johnstone
Interviewed by Robert Dingle, 2009
When did you start working for the Arts Council Collection and what was it like?

IJ - I started in 1979 when I came down from Edinburgh, having run the Scottish Arts Council Collection for four years. I knew about contemporary Scottish art, but was not well informed, for example, about the background to the art life of London, the traditions of the different art schools. At that time Goldsmiths was emerging as the place for thinking artists. The Slade by contrast held fast to its more practical traditions.

When I took over the Collection the whole Visual Art panel was involved in purchasing. All administrative staff were based at Piccadilly (the Art Department move to the Hayward was not until 1986) and the storage of the Collection was in two places, Hayward Gallery basement and at Record Street, off the Old Kent Road. Technical staff was based at the Hayward. The Visual Art panel of ACGB decided exhibition and funding policy as well as recommending purchases. Joanna Drew was Director of Visual Art at and Andrew Dempsey was in charge of the Hayward. The Collection was part of Touring Exhibitions run by Michael Harrison.

When Henry Meyric Hughes became Director of the Hayward he took the useful step of rectructuring the department by bringing the Collection out from under the aegis of Touring Exhibitions and giving it a separate heading. His aim was to establish the importance for the Collection in the eyes of the Arts Council. When Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton became Director of Visual Arts at ACE she helped the Collection in numerous important ways and, for the first time for a Director there, she was also directly involved in purchasing. She managed to secure a stable purchasing budget and started moves to secure proper storage for sculpture in Yorkshire and in London. She helped galleries in the regions to develop new strategies and expertise to build up their own collections. One of these was to make money available for them to attend Biennales. For a municipal gallery collecting contemporary art on a tiny budget and very limited expenses was an incredibly difficult task. Another strategy was to encourage cities to concentrate on special areas.

Two panel members particularly interested in purchasing then were Andrew Causey and Marina Vaizey. I remember Marina Vaizey recommending Evelyn Williams and being embarrassed that I had never heard of her. I went with Andrew Causey to Nicholas Logsdail's gallery where we saw Anish Kapoor's 'White Sand, Red Millet, Many Flowers', 1982, and Tony Cragg's 'New Stones Newton's Tones'. Nicholas was committed to the New Art and tenacious in his support Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and Cragg, as well as taking on the younger Kapoor. In the early '80s dealers were having a lean time and were keen to have the endorsement of an Arts Council purchase.


What was the relationship like between Andrew Causey and Nicholas Logsdail?

IJ - As professor of Art History at Manchester University Andrew was naturally academic but he had insight and foresight. The Council had engaged him to buy for an exhibition and he chose the theme 'Nature as Material'. He had a base in London as well as Manchester which meant that he could see work in London. This was essential as all galleries dealing with the innovative work we were looking for were in London. Nicholas Logsdail was among several London dealers who would keep us well informed of what their artists were doing and it was easy to keep up - the galleries were all near Piccadilly: Annely Juda and Angela Flowers in Tottenham Mews, Leslie Waddington in Cork Street, Alec Rowan off Bruton Street and Nigel Greenwood near Sloane Square. Ann Seymour, the Tate curator so responsible for the New Art of the 1970s had left Nigel to marry Anthony d'Offay, who was emerging as another extremely important dealer of contemporary art.

How did your role change at the Arts Council Collection throughout the time you were there?

IJ - When I arrived I took over running an exhibition selected by the Director at Eindhoven Museum, Rudi Fuchs, a rigorous conceptualist and somewhat enigmatic person. 'Languages' was good in terms of the works purchased - John Stezaker, Gerard Hemsworth, John Murphy and Victor Burgin all entered the Collection at this point. Richard Cork's earlier exhibition 'Beyond Painting and Sculpture' had led to other conceptual work coming into the Collection. My predecessor (who was American) Karen Amiel, perhaps also Richard Francis (at that point organising the 'Dada and Surrealism' exhibition for the Hayward) suggested that the Collection invite an international figure purchase an exhibition for tour. This was all selected when I took over. Apparently Rudi had a good rapport with the artists but the show was too intellectual for galleries outside London. I managed to persuade Bridget Brown who ran the exhibitions programme at Glasgow's Third Eye Centre to take it - that was all. This lack of success influenced future shows. Work had to have more popular appeal, such as 'Lives', selected by the Pop artist Derek Boshier, 'A Cold Wind Brushing the Temple' by the Jazz singer and Surrealist enthusiast, George Melly. We continued to have outside purchasers selecting some shows but the idea of them buying new work was dropped.

What was it like purchasing work for the Arts Council?

IJ - I have to say that we had a very enjoyable time, in spite of tiring travelling, hours in freezing studios and nights in unglamorous hotels. It was a privilege to have access to work in this way and we met wonderful people. By the 1990s, however, so much more that was deemed 'innovatory' was virtual or not made by hand, hardly anyone had a studio where you could see work made in a traditional way. Studio visits were less frequent. It was important that the Council was seen to be looking at work across the UK. Artists were free to apply to have work considered and, if there was enough interest, they were visited. Within a few years of my arrival we settled on a purchasing system that depended on three outside and three inside advisers. The outside advisers were paid a modest fee - so that they could give up time to come to meetings and help with research. Some of the best advisers were artists. The inside purchasers were drawn from the Visual Art staff at Piccadilly and Hayward staff at the South Bank Centre. Regional visits were planned each year, different regions taking turns depending on where most interesting work appeared.

Do you remember making a studio visit to Manchester with Guy Brett?

IJ - Yes I do. Guy was on the same committee as Pavel Buchler, who some years before had left Glasgow to work in Manchester. Guy and Pavel purchased with Yinka Shonibare, a very stimulating group. Guy is intellectual and reserved with considerable historical knowledge, and Pavel and Yinka are extroverts with acute contemporary awareness. Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton, Susan Ferleger Brades and myself were the internal team. Pavel was a critical element for an impressive group of young artists we visited in Manchester. The energised atmosphere reminded me of how Glasgow was when Douglas Gordon was emerging.

After Languages what was the first exhibition you curated for the Collection?

'A Cold Wind Brushing the Temple' was among the first of these and in this case George Melly was a delight to work with and surprisingly efficient about selecting and writing. Several shows following this one had an informative feel rather than one of entertainment. Michael Harrison, my immediate boss, encouraged ideas that would educate the public in looking and understanding and he organised a series of shows which toured for many years. I worked on 'From Object to Object' making use of work already in the Collection, and 'Room for Thought, selected by Hilary Lane who ran the exhibitions programme at the Gardner Centre at Sussex University. We realised that we had to have regional curators involved in making our touring shows - they knew their public better than we did.

How did the Arts Council Collection purchase photography at the time you arrived?

IJ - Barry Lane was our photography officer. It seems strange now but in 1979 photography was run as a separate branch of the Visual Art department. Barry's particular interest was documentary photography and he oversaw a separate committee which gave grants to photographers. Archival prints were acquired for the Photography Collection as a result of these projects, the photographer being paid additionally for making prints. The photography committee carried on throughout the 80's until it eventually became amalgamated and with the main Collection purchasing committee, which by then was acquiring more and more photography, though not necessarily of a documentary kind.

In what way was this similar to the way the Collection viewed video?

IJ - Many curators regarded video with deep suspicion during the 80s. It was such a bore to display - you were often more aware of the screens and cables than the content of the work. Video artists rather like photographers were separately financed by the Arts Council and London Video Arts. They were seen to need a different kind of support. At that point video was an art form more for experiencing and sharing rather than selling - films were rented out and if copies were sold they were inexpensive. Video artists got fees for performances. Video, like photography, was a form that could be multiplied so why keep it unique?

How were external purchasers or selectors chosen for the Collection?

IJ - We separated from the Arts Council in 1986. After Margaret Thatcher abolished the GLC the South Bank Centre had no one to run it. The Arts Council took over and decided that Hayward and Touring Exhibitions should move to offices at the top of the Royal Festival Hall. The choice of purchasers would start with staff at the Hayward and staff at Arts Council England (ACE), as the Arts Council of Great Britain came to be called, proposing names. I would sound individuals out to see if they could purchase. We would eventually form a team which had the right balance, of art form interest, sex, regional representation - even colour. Sonia Boyce, who joined us at the time of the move to the South Bank, was our first black purchaser. The Council had set a target of spending 4% of funds on the support of what at that point was called the 'ethnic' minorities.

In the 80s there seems to be a stop to purchasers buying for exhibitions and a drive towards showing works already in the Collection. Does this period coincide with a shift in the Arts Council Collections acquisitions policy?

IJ - Yes. Individual buying stops in the 80s and we started to do these little shows. The Spotlight series was my idea but it evolved from the 'Anthony Caro', which was entirely made up of works in the Collection. The first Spotlights were of individual sculptures by Richard Deacon and Anish Kapoor which were promoted as 'add ons' to 'Recent British Sculpture', an exhibition of sculpture of the '80s selected by Greg Hilty, who had joined the Hayward staff. This exhibition was much in demand because so few regional galleries were in a position to collect sculpture.

Spotlight also included groups of work by one artist. This series reflected a changing attitude on our part towards more cooperation with galleries. Spotlights on 'Ben Nicholson' and 'Prunella Clough' for example enabled galleries to bring out work by these artists in their own collections and make a bigger display.

Among Collection shows in the 1990s was It's a Still Life, in which Roger Malbert's introduction explained the enduring importance of this traditional subject. We brought together early and recent work. More specifically historical was Hilary Lane's Festival of Fifty-One, suggested by our new situation at the South Bank Centre - it began its tour in the Royal Festival Hall ballroom space. Shocks to the System after that was my opportunity to extract a more political seam from recent purchasing. Neil Ascherson wrote for this. In contrast to this was 'Ready, Steady, Go: Painting from the Sixties' selected by Hilary Lane. There were print shows too, Pop Prints selected by Marco Livingstone and 'Prints from Wood' by James Hamilton. Sacha Craddock and Hilary Lane, both painters as well as curators, selected 'New Painting'. New multiples by Mona Hatoum, Lucia Nogeira and Cornelia Parker among others, were comissioned for the multiple show 'Art Unlimited' and available for sale.

I think it's interesting the way the Spotlight series gave way to a number of more recent exhibition strategies designed to show works from the Collection more easily. 'Now Showing', for instance, is a touring showcase of projected films showing six new acquisitions from the Collection, while 'Catch This' presents the work of leading UK-based artists often the same year the work has been purchased.


You mention the discrepancy in the prices of artists work as a difference of culture, to what extent did Charles Saatchi play a role in this?

IJ - He had a large role to play. Artists are always concerned to sell and they would always be ready to offer things at special prices so that they were in a collection. When we first bought Kapoor and Cragg as I have pointed out, their dealer was keen to sell because a public collection was a way of ensuring a good start to an artist's career. Damien Hirst and the YBA's were not particularly interested. Saatchi had floated them off into another, more glitzy and commercial world.

That said most artists were happy to be in the Collection and have been very helpful since. But there have always been a few who move in a different sphere. I remember, it must have been at Olympia or Earls Court - one of the first art fairs in London, Francis Bacon passed by with Lucian Freud. As he walked past our stand he looked at it, and I heard him say 'never did anything for me the Arts Council', in a loud posh voice. We had in fact bought two important works at quite a good time.


How difficult do you think it was for the artists involved to have their work collected by Saatchi and then donated to the Arts Council?

IJ - Well it was difficult, but it was better than being dumped. How much better, I am not sure. If work comes into the Collection, it stays there. I think he took to heart the criticism that he ruined the career of quite a few artists by selling work back to dealers, resulting in a terrible lack of confidence in that artist's work. Saatchi has had a great effect on British art, whether it's a good one, may be too early to tell. But by giving artists confidence and financial support they have been able to become internationally visible. His un-hidebound taste has been in tune with recent, media-fed times and he set the pace for a host of wealthy collectors seeking product for their spare cash.

The works that Saatchi gifted to the Arts Council were negotiable. I remember asking him for alternatives for one or two works, which he was happy to provide. He certainly did not insist on any particular sculpture, though I think he had set his mind on us taking a certain number. At the time he had had a difficult relationship with the Tate. He liked our collection because it was used for loan and touring and was (within reason) quite active. He did not want his art to disappear into a basement. He was probably spurred on to offer the second gift of sculpture when he heard about the store and gallery being set up at Longside.


Three works that stand out from the Saatchi gift were Adam Chodzko, Martin Creed and John Frankland, what do you remember acquiring these works?

IJ - Yes, certainly, we were thrilled to get all these works. We already had pieces by Chodzko and Creed and those from Saatchi complemented them beautifully. I remember first visiting Martin Creed in his studio in south London. For a young artist, making such apparently inconsequential works, he was ostensibly laconic and at the same time immensely focused. He had a Scottish accent which was very appealing to me as fellow Glasgwegian. To return to the Saatchi gift I remember that we were concerned as to how to show the John Frankland. It was too amazing not to have but how on earth were we going to manage showing it? By this time, however, we had bought Antony Gormley's 'Field for the British Isles' and having got that on board we knew that we could manage difficult installations. Also that they had added value because their spectacular nature helped to promote the Collection.

Do you recall Guy Brett purchasing Liliane Lijn's work in 1998 - 2000?

IJ - I remember the video 'What's the Sound of One Hand Clapping', which is characteristically clever. We had not bought Lilliane Lijn since the 60s. She represented the kind of work which Guy previously championed. He also brought in artists whom he rated highly and whose work had not been purchased at all.

Paul Etienne-Lincoln was a complete surprise to most of us but irresistible. He may have come to our notice as a purchasing application. As well as scouting for artists in exhibitions and following leads from advisers, applications from artists themselves made up a time-consuming part of our buying process. These were considered at purchasing meetings, which were held every two months. We would go through all this material that had been sent to us, slides, videos, images etc. In this way we occasionally came across people we had never heard of.


Many artists have gifted their work to the Collection over the course of its history and there are different reasons behind each artist gifting their work, is there any work that you remember or were particularly involved in?

IJ - There are different reasons for an artist to gift work. John Walker gave us a magnificent painting as a token of gratitude following his show at the Hayward. By then he was living in Australia. Prunella Clough gave a group of works on paper while we were planning her Spotlight. She had been a very sympathetic purchaser and became a good friend.

How did Peter Doig enter the Collection?

IJ - I think Alister Warman may have recommended the Peter Doig purchase from an exhibition at the Serpentine. The exact details escape me but it was decided very quickly. It is such a strong picture that other artists were not keen to be shown near it. It is a picture bought at a good moment and, unfortunately, will probably be the only Doig in the Collection, the work now being so expensive.

Do you have any regrets about artists that you didn't purchase?

IJ - I always regretted not purchasing an earlier Fiona Rae from her first Serpentine show. I always felt tentative about pushing things too much because I already had influence through the fact of my position as Curator (or 'Head' as the post is now described). We did eventually buy a Fiona Rae. We used to advise against buying artists just out of college, at this point thinking it better to leave them for a year or two to find out whether they are really going to sink or swim. There are no rules about any of this of course. David Hockney was purchased as he left the Royal College - We Two Boys Together Clinging- is a masterpiece. We left it late to buy Fiona Rae and ended up paying more.

What works did you particularly push strongly for?

IJ - I remember getting very excited after seeing 'Kiss and Tell' in Richard Deacon's studio and then making strenuous efforts to raise enough money for the purchase. This was the first time we had additional money from The Henry Moore Foundation and the National Art Collectons Fund. Julia Peyton-Jones, another new arrival to the department, was very helpful here. My strongest memory is of the discussion on a train from Liverpool after seeing Antony Gormley's 'Field for the British Isles'. Shirazeh Houshiary and I trying to sort out how the work could be installed, stored, justified and paid for. Shirazeh Houshiary, Vong Phaophanit, Adrian Searle and Marjorie Allthorpe-Guyton were all involved in the decision. These journeys to view special exhibitions and artists studios were really precious as opportunities to get to know purchasers. Meetings at the Council got shorter and shorter - everyone seeming to have less and less time. In the old days at Piccadilly Arts Council meetings used to go on from 10am till 4 or 5pm. There would be a lunch, even wine. Because members of committees were not paid they were given good hospitality. Conversations and discussions would go on all day. When Roy Strong took over as Chairman of the Visual Arts Panel at Piccadilly meetings were limited to two hours. When these did involve lunch he was very particular that we got the wine from Berry Bros. In spite of this, the wind of change was blowing through the old system.
 

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