What is the point of university art collections?

Matthew Reisz looks for the value in dull pictures of long-forgotten vice-chancellors

July 29, 2015
Source: Copyright Royal Holloway, University of London
Edwin Landseer's Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864, detail)

Unlucky individuals inherit attic loads of junk. Many universities inherit unexciting art collections put together at different times with no overall organising principle.

It seems not to be the done thing to sell such material off – what is now Royal Holloway, University of London caused a minor scandal in 1993 when it disposed of a Constable, a Gainsborough and a Turner to raise over £20 million to help preserve its Grade I-listed Founder’s Building – so is there any way for universities to build their art collections into their broader missions, or make significant use of them in outreach, teaching or research?

I first became intrigued by these issues when Murray Edwards College in Cambridge recently published a new edition of the catalogue for its 400-strong collection of women’s art, now said to be the largest in Europe. This has been put together from loans, gifts and bequests (but no real purchasing budget) since 1992.

It fits neatly with the institution’s identity as an all-women’s college, does something to combat the under-representation of work by women in many other collections and raises lots of interesting questions about what, if anything, is distinctive about “women’s art”.

But what about the universities with less coherent collections, including dull pictures of long-forgotten vice-chancellors or in styles which haven’t been fashionable for decades?

I wrote round to a number of press offices, and got a fair sample of unhelpful responses. In one case, an institution owned 440 artworks, I was told, but my contact was unable to provide any further information about dates, themes or subject matter. Several others gave equally thin responses.

Fortunately, others provided much richer detail, which I was able to pull together into a feature.

One of the world’s worst poets was on hand to pen an ode when a portrait of the founder was unveiled during the opening ceremony, in 1883, of what is now the University of Dundee. At the University of Warwick, the current curator explained to me, “the founders installed modernist works of art like the flags of an egalitarian society in its public spaces”. Students and staff were often less impressed, so the development of the collection interestingly reflects the retreat from the utopian ideals of the 1960s.

At Royal Holloway, meanwhile, students and the general public can now go and look for themselves at Edwin Lanseer’s painting (pictured) of polar bears savaging the human remains and other wreckage of an unsuccessful Arctic expedition. Rumours of a curse meant that it was hitherto covered by a Union Jack during exams.


Read Matthew Reisz's feature in full.

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Reader's comments (2)

I think this says quite a lot about university press offices, much less about art. University art collections have been accumulated for different reasons. Look at the grandest ones; they combine a historical and interpretative history of the university with a broader mission to educate. Holloway gave his collection to the College in the mode of his inspiration Matthew Vassar - who thought that the students would be educated through the art. That's why most university art galleries (think Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam, Barber, Huntarian etc) exist. Collecting portaits is a different business. I like university portraits, have blogged about them, they capture the history of the place. They might be dull, but look at them carefully and they represent different stages of our universities.
Universities collect art for the same purposes as they do anything else - to accumulate wealth. They don't care about art for itself. They may pay lip service to it, as they pay lip service to valuing research - but not researchers. But the end point i, its all about money in the bank, that's all Russell Group unis care for. Just as an example: one Russell Group university in the north east has enough art in cupboards (ie they have so much of the stuff they can't even fit in on the walls) to fund all the fixed term research fellows on their books for another year at least, if they sold it - and they're not showing it, so why not sell it? Will they sell? Hell no. Are researchers being made redundant? Oh yes. Can anyone view this art, that is being owned at the expense of research careers, so that maybe at least the population at large benefit from the existence of this art? Nope, its in cupboards. So much for the broader mission to educate

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