Durham University’s Art Collection is more than decoration

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Dotted around the university, the artworks that make up Durham University’s vast collection often go unnoticed. From works by Fay Pomerance in Grey College, to Picasso prints in the Palatine Centre – students are often hurrying past to get somewhere else. At the time of our viewing of the collection with Alix Collingwood-Swinburn and Emily Dowler, prints by were hanging in the Business School cafe. As fitting as the location might seem for tins of soup, this is probably not where Warhol imagined his work to be placed.

However, Alix – the university’s Curator of Western Art – says she doesn’t see Durham’s lack of conventional display space as a disadvantage. “Because we don’t have the museum venue, we get to think quite creatively about how we do it. We’d love to have a museum, I’m not saying no, but it does means that we get to think creatively.”

It’s important work; not everyone has the Tate Modern on their doorstep

Emily – Learning Assistant in the University Library and Collections department – works closely with Alix to make the collection more accessible and better understood. They have collaborated with the Bishop Auckland charity Changing Relations, as well as Durham Sixth Form Centre. The latter aimed to show students that careers in the arts are achievable. Further afield, Alix and Emily oversee the loaning of works to art institutions around the country. It’s important work; not everyone has the Tate Modern on their doorstep.

Alix’s position was created in 2016. Alongside working with local communities, both she and Emily aim to repurpose the collection and change the way it is viewed from simply ornamental to a valuable learning resource. They stress that what they are doing with the art collection is very different to previous years. “When I came in there was very little infrastructure in place, so everything we’ve done has been about starting from scratch,” Alix says, and “changing the status of the collection from something domestic or decorative, into a museum-standard collection.”

Durham University’s art collection has repeatedly come under scrutiny. Earlier this year, Palatinate revealed the £2 million unaudited art bill between 2008-2015. It was also found that £1.5 million worth of artwork was purchased through Henry Dyson Fine Art Ltd – the private business of the university’s Keeper of Fine Art (a position that has since been removed). With Alix and Emily, the collection now appears to be in safer hands, as it is steered toward a more inclusive, educational and engaging purpose.

In the archive lie the works of Salvador Dali, the Guerilla Girls, Victor Pasmore and Eric Gill

While an impressive number of works are on display in buildings such as the Palatine Centre, the majority of Durham’s 6,000 piece art collection is archived in The College behind one of Durham’s greatest pieces, Durham Cathedral. In the archive lie the works of Salvador Dali, the Guerilla Girls, Victor Pasmore, Eric Gill. Grouped with those lesser-known such as David Carson Shaw and local contemporary artists, in all the ways Durham is traditional and old-fashioned, its art collection is not.

Norman Cornish, Durham University

Even if we wonder about the morally ambiguous hands Durham’s art collection was once in, it now seems to be heading in the right direction, how long that will take is uncertain. When we ask about the number of positions in charge of the collection, Emily answers that officially it’s just Alix. Whilst the small but dedicated team behind the art collection is driven to engage with Durham’s student and local community, Durham University itself doesn’t seem willing to invest in the positions needed to drive it forward.

It is not a lack of interest that limits the art collection’s outreach, rather a lack of University support

Currently, there is an exhibition in Palace Green Library celebrating Durham native Norman Cornish. In February, a British Museum touring exhibition “Pushing Paper” will be exhibited in the Oriental Museum. It is not a lack of people or interest that limits the art collection’s outreach, rather a lack of University support.

As for students, Durham University’s Student Art Prize launched in October this year. Under the title of “Diversity” – although surely it would be better to encourage diversity in applicants rather than to use it as a subject – students will be offered a cash prize and the chance be included in the university’s art collection.

The Student Art Prize is an opportunity to further engage the art community in Durham, the shortlisted entries will be displayed in the Palatine Centre. Alix sees it as a way to showcase the talent we have here, adding, “I’d love for the ground floor to be student art.”

Bearing both the students and the local community in mind, both Alix and Emily have the art collection’s best interests at heart. Their intentions will surely drive the collection forward as a means of education and outreach. We can only hope the University will follow suit.

Images: Durham University

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