It would be difficult to complete a degree at Durham without knowing that Durham University is a QS World Top 100 institution or that Durham Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Less well-publicised, however, is Durham University’s extensive and eclectic collection of modern art. The Collection, works from which are dotted around campus like a trail of Easter eggs, boasts well-known names such as Pablo Picasso, David Hockney, Eric Gill, Barbara Hepworth and Guerrilla Girls.
So, what is the story behind the Art Collection? Current and former Visual Arts Editors, Emma Tucker and Faye Saulsbury, speak to the curatorial and engagement staff working with the Collection to find out.
In the loft of Elvet Hill House works the Curator of Western Art, Alix Collingwood-Swinburn. She tells us with a chuckle that her office space would once have been servants’ quarters. Her responsibilities, however, are far from servants’ work.
Also on the call is Emily Dowler, Project Officer, in the University Library and Collections, who works closely with Alix. Alix and her colleagues are working on the complex task of uniting the Collection’s existing works into a coherent online catalogue. Our Art Collection is an essential resource for supporting research – as necessary as the books in the library – and an effective tool for social change. Most of the collection is stored in a specialist art store, but there is a lot displayed in the hallways of University’s buildings, such as the Palatine Centre. Unfortunately, most of these buildings are likely to be closed off to students this year. That’s why the online catalogue is so important.
Alix is keen to assert that the Art Collection is not exclusive to twentieth-century paintings. It also includes a selection of historical works, outdoor sculptures, artworks created with the local community and contemporary artworks. To unite such a diverse range of artefacts, Alix and Emily have many projects on the go. The projects, as varied as the Collection itself, follow a common theme: collaboration.
One such collaboration is between the Collection and local artists. Alix seeks to acquire more artwork which represents the North East. After all, in an increasingly London-centric country, our location in the North is all the more prominent as a unique selling point. Additionally, Alix has a personal interest in art with an activist streak.
One example which ticks both boxes is 89 Ways You Are Worth More To Me Like This (2018) by Durham-born artist Lady Kitt. It is part of a series of portraits depicting women who Lady Kitt feels “need celebrating.” These are cut out of genuine £50 banknotes, sardonically highlighting the lack of female representation of British currency. 89 Ways You Are Worth More is especially significant to our Art Collection as it features Professor of Archaeology at Durham University, Charlotte Roberts.
If you visited the Billy B last winter, you may have noticed an illuminated neon pink ribbon at the reception desk. This was an installation from the 36point7 project by Stuart Langley, an artist based in Hartlepool, County Durham. 36point7 reimagines the World AIDS Day charity ribbon to ensure it remains visible. At the time of commission, there were 36.7 million people in the world living with AIDS – hence the title of the project – so, Langley created 36.7 copies of the light installation. One of the conditions which came with the acquisition of this work was that it must be displayed in the weeks before and after World AIDS Day, which is on the 1st December every year. So look out for it around campus this winter!
Another collaborative effort is with two academic courses at Durham. The newly established BA Visual Arts and Film seeks to actively utilise resources available within the University collections, as well as the “curatorial expertise of its staff” – referring, of course, to Alix and her colleagues. Meanwhile, MA Visual Culture students can curate exhibitions using works from the Art Collection. This year’s exhibition, From Walls to Windows, used the lockdown as inspiration to question the meaning and definition of home.
Student Society Collaborations
Both Alix and Emily are keen to work with and support students who are interested in any aspect of the arts. In the last few years, the art team has created the Inter College Arts Network (ICAN), which is a creative forum open to all student artists. Through the network, students can connect directly with Alix and Emily. Aside from Durham University Art Society (DUAS), ICAN is the best network for finding and contacting other students involved in art.
It must be noted that Alix’s work extends far beyond the Durham student community. Alix and colleagues have worked with RT Projects, a mental health initiative “Saving Lives with Art”, Changing Relations CIC, Thought Foundation, and East Durham Creates, an organisation that encourages creative activities in the region. In 2019, Alix curated the #VisibleWomen exhibition showcasing underrepresented women artists from the Art Collection at Palace Green Library. All of these selfless projects led to her well-deserved nomination for “Durham Women Making a Difference” 2020.
The majority of these imaginative, far-reaching collaborations are in their preliminary stages at the moment. With increased student support, the Collection will become more visible, valued and accessible. Most importantly, we can solidify visual arts as central to the Durham student experience.
Alix and Emily have proven that there is energy, enthusiasm and interest in making this happen. Let’s make it Durham’s worst kept secret.
Many thanks to Emily Dowler for providing access to the included images.
© Lady Kitt, 89 Ways You Are Worth More To Me Like This, 2018
Bank note and glass bottle mounted on board Durham University Collection
© Stuart Langley, 36point7, 2016 Neon tubing, Perspex Commissioned by Curious Arts Durham University Collection Image courtesy of the artist