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Funding: Team Players United in Sheffield
Financial Times

By Caroline Roux

The Chapman Brothers’ “Cyber Iconic Man” is not for the faint-hearted. A gored mannequin, it hangs from the ceiling by its feet, dripping fake blood into a conveniently placed bucket beneath; its long dark hair suggesting a man from early civilisation, or perhaps just an uncivilised man. It could be considered even less suited to the congregation of Sheffield Cathedral, which is where it is installed until December 12, alongside work by Do Ho Suh, Maurizio Cattelan, Sarah Lucas and Susan Philipz; all have been loaned by the private Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, which is based in Turin and owns more than 1,000 artworks made from the 1980s to now.

But worries about unsuitability appear to be unfounded. “Some of the initial choices were a bit tame,” says the Very Reverend Peter Bradley, the charismatic Dean of Sheffield Cathedral, of the original selection that the Fondazione proposed. “So I went to Italy and we discussed what would really resonate. The space in a cathedral is so ideological, it can be difficult as a place to put artworks. But I think it’s important that the church engages with contemporary art. It’s asking some of the same questions that Christians — and other religions — are trying to engage with. Also, people are praying every week for those in the Middle East and migrants and so on, and it’s easy to do that, but still distance ourselves from the reality of suffering.”

Sheffield Cathedral is one of five venues in the city that will host exhibitions of work from private collections this autumn in an initiative that sets out to explore how to build relationships between philanthropists and public institutions at a time when the latter must face up to ever dwindling government assistance. One of the project’s originators is Mark Doyle, who had been working in the north of England for the Contemporary Art Society on an Arts Council-funded scheme to get people to invest in contemporary art.

“By the end, £350,000 of private money had been spent in commercial galleries, and directly in artists’ studios, so it did what it set out to do,” says Doyle.

The other is Sebastien Montabonel, whose consultancy specialises in facilitating relationships between private collectors and big museums. It was the pair’s belief in the importance of art, as part of the social and economic, as well as cultural infrastructure, that led to the project’s development.

“In London, you have a massive concentration of wealth, and the museums will always have benefactors,” says Montabonel. “But in the regions, once public funding disappears almost completely — and it will — museums could die. Then the country will be divided into the rich parts that have culture and the poorer parts that don’t.” While regional directors are currently adept at filling out application forms for government money, it’s Montabonel’s view that they should be developing new skills, such as how to negotiate with philanthropists without losing curatorial control.

In 2012, Kim Streets, the chief executive of Museums Sheffield (which includes a handful of sites around the city) received the bad news that a large grant application had failed. “We had to review everything, to think about our role in the city, and how to connect with audiences,” she says. When Doyle and Montabonel approached her with the idea to work with four international collectors to bring exhibitions of outstanding work to the city, it couldn’t have come at a better moment.

“Sheffield seemed a good place to start,” says Montabonel. “It has a strong museum network, and it’s an energetic place.” Its population of 500,000 is swollen by 50,000 students annually, and it still has some healthy industry, including a forward-thinking digital and manufacturing sector propelled partly by its university.

“The city centre was redesigned at the end of the 20th century — that’s when the Millennium Gallery was built,” says Kim Streets of the space that will receive work from the London-based collector Nicolas Cattelain, including Do Ho Suh’s “Wieldandstr. 18, 12159 Berlin” and immersive work by Anthony McCall.

“Nicolas was so surprised when we met him at the station,” says Streets, alluding to the monumental blade of steel and cascading water that greets visitors, a sculpture from 2006 by Sheffield design team, Si Applied, and international glass artist Keiko Mukaide. “It obviously wasn’t what he’d expected of the industrial north.”

The Paris-based Sylvain Levy flew into Manchester instead and drove across the Pennines. “A magnificent journey!” he exclaims. A collector of three decades standing, with his wife Dominique he began in 2005 to acquire contemporary Chinese artworks. That’s what he will be showing at the Site gallery, whose usual remit is challenging contemporary work.

“The intention was always to loan out work,” says Levy of his collection, “and we do that as and when we want to. The advantage of a private collection is that we make our decisions ourselves. There are no trustees’ views to consider. But this is the first time I’ve done something like this. At the beginning we said ‘We’ll pick some work and send it to Sheffield.’ Then we realised we needed to do something much stronger. To see the dialogue between four private collections is interesting to me.” Levy has brought in his own curator, and she has created a show of contemporary artists from Guangdong Province.

The fourth collector, the Berlin-based Egidio Marzona, is furnishing the art deco Graves Gallery with some rarely seen Marcel Duchamp works, as well as pieces by Picabia, André Breton and Le Corbusier. “Old school, hard core stuff,” says Montabonel. “The most intellectual exhibition of the four.”

While the temporary appearance of the work will enliven the city’s art scene for a few months, the question of power hovers over proceedings. Streets is keen to stress that she and Museums Sheffield curator Kirstie Hamilton have been in control of the project. And Montabonel describes the four collectors as “True believers. These are people who want their collections to be seen. Though I admit that many others out there would not think somewhere like Sheffield was up to their standard.” Peter Bradley, meanwhile, describes the project as “a return to the model of patronage for public art.”

In order to face up to the many issues that the initiative will raise, a summit is being staged on October 12, with participants including Ed Vaizey, the UK minister for culture, communciatons and the creative industries, Caroline Collier, Tate director of partnerships and programmes, and the Duke of Devonshire.

“If no one talks truthfully about the possibilities of how the private-public relationship can be both useful and open to abuse, then nothing new will come of this,” says Montabonel. “But at best, it will make public institutions see that funding cuts could be a beginning instead of an end, as long as they work out how to play the game.”

‘Going Public’, Sheffield, until December 12.