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New partnership enables museums to buy art at Frieze
Financial Times

By Gareth Harris

The sky-high prices paid for contemporary art usually elicit groans and grimaces from museum directors working in the UK regions. Finding funds for new acquisitions in the age of austerity is a problem — a report published earlier this year by Arts Council England and the New Local Government Network showed that local authority investment in arts and culture facilities has fallen £236m since 2010.


But a new and unexpected lifeline comes courtesy of Frieze London and the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), which have teamed up on a new acquisition fund to support museums across Britain. This year’s inaugural £50,000 fund has been awarded to the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (Mima). The museum, located in the north-eastern industrial heartland of Teesside, has purchased two works at Frieze London: the video installation “Dispossession” (2013) by Paris-born Kader Attia (from Lehmann Maupin gallery) and the film “Peripeteia” (2012) by the British artist John Akomfrah (Lisson Gallery).


Akomfrah’s 17-minute work takes as its starting point two 16th-century drawings by Albrecht Dürer, one showing a bearded black male, the other of a black woman wearing a bonnet. The pair are seen navigating a harsh moorland landscape. “The film is set in Europe,” says Akomfrah. “The protagonists are characterised by their anonymity, but how do you bring them back to life?”


“The subject of repatriation is central to Kader’s video installation ‘Dispossession’, which examines the role of Christian missionaries in the colonisation of African cultures,” says Rachel Lehmann, founder of Lehmann Maupin gallery, which represents Attia.


CAS donates modern and contemporary art works to 70 museums and public galleries across the UK that have signed up as members (since its foundation in 1910, CAS has gifted more than 8,000 pieces). The Frieze art fair, which launched in London in 2003, is a key destination every autumn for international collectors, curators and connoisseurs.


So how did a century-old charity and a commercial enterprise come together? Jo Stella-Sawicka, artistic director of Frieze fairs, underlines the fair’s record of working with regional partners; this year, Frieze launched its third co-commission with the Liverpool Biennial under the non-profit Frieze Projects programme.


But “we wanted to go deeper”, says Stella-Sawicka, adding that the fair has not participated in a UK-wide acquisition scheme before. “We need to be a resource for everyone. It is important to us that the amazing concentration of artists and art works that are shown at Frieze make an impact beyond London and Frieze week.”


CAS already runs a number of initiatives bolstering UK collections; a Collections Fund for contemporary art was established in 2012, acquiring works by Simon Fujiwara for Leeds Art Gallery, among others. The Collections Fund at Frieze, as the new initiative is called, is an extension of the scheme.


“Everyone felt that the great benefit of the partnership was to give amazing visibility to the work CAS does, as well as shining a spotlight on museums outside London and the artists chosen,” says Caroline Douglas, director of CAS.


Mima was successful in a competition open to CAS’s museum members. The Middlesbrough museum operates as an accessible, community-based “useful museum” inspired by the Arte útil movement. Alistair Hudson, who was appointed director in 2014, has led the way. “We’re reaching out to the community and using art as a means of social change through our new institutional model,” he says.


His mission statement, posted online, outlines that museums should not just be a day-out destination, but a resource that people can use regularly — like a church, gym or a social club — to enrich their daily lives.


Addressing how the post-industrial, north-east region has been shaped by migrants is at the heart of this approach. A recent display and public programme at the museum brought together documents and works made by Middlesbrough-based asylum seekers. And Akomfrah’s piece is especially pertinent in light of Europe’s refugee crisis.


The discussions between Hudson, Douglas and Stella-Sawicka have revolved around the funding crisis for regional museums. Stella-Sawicka argues that, “at a time of cuts to arts budgets, Frieze can provide the environment and support structures for the regional museums to make research for acquisitions”. Hudson wearily emphasises that regional galleries have been priced out of the market.


But is bridging the public and private sectors the way forward for regional repositories? Sharon Heal, director of the UK Museums Association, welcomes the scheme, highlighting that many museums don’t have the expertise, or funds, to compete for key works at auction.


“The CAS partnership with Frieze should provide a good way of injecting some of the huge profits made in the contemporary art market back into museums and galleries so that the public can enjoy the acquisitions,” she says.