MY STORY Thoroughly modern British
Jo Baring is the director of the Ingram Collection of Modern British Art which has been described by the Fine Arts Society as “created with exemplary visual air and an unerring eye for quality”, and is based at The Lightbox in Woking
Can you describe the Ingram Collection, how many works of art are there in it and how was it founded? It began when entrepreneur and philanthropist Chris Ingram started collecting in 2002. Within a decade he had created a substantial private collection of modern British art. As its reputation grew, works from the collection were regularly requested for exhibitions and loans to both national and international galleries and museums. The calibre and breadth of the collection, together with its active lending policy, means that The Ingram Collection is now recognised as one of this country’s most significant, and publicly accessible, collections of modern British art. In recent years, The Ingram Collection has ventured into two new areas – supporting recently graduated and emerging artists, and exploring how access to art – making it as well as seeing it – can improve outcomes for disadvantaged groups. The Ingram Collection now contains over 600 works of art.
Describe some of its most important works of art. The most important works in the collection concentrate on British painting, drawing and sculpture from the 20th century, in particular the post-war period. The collection is both an opportunity to survey a century of artistic change and to study the works of some artists in more depth. Some of the most significant works in the collection were originally public commissions such as Elisabeth Frink’s late masterpiece Walking Madonna. We also have works which shed new light on the period, such as Keith Vaughan’s major oil study for his now-destroyed mural at the Festival of Britain in 1951.
Is modern British art still under-regarded? I started working in the field of modern British art in 2001, the year before Chris started collecting it, and we have both seen a huge change in the way it is regarded. Back in 2002, Chris was told it was an unfashionable area of the market, and that it was possible to build a great collection for £1,000,000. He is the first to say he ended up spending more than that, but in his early collecting years it was still possible to buy works by artists such as Edward Burra for reasonable amounts. Now top prices for Burra’s works on paper have hit seven figures. I still believe that 20th century British Art is under-regarded when compared to the international movements of the same period, and it is interesting that when artists such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth are placed in an international context of Impressionist and Modern Art sales they are viewed as being exceptionally good value for major collectors.
What is your background and how did you come to be involved? I studied modern history at Oxford followed by an MA at the Courtauld Institute of Art. I then went into the auction houses, where I stayed for many years and became a director of Christie’s UK. I had known Chris as a client and always admired the collection, so when I heard he was looking for someone in-house to advise on acquisition and manage the strategic direction of collection, I leapt at the chance.
Why is it based in Woking, how did the partnership with the Lightbox come about and do art lovers have to go to Woking to see it? Chris was in a meeting with Woking Council as he had saved Woking Football Club from going into administration (he’d grown up in Woking and supported WFC since he was 11). At the end of the meeting he was asked if he could make a substantial donation to a new public art gallery being built in Woking. He realised immediately that he could, instead, loan them the Ingram Collection. This became the Art Fund Prize winning gallery and museum The Lightbox and this year, 2017, we are celebrating ten years of the Ingram Collection being on public display at The Lightbox.
Art lovers can see the Ingram Collection all over the UK now, not just in Woking. As part of the new strategic direction of the collection, we are working with other galleries and museums in the UK’s regions to put on exhibitions and support them through loans and events. Last year 435 works from the collection were shown publicly. We have lent to 40 different public institutions and 84% of the core modern British collection has been on display. This October we are opening a major show A British Art Collection: Land, Sea, Life at Abbot Hall Gallery in Cumbria.
How does the “active loans programme” work? Our loans programme works in many ways: the first is in response to specific requests from curators who know the collection and want to augment their exhibitions. For example, currently we have works in the John Minton show at Pallant House Gallery, a major Eric Gill sculpture at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft and a 1937 Eric Ravilious watercolour at the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne, which will tour to Sheffield and Compton Verney.
Another avenue is approaching venues ourselves, offering and organising touring shows drawn exclusively from the collection, such as we did last year at Aberystwyth Arts Centre and our exhibition ‘The Human Face’. Increasingly venues want to curate their own shows drawn from our collection. The Abbot Hall exhibition has been curated by their own team and I am always excited to see the selections. The collection is continually being presented in different ways.
Something that we are also very proud of is the lack of hierarchy in our loan venues – we have lent works to Woking Coroner’s Court, HMP Styal and HMP High Down, old people’s care homes and restaurants. I believe that everyone should have access to art, no matter what their circumstances or location and welcome applications from non-traditional organisations and spaces.
With the financial constraints on publicly funded collections, are private collections like the Ingram taking on a new role, and if so how do you see it developing? Yes, I believe passionately that private collections such as the Ingram Collection are vital to our cultural infrastructure. There is certainly a need for institutions to engage innovatively with private collectors and I am taking part in the 2017 ‘Going Public’ seminar at Museums Sheffield later this year on the subject. I have said before that a new generation of cultural philanthropists – energetic and optimistic successors to the 19th century benefactors of most of our regional institutions – need to be engaged and mobilised. The Ingram Collection is no longer alone in this – great work is also being done by Jerwood Collection, The Fleming Collection and individuals such as Valeria Napoleone. There is a growing consensus of the need to harness private collections and collectors.