I don’t get it, do you?

Sarah Awan
“Hospital Girl” by Sarah Awan, owned by the Collective

In my last blog, Connecting Worlds, I wrote about the influence the Collective has had on my personal career, and how it had initiated a project that would not have been conceived had I not had that exposure to art, artists and a very particular model of sharing and collecting collaboratively.  Far from being just about “art on walls” it was about how, through art and the artists,  one could “see and think differently” in your working environment, how you could question issues that affected us whether on a business or personal level, and how you could engage with a part of your local community .

I’ve mentioned before that the Collectives’ members are from very diverse professional backgrounds  and the idea really came together as a result of friendship, family connection and a commonality of interest in contemporary art (more or less) . This time my story is about Collective member Theresa Nash and how her experiences have changed how she views art, how she works, and what she does in her own time.

When I spoke to Theresa about writing this blog she was eager to share the  “starting point” of her relationship with the Collective.  It was her partner, Chetan Patel, already long term friends with some of the other Collective members, who suggested they get involved.

Theresa described her initial “reluctance” to participate : “I really didn’t get it” “Why art, what was it? – I didn’t know how to relate to it” and she wasn’t keen on the upfront payment to buy the Collectives’ first works! But as Chetan was very interested already, “she went along with it”, nothing more.

Today, thirteen years later Theresa sees “art” as integral to her teaching, her work and some of the creative interests and achievements in her personal life – “it’s had a massive impact“.  She was more than happy to share her story.

Theresa started her career as a nurse and is now Senior Lecturer in Nursing (community and public health) and Enterprise Lead for the Faculty of Health & Social Care in Education at the University of Kingston and St George’s University in Tooting. She is also founder of Heritage2Health, a scheme that aims to develop community-led nursing by working  with those experiencing social isolation and providing them with better access to community and the countryside through specially designed  “events”.  Working in collaboration with colleagues, students, the voluntary sector and the National Trust , “art” in the broadest sense, is an integral part of how Heritage2Health works, and in the project’s success to date.

So how did her relationship with art change? What was it that had such an impact and changed her views?

Franko B
A drawing from Aktion 398, a Franko B performance. Owned by the Collective

The first change began when she met with the controversial artist Franko B. Well known for his blood letting performances to create his art, we met Franko B at an  exhibition that was held in a specially curated house.

For me, blood was what I saw in emergency hospital departments as a nurse”. “I struggled with the concept of his blood letting which really disturbed me. Even more so that people were paying to come and see it! ”

Theresa had the opportunity to challenge Franko B in person, and despite the fact she left still disliking his practices, the mere process of engaging with the art and the artist started her on a course of participating more with what the Collective were doing and seeing, in pursuit of buying and sharing art.

Then I found myself changing and going to more exhibitions and visiting artists studios with other Collective members“. Theresa soon realised it not only engaged her, but was relaxing and helped her to “cut off from the week“. She was also starting to think about art in relation to her work : how it might be the basis for a collaboration to help understand concepts  such as “self” and help develop “emotional resilience” in both a student’s own development and the community members they were working with.  A concept Franko B would in fact have applauded  ‘Art is not about looking at your navel, it’s about looking at who we are’.

Having already started her Health2Heritage scheme she met a young artist still at University and invited her to participate in one of their events which was themed around “story telling”.  The event involved taking a group of local community members, including a young boy with Down’s Syndrome, on an outing to a National Trust Heritage site.  On the day they would enjoy exploring the area, nature, and walking.  The boy’s mother was very anxious and felt his purpose-made buggy would not work cross-country and her son  was unlikely to walk the distance.  The young artist took a different view and started telling the boy a story about a king who lived in a castle and in order to get back to his castle he would need to walk across fields and up a hill – and he could be that King.  It did not take long for the boy to realise his buggy was a hindrance to his great role, so abandoning it (together with his shoes) he walked all the way to their finishing point. Along the entire route the artist continued to embellish the story encouraging him with every step.  He never once stopped.

After that Theresa realised how much value could be gained from integrating artists in to her projects – and now Health2Heritage has become a scheme where nursing volunteers AND artists are able to connect people who suffer from social isolation, to nature – and help reconnect people to local cultural activities and educational volunteering. With students, artist and community members working together all parties are able to transform their thinking about what any person can achieve, including themselves.

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Theresa Nash with her wedding dress crafted out of shopping receipts

But Theresa’s growing enthusiasm for the arts didn’t stop there.  As the Collective itself evolved and we worked more with artists, acquired more art and visited studios and galleries she decided she wanted to have a go herself – not just to look at it, but be an art practitioner! This in turn has made her re-look at the Collective’s collection and examine how and why she values a particular piece.   Spending her Saturdays in art classes and learning about the history of art, she realised how important the stories behind art were and how meeting the artists, as the Collective members do, is an integral part of how we buy and experience art . This was a concept that I also adopted at my work by introducing lunchtime talks with the artists and offering employees the chance to hear the stories around their works.

As part of her own creative journey Theresa wrote a children’s story “make do and mend” which explores addiction through the experience of a girl shopping, as she grows up.  The story was not only turned in to a performance but is being performed as a free event at the Rose Theatre on the 15th May.  Theresa spent two years collecting shopping receipts and hearing stories from contributors in the building of this story and then transformed the receipts in to an art work crafted as a wedding dress .

Theresa cites two important aspects in the influence the Collective has had on her day to day life : continued exposure to the art and artists, and the model of the Collective itself with its cooperative and collaborative structure that has become so central to her projects with artists.

In a recent lecture with her nursing students where she was using a painting to explain a concept – a student jumped up and exclaimed “I get it, I get it! ”  A moment of satisfaction for Theresa as she recognised her own transformative relationship with art in all its manifestations.


Connecting Worlds*

The Collective (minus two) after a recent meeting
The Collective (minus two) after a recent meeting

There is often a sense that, however much you enjoy your job, what you do outside of working hours is quite separate from what happens within your working environment. This in turn helps to support that much sought after “work-life balance” that so many of us aspire to achieve. As fulfilling as work can be, it can seem that the more removed that interest or passion is from your career the greater the chance that the apparent “balance” may be realised. So whether sports person, actor, singer, artist, writer, poet, tech wizard, what you do with your passion outside of work may improve your sense of well being at the same time.   Perhaps this is true for many people? You spend so much time at work it is sometimes hard to imagine putting a lot of energy in to something quite different – though sometimes it is just what you need to remove yourself from the stresses that can occur in the day-to-day running of your life.

But what happens when external interests and work cross paths and the two worlds meet in an unusual combination – when you have the opportunity to connect both areas of your life? When, as blogger John Stepper would say, you bring your whole self to work.

Although there are arts’ specialists in the Collective, members are, for the most part, from very diverse non-arts professions ranging from local government to teaching, communications, IT, and the NHS. For two of us the influence of the Collective has contributed to producing some unusual projects at work. I have decided to separate the two experiences in to two blogs as they represent very different journeys and professional backgrounds.  The first is my own story.

In 2011, just a few weeks in to my new role as a corporate communications manager at UBM plc I was unexpectedly drawn in to some discussions about refurbishments of the top floor of our office building – a floor that was filled with meeting rooms, UBM’s board room and a long corridor that stretched the length of the building .Various ideas were discussed from themed areas that represented the different businesses, to fresh interior designers being brought in, to new photography to replace the old. As the floor often welcomed external visitors, what would best represent UBM?

For the most part I listened and observed – I was new after all.

Michael Armitage 1
Michael Armitage’s “men by the roadside” – one of the studies exhibited during the project and purchased by the Collective.

In reality, I was already forming an idea, but I needed to work on it first. With over 8 years exposure to contemporary art, artists, galleries and studios through the Collective it would not have taken a genius to know what was going through my head. But my colleagues didn’t know that, and the challenge for me was “what” and “how”.

Over the next few days I discussed with Collective member Tim Eastop what he thought the chances were of UBM, a commercial B2B events-led global organisation, collaborating with a local arts organisation?  UBM had no previous history of supporting the arts (in their London office at least ), but it did have a great track record of local community engagement often supported by their Charity Committee. I leveraged all the experience and contacts the Collective offered and within a couple of weeks came up with an idea for the proposed 9th floor refurbishment that could suit both sides of a collaboration.

A proposal was submitted and much to my amazement – approved. The result was a unique collaboration with Drawing Room, a public non-profit contemporary arts organisation based in Southwark, the London borough where UBM’s head office is located.   The idea was to promote and support emerging artists in a local but global business environment whilst also providing training for an emerging curator .

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Mairia Evripidou, UBM Curatorial Intern for the last two exhibitions during an exhibition changeover weekend.

After a meeting with Drawing Room Co-Directors Kate MacFarlane and Mary Doyle the project began to take shape. Under the leadership of Gallery Manager Jacqui McIntosh two sixth-month exhibitions would take place on the 9th floor, and with the help of a curatorial intern, funded by UBM through Drawing Room’s education programme, they would be responsible for researching local artists under agreed themes that resonated with UBM. The second exhibition, “Material Matters” explored the ways artists referenced consumption and mass production and how they responded to recycled materials, tying in with UBM’s own sustainability exploration and journey.

The funding from UBM’s charity committee was initially for 1 year, but was subsequently extended for a further 2 years resulting in 5 exhibitions representing over 30 emerging artists from our own doorstep in Southwark.   The final exhibition “Full Circle” drew artists from the previous exhibitions in the project and focussed on ideas of continuity and change – a concept critical to many business environments, not just that of UBM. As a community engagement project it also included a networking event for local artists and curators as well interested employees.  The project finally ended this year when UBM’s London office moved premises.

The project gave UBM employees at our London HQ an opportunity to see and think differently in their every day working lives. They were challenged, sometimes moved and occasionally mystified; they engaged with a very different professional community brought in to their own business environment; they welcomed the exhibition change every six months (no complacency about what was on the walls), and came to lunchtime talks offered by the artists in order to explore why and how the works of art they saw every day were created.  . Thanks to our internal social intranet other UBM businesses outside of London and the UK were able to
enjoy the works as I shared the project in a curated space for that purpose.

L-R: Amy-Rose Enskat (UBM Curatorial Intern), Jacqui McIntosh (Drawing Room Project Lead), Ben Deakin (participating artist and technician)

The relationship and collaboration with the Drawing Room team and many of the participating artists was inspirational . The three curatorial interns UBM sponsored have all gone on to good jobs in other arts establishments, and the artists who exhibited continue to move on to new adventures and shows.  A full list of the exhibitions in the collaboration and the participating artists can be found on Drawing Room’s website.

For me? Certainly one of the most memorable projects of my career, when two worlds came together in the most rewarding and fulfilling way I could have hoped for.

one of our site specific installations at UBM by artist Lizi Sánchez , IIIII, 2014 Acrylic on aluminium foil, 270 x 215 cm (5 panels of 78 x 115 cm overlapped)

* “Connecting Worlds”, the fourth exhibition in the project, explored ideas of community across diverse cultures.

Dancing with Tables : a commission in the making

Jefford Horrigan performing Transmission Gallery 2011

When I asked Jefford Horrigan what he says to people when asked “what do you call yourself?” his answer was quick and decisive “I dance with tables“.   And that is exactly what he does. His ability to transform furniture and household objects in to “something other” through a sculptural performance  – and possibly in our homes was answered almost as decisively with “yes, please”.

Independent curator and consultant Rose Lejeune met up with Tim and Sam at a private view and having heard about the Collective asked if we were interested in participating in her project around commissioning new art for collections. Rose’s main focus is how the process of collecting and engaging with artists and their ideas can have as much value as the traditional accumulation of collectable items, especially when it comes to the  more “performative elements”.  Her proposal was that Jefford should use three of our homes for a performance piece.  We would purchase the drawings emanating from his performance at whatever stage of the process that happened.  The Collective had commissioned a performance piece on quite a grand scale some years previously (which will be the subject of a separate blog) – and one that had involved all seven households at that time.

We all agreed that a trip to his studio was needed in order to understand more and see some of his work.  We also wanted to meet Jefford himself!

The evening trip to Acme studios (co-located with the excellent Matt’s Gallery) in the east end of London was an adventure in itself.  As it involved a walk across the intriguing Mile End park – but in the dark – or along an equally dark, but picturesque canal route I didn’t feel completely comfortable making the journey alone (my penchant for TV crime dramas getting the better of me) , so Tim met me at the station and we walked together. Assembling all the Collective to these visits is almost impossible with work commitments and coming from dispersed locations across London at the end of a long week at work.  But representatives from three households were there – so that was a good start.  I didn’t hold any expectations.

photo 3 copy

I was greeted with furniture, lots of furniture. Sturdy four legged wooden chairs hanging from the wall, antique tables, work tables, lamp stands and old shades – all the trappings of a second hand furniture shop – except that it wasn’t – this was Jefford’s studio. Performance videos were playing and there were a number of drawings framed and unframed, and at the centre there was Jefford talking to Rose and those members already there.

It’s more about presence than the thing itself, and it can belong in its own environment . I like to create atmospheres“.

There was certainly a presence about Jefford and I immediately wanted to understand more, not only about the performances but about the legacies that usually come from them in the form of his drawings.  Drawings can appear at the proposal stage for a performance, or during the creation process itself – or even at the end when it’s all over.  There’s no predicting.

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When I work on a performance I have to learn it bodily and the circumstances partly determine the shape of the piece.

Jefford showed us examples of his drawings and explained how they related to the works that they made reference to.  Others represented a mix of ideas emanating from the performance.  But the drawings have to stand alone – “they have another life, it’s another thing”  separate from the performance, and for those viewing the drawing in the future who have not seen the performance they will have a different relationship with it.  “I don’t work across boundaries” says Jefford “I work in the course of them”.

By the time the visit drew to an end we were captivated and agreed to commission Jefford to create a piece to be performed in three of our houses with a triptych drawing bringing all three performances together.   As curator, Rose would manage the commission process with first task being the need for Jefford to visit all our homes to determine which three homes would be most suited. Will I be disappointed if it’s not our house?  Not really, as I felt perfectly confident that Jefford would determine which spaces would work best.

Roll on the autumn!

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We couldn’t part without our inevitable detour to the nearest pub – this time to the Palm Tree Pub well known for its jazz music and relaxed atmosphere.  Described on googlemaps as a “quirky canal- side pub in a shady park” I couldn’t help feeling glad that we were heading out in to the night as a group!


The Art of buying collectively

Studio Voltaire Gallery
Studio Voltaire Gallery

As I walked in to the beautifully vaulted gallery of Studio Voltaire in south London I couldn’t help but be impressed by the space and atmosphere. Tucked away down a small street in Clapham the converted Victorian church was already filled with people viewing the art in their current “open” exhibition. With an immediate sense of the day at work lifting off my shoulders and being replaced by a renewed energy it’s a great place to start a conversation about how we, as collective of six households buy our art.

If you are going to support contemporary emerging artists by buying their art you need to go to where they are working or where they are showing (or both)– from art fairs and auctions to galleries and studios.   How we then buy as a Collective group is determined by a “purchasing panel” – comprised of a representative group from three of the households. The idea behind the purchasing panel is to allow those members on it more time to focus on meeting curators and artists than the rest of the group – and then buy to their tastes at that particular moment in time – not that of the group as a whole.  But what they must do is stick to the budget of available funds which is established at the beginning of the process. This means that the art is not always to everyone’s taste – but there is a sense of excitement and anticipation of what living with something you may not actually like brings. Sound odd? As Alastair Sooke pointed out in the Culture shows slot on the Collective “It’s an unconventional way to buy art” but it allows us to find out more about the artist and appreciate a different or more complete experience in buying a work. Buying for us is not about investment, it’s not about resale value – its about living with art in our homes in a way we can afford and enjoy. It’s also about challenging our visual sensibility in a domestic setting – giving a different perspective to a very familiar surrounding.

Studio Voltaire houses more than 45 artists from graduates to those with international reputations – and has an attached gallery space – so it’s a perfect setting for us to find out more about some of London’s emerging artists and look for potential purchases.  Talking to the artists themselves as often as possible is the best way to make a purchase.  On this visit none of us were on the purchasing panel so it was more about finding out what’s new, who’s showing and even talking to potential new recruits who wish to set up their own Collective group.  We weren’t disappointed.

Jemima Brown works

Jemima Brown, whose photographs and full size sculptures we already have in our collection was there with her Tabletop peacecamp – a mixed media group of women’s torsos on old street lamps and camp stoves born out of her memories of the Greenham Common women’s peace camp of the early 80s near where she grew up.  Talking to her about how she made and painted the individual faces, where she collected her materials and what significance the piece held in her memory brought a flood of my own memories back on that unique and ultimately influential movement against nuclear weapons. Jemima has spent a lot of time making sculptures of women but “playing with scale” in the case of these sculptures enabled her to use the found objects associated with Greenham as torsos in these unique works. Jemima likes the flexibility of the pieces “working on their own” and “working as a collected arrangement”.

In between looking at the art – including the wonderful comb works of Blue Curry

Blue Curry works

I also got the chance to have a chat with Zeynep Meric-Smith who is interested in setting up her own Collective group in London, and her friend Lorna, who challenged me with her great love of art but her dislike of collective groups!  I enjoyed the honest and frank discussion but we did end up agreeing on one thing:  the need to differentiate between a group of “collectors” whose raison d’être is to invest in art and the effect of which is to drive art prices up  – and a “collective group” who buy art cooperatively to make it affordable and share it in and between their homes.   At the end of the day we are collectors – but our intention is different.

A final quick diversion to the pub with Tim and Bob to go over the evening’s event and discussions before heading home to put a close to the day.


Building blocks and growing pains

Paul Noble, Playframe, 2000
Paul Noble, Playframe, 2000

When you start on a journey of collective buying and sharing amongst a group of people and the excitement of the idea has taken a firm grip, it is a natural consequence that you will need to pause to create a foundation of building blocks that will provide a set of principles to guide you and form a structure on that journey. And sometimes it can feel like the niggling pains of a body growing, but one that will soon blossom into something meaningful with its own character.

A “constitution” sounds a grand word for what a group of friends and family trying to share art at home needed. More reminiscent of the principles used (and abused) to govern a political state it brings to mind lofty buildings, federal governments, and elected members of state holding forth with a formality set down hundreds of years ago. It’s worth pointing out that this is not so in Britain where due to historical legacy we don’t actually have a single document – but rather an “unwritten” or “uncodified” constitution made up of a number of different statutes, treaties and laws. Confused? Don’t be.

So what do we mean here? How does sharing contemporary art at home fit in to any such notion of a “constitution”? At its most basic level I prefer to go with the Oxford dictionary’s version: A body of fundamental principles …or ..the act of forming or establishing something. After all – isn’t this what we were trying to do here?

It was very important that from the start we were all agreed on a set of fundamental principles that would form the basis (the building blocks) of the Collective and to establish its true “character”. This way it could also be used by others in the future to form their own groups with the same guiding principles of how that character looked and felt and so building a larger community of like-minded groups.

Early attempts to put a constitution together were fairly informal and often happened in the pub with at least one member from each of the seven households represented. But “fairly informal” should not be interpreted as not taking it seriously, but rather it was our open attitude and our willingness to work together to produce something of value that would last. It took a few years to have the documents actually drawn up and registered by a lawyer, and only once we had received some funding from Arts Council England to do so.

It wasn’t difficult to come up with a whole host of questions that would need addressing – and being a group of people from very varied professions, sectors and experiences it didn’t take long for the list to grow and grow: The negative soon spilled forth.

  • What happens if a member wants to leave? (circumstances change and it happened sooner than we thought)
  • What happens if there is a dispute between members? (we are humans – it does happen!)
  • What happens to our investments when we want to leave – are they protected?
  • What happens if a member(s) doesn’t like what is being purchased? (beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder)
  • What happens if a member defaults on their monthly contributions (money is the root of many disputes)
  • What about tax and insurance implication for each member and household (oh no, hadn’t thought of that)

The growing pains were starting to take a grip and there were two common denominators at work that had all the potential for causing conflict – the exchange of money and human relationships. So, whilst we needed to address all the negative it was still important to keep our focus on the positive:

  • How and where do we buy art?
  • Who buys it?
  • How regularly should we meet and share?
  • How can we find out about artists?
  • Can we do studio visits?
  • Can we share with other groups in the future?

And so it went on. But for now our questions were out and our principles were slowly taking the shape of building blocks. With time the growing pains would start to subside and the emergence of the real Collective would start coming in to view– a character that was built on a solid foundation and was inspiring, innovative, cooperative and friendly all at once. You will be reading about how many of these questions were addressed right here in this blog as we move forward.

Ultimately it would enable us to enjoy art at home, every day.

If you would like to find out more about the Collective constitution please contact the.collective.info@googlemail.com or post a question below.


In the beginning

There was no epiphany of any kind back in 2002. Tied up with family life and grappling with a notion of a rewarding work-life balance we realised one thing we all enjoyed was looking at, and talking about, contemporary art .

Translating that in to something more full-time at home on any significant level was clearly the challenge. We had limited financial resources to buy art as individual families even if the desire and interest was there. With two arts professionals amongst us, we were not short of encouragement and ideas.

“We” were seven households back in 2002: four were related (siblings) and three long time friends spread over London from north to south. But we were all in the same City which was a good start. It was almost a “family affair” even if it didn’t have to be for the idea to work – but it certainly made meet-ups easier in the early days and with children in tow.

The idea was straight forward: we would buy art “collectively” and share it by meeting up on a regular basis and “exchanging it” between households.

A number of group conversations started to set our thoughts down on the process and build a framework for how we wanted the group to participate in art more widely and how it should be run more specifically.

It was to be a co-operative approach where each household would commit to a small sum per month and once the funds began building up we would start to purchase new contemporary art works. We shared and agreed a certain purpose around our group. The intention was not to make money or see it as an investment opportunity – but rather to enjoy art for arts sake in domestic settings from new, emerging and cutting edge artists – however challenging and unlikely it was that we may have purchased those art works on our own. We wanted to live with the art and appreciate new visual stimuli around us every day at home.

We had plenty to think about: a name, a bank account, treasurer, how to buy and share and a written model – or constitution.

So we arrived at “The Collective”. Thirteen years later we have a collection of over 50 works that we continue to grow and continue to share amongst ourselves. We are seen as viable collectors by contemporary gallerists, art fairs and Arts Council England and we are not alone as a group. The Founding group has enabled the launch of other groups across the country.

In the beginning we were just seven households who enjoyed contemporary art with lots of stories ahead of us.  It is those stories that I will be sharing regularly in this blog.

Stories about The Collective Founding group – a group dedicated to buying, collecting and sharing contemporary art in the home for the last sixteen years. Written by group member, Marie-Louise Collard, it is based on personal experience.

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