How do you curate an exhibition with 100 artworks spanning 110 years? Art UK spoke with Emma Gillespie, Assistant Curator (Modern and Contemporary Art) about the National Galleries of Scotland's new exhibition, 'New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville'. Emma explains how the new artworks came to be acquired, and what visitors can expect to see.
'New Arrivals' is home to over 100 objects acquired by the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) across the past five years. The exhibition will also change throughout its run, revealing several exciting works which must for now remain under wraps. From a highly coveted painting by Marc Chagall to a mesmerising film and sound installation by Hanna Tuulikki, the landmark exhibition spans 110 years of modern and contemporary art.
Occupying the entire ground floor of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One), 'New Arrivals' opened its doors to visitors on 27th November 2021. Patrick Elliott and I had the mammoth task of curating a diverse range of acquisitions, which were made possible with the generosity of NGS supporters.
How do you prioritise which works to acquire?
Our collection is always the starting point for thinking about any new acquisition. As Scotland's national collection, we want to represent the best of Scottish art, seen alongside its wider international context. The Modern and Contemporary collection also includes several areas of focus, such as our world-class holdings of Dada and Surrealism. While we aim to develop and enrich our existing holdings, there is now a strong need to make the collection more diverse and inclusive; to address obvious gaps and to expand on the stories we tell beyond the established art history canon, by repositioning those previously overlooked.
It is no secret that most art collections in the UK are still overwhelmingly dominated by white male artists. Addressing the underrepresentation of women in the collection is now a commitment that is written into our collecting policy. Out of the 214 artworks that have entered the Modern and Contemporary collection since 2016, 55 per cent were made by women. We also want to represent sitters and artists with other protected characteristics, including gender non-conforming artists and artists from different ethnic minorities. As a national collection, we need to have the ability to reflect and respond to the world around us, and actively ask what kind of history we are writing here.
What are the methods for acquiring new works?
Whether we have actively pinpointed an interesting artwork, or get a surprise offer from a donor, every acquisition candidate is carefully selected, researched and considered by our team before it can join the collection. We have a modest annual acquisitions budget that allows us to purchase works of art, but most of our new arrivals have been made possible thanks to the generosity of our supporters through gifts, bequests and grants.
A case in point is a legacy made by Henry and Sula Walton that transformed our ability to purchase important works of art. In the past five years alone, we have bought major works by Leonora Carrington, Toyen, Dorothea Tanning and Salvador Dalí, including his iconic Lobster Telephone (1938). This humorous surrealist object sculpture was subject to a temporary export ban, having been sold at auction to a foreign buyer. With help from Art Fund and the Walton bequest, we were able to acquire it for the collection where it delights visitors from around the world.
The addition of several significant Surrealist works by female artists has been critically important. Long disregarded by the art world and history books as mere muses to the male figures within the movement – and poorly represented by our collection – their work is now getting the limelight it deserves. Thanks to these additions, we can tell a more inclusive and interesting story about Surrealism.
How does NGS acquire artworks with limited financial resources?
Like many public art collections in the UK, we also benefit hugely from the Government's Cultural Gifts and Acceptance in Lieu schemes, which are administered by Arts Council England. They allow owners of significant artworks to donate them to the nation with a percentage of the value of the work offset against tax. We also get offered works directly by artists, artist estates and collectors, often thanks to our work on previous exhibition projects.
We have recently acquired a phenomenal gouache painting by Marc Chagall via the Acceptance in Lieu scheme: the first one to enter a public art collection in Scotland. It came from the collection of Andrew Stirling and Simonetta Stirling-Zanda, who were regular visitors to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. Their children's chosen credit line expresses the 'great fondness' they both had for the Gallery, which is now part of the artwork's story for posterity. You may be tempted to skip the acquisition credit lines in the exhibition wall labels, but they can reveal a fascinating aspect of an object's journey into a collection.
Recent gifts also include paintings by Bridget Riley, Michael Armitage, Raqib Shaw and France-Lise McGurn, and film and sound installations by Hanna Tuulikki and Graham Fagen amongst others.
'New Arrivals' includes over 100 artworks spanning 110 years; how do you go about curating such an expansive exhibition?
There is a real mix of work on display both in terms of subject matter, maker and media, spanning all the way from a rare Cubist still life collage, Bottle and Glass on a Table (1912), by Pablo Picasso, to many contemporary works, such as a striking set of woodcut prints, Secreting Myths (2019), by the Barbadian-Scottish artist Alberta Whittle, which depict the first arrivals of European colonisers to the West Indies and the violent aftermath.
Curating a show of such variety is both challenging and exciting: one needs to abandon strict notions of overarching chronologies and themes for a more eclectic attitude. Although the individual rooms are arranged in clusters of loosely connected ideas – artistic movements, genres or time periods – there are many thought-provoking and quite unexpected juxtapositions on display: the Picasso collage and Whittle's woodcuts are, for example, displayed in the same room. Both are made through the tactile processes of cutting, slicing and layering. Picasso created part of the bottle shape out of a newspaper cutting stencilled with a shorthand for Old Jamaican Rum, while Whittle repurposes the imagery of historical engravings and invades them with gold-inked snail trails. This creates a surprising dialogue that allows us to view these artworks in a different light; for instance, to consider the legacies of colonialism in the development of European modernism. This is the beauty of new acquisitions: they breathe new life into and provide new perspectives on a collection. An exhibition such as 'New Arrivals' allows artworks from different time periods, continents and traditions to enter into conversation with each other. When it happens, it can be quite magical.
What message would you like visitors to leave with?
I hope this exhibition demystifies what can be quite a complicated, behind-the-scenes process, and enables our visitors to actively consider how collections are created. Our collection is very much in continual development through the collaboration and dialogue of colleagues (curators, conservators, registrars – and many, many others!) and more widely across the cultural sector, sometimes through decades-long relationships between individuals, or the personal connections members of the public have with National Galleries of Scotland. It is people who actively make the collection.
Collections such as ours never exist separately from the world we live in. They are complex, organic entities shaped by multifarious interactions both inside and outside the museum: on the one hand, reflections of the past, but also open-ended and ever-changing. It is a process of constant reinvention.
Which is your favourite room in the exhibition, and why?
Every room has its distinct character, but perhaps our 'Contemporary Figures' room speaks to me the most. It features a number of brilliant contemporary artists, such as Jenny Saville, Wangechi Mutu, Deborah Roberts and Michael Armitage, amongst others. Despite their distinct approaches to art-making, these artists all work in dialogue with the world around them, mixing personal and political, global and local, past and present, and high and low culture. Take, for instance, Mutu's politically resonant hybrid collages that recently joined the collection.
Histology of The Different Classes of Uterine Tumors (2004–2005) brings together a mix of found imagery and materials, effortlessly merging cut-outs from pornographic magazines with glitter, fake fur and a nineteenth-century medical folio illustrating diseases of the female sexual organs. By slicing, cutting and reassembling, Mutu morphs them into captivating female faces that both seduce and repulse. The mask-like figures allude to systems of classification and control, and provoke us to question the role of established modes of representation that are built into our visual culture. Many of the works in this room perfectly demonstrate how art can engage critically with contemporary life and the socio-political forces that shape it. It can give us the spark to think differently. For me, the best collections connect us to the past and inspire us to reimagine the present.
Emma Gillespie, curator
Book your free tickets to 'New Arrivals: From Salvador Dalí to Jenny Saville' on the NGS website.
The exhibition is open until Spring 2023 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Modern One) in Edinburgh, seven days a week.
Follow the hashtag #OurNewArrivals on social media to see more about the exhibition.