A new exhibition entitled How To Improve The World - 60 Years Of British Art has just opened at the Hayward Gallery in London.
It showcases selections from the Arts Council Collection, including painting, sculpture, text, performance, photography and film.
The show has been organised to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the collection’s existence and involves the work of 130 artists. The complete Arts Council Collection boasts over 7,500 works by nearly 2,000 artists.
The collection was set up in 1946 to establish a publicly owned body of work that would represent the best art being produced in Britain.
It was designed to be a “museum without walls”, lending artworks for touring exhibitions and public institutions.
The initiative reflected a post-war consensus that saw public ownership as an essential means of maintaining the loyalties of working class people to a country decimated by war. There was public health, public education, public transport, public utilities - so why not public art?
The liberal economist John Maynard Keynes was appointed as the Arts Council’s first chair, charged with promoting “art for the people”. But the intiative was underfunded, and consequently had to make daring choices.
In its early years the council bought work from relatively unknown artists, often first generation immigrants, whose work was still affordable. Artists such as Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, David Bomberg and Lucian Freud were able to emerge from obscurity and poverty to establish themselves as internationally influential artists.
The Arts Council Collection came to set the trend as to what new British art had value - and what didn’t. If the Arts Council was interested, so were the dealers and the private collectors.
Courses at colleges and the newly established polytechnics also meant greater access to art training. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, an unprecedented number of art students graduated and vied for position and recognition in the art world.
Provincial colleges and the artists they spawned soon started to challenge the authority of the elite art institutions, private galleries and royal colleges.
Many artists were beginning to consciously reflect and challenge the social conditions in which they lived, disregarding traditional notions of art as disengaged and privileged. Art was becoming political.
Collaborative groups such as Art & Language and artists such as John Berger and Victor Burgin used Marxist criticism to inform their “cultural interventions”.
Pop Art borrowed from the iconography of popular culture. Film, fashion, comics and cosmetics became valid source material, pushing the boundaries as to what was acceptable as art.
The Arts Council continued to shop around. Various selection panels and acquisition committees with differing tastes bought a wide variety of work in different styles and media.
But funds and government grants were still pitifully small. In 1982 purchasing funds stood at £100,000 per year. And things were about to get a great deal worse.
Under Margaret Thatcher, publicly funded art - as with all industries and services under public ownership - took a battering. Grants were cut and private investors were offered huge tax breaks to buy new work.
The tables were turned. The market and the corporations now set the terms and conditions for the production and sale of art. Culture, like everything else, was being privatised.
Prices rocketed and the Arts Council soon found it couldn’t compete with private investors. For the collection to survive, it now had to rely on donations from individuals such as Charles Saatchi, or jostle for position with other art institutions for National Lottery money. In 2003 the Council had just £152,000 to play with.
The present show at the Hayward reflects this chequered history. Rather than being organised around a bold and explicit theme, we are offered something tired, half-hearted and almost desperate. It smacks of an attempt to compete with private investors and collectors on their terms.
Despite showing some challenging and engaging pieces of work by influential artists, the show is unfocused, ill defined and fragmented.
There seems to be no or little organising principle beyond that of merely stating, “We are still here and we deserve to be so.” And without such an organising principle, the individual works are left isolated and unexplained.
But funding for art projects and exhibitions with a single minded authority of purpose is rare. We need more public money invested in contemporary arts, so that we are not reliant on rich, patronising businessmen for our cultural needs.
How To Improve The World - 60 Years Of British Art is on at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1, until 19 November. Go to www.hayward.org.uk