Contemporary Art Dealer’s Gift to the British

Jackie Wullschlager at, in its section on art collecting, offers a landmark article ‘An Art Dealer’s Gift to the British’:

“At a rowdy Gilbert and George opening in the mid-1970s, the two artists known as the “living sculptures” dared Anthony d’Offay, a shy, fusty dealer in English art, to kiss Anne Seymour, then one of Tate’s most brilliant young curators.

Thirty years later, Anne and Anthony d’Offay’s unparalleled international collection of modern and contemporary art is about to go public in a series of 20 exhibitions to be staged up and down Britain, transforming the visual arts landscape of the country. Comprising more than 700 works valued at £125m, the d’Offay collection was acquired for the nation by Tate and the Scottish National Gallery last year for the knock-down price of £26.5m. It is the most lavish gift of art made to the UK in a century, putting d’Offay on a par with philanthropists Henry Tate and Samuel Courtauld.

Not just outstanding in quality, the gift will plug gaps in British museums’ collections of art from the 1970s onwards. It is exceptional, too, for the way it will take modern art to places that have little or none of it. D’Offay has controlled the way the works will be shown in perpetuity by enshrining into the arrangement the principle of “Artist Rooms”: each artist in the collection will be explored individually and in depth in a “Room” of his or her own. The Rooms will travel the country, others will be added, producing multiple possibilities for decades, even centuries, of top-quality touring shows in the regions as well as in art-rich London and Edinburgh.

On March 14, a huge show of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde and pharmaceutical pieces launches the scheme at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art: a big coup for the Scottish capital as there has so far been no Hirst retrospective in London. Scotland thus becomes a world-class art destination, with Edinburgh’s contemporary credentials building on the success of a show d’Offay organised there in 2006 of hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck. That show, touring to Paris and Japan, attracted audiences of 1.5m and 40 per cent of its Scottish visitors were entering a gallery for the first time.

A Room devoted to Mueck opens in Aberdeen in August; photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s erotic nudes arrive in Inverness in April; Bill Viola’s pioneering video narratives of birth and death come to Stromness in June; and Bruce Nauman’s psychologically disturbing films inaugurate the scheme in Glasgow. Nauman is one of several Americans barely represented in British collections, which will be vastly enhanced as a result of d’Offay’s works. Others include dystopian photographer Diane Arbus, conceptual painter-sculptor Jeff Koons, and dead-pan modernist painter Ed Ruscha. Simultaneously, large shows of Andy Warhol (136 works) in Walsall and Wolverhampton and Joseph Beuys (232 works) in Bexhill-on-Sea will capitalise on the collection’s twin great poles, offering new audiences nationwide a chance to grapple with still controversial international figures.

Although they do not carry his name, the essential background to all the rooms is the mysterious, unpredictable figure of 68-year-old d’Offay himself, an art-world insider who likes to cast himself as outsider. Of his own artistic and intellectual awakening in the 1970s, he says: “Anne gave me reading lists. I lived in Islington and every morning in the hour that I walked to work in Dering Street I would ask myself questions. Can I stand in front of a circle of stones by Richard Long and think this is a significant work of art? Can I stand in front of a box full of felt and fur by Joseph Beuys and say this is as important as a Henry Moore sculpture? It took 18 months for me to administer these things.” Now, having swallowed the pill of contemporary art himself – and making a fortune from the taste – he is administering it, like a dose of good medicine, to the nation.

D’Offay married Anne in 1977 and launched his Dering Street contemporary gallery in 1980 with a landmark Beuys show. For two decades he was one of Europe’s pre-eminent dealers, representing artists from Gerhard Richter to Rachel Whiteread and reinvigorating London’s art scene. Then, to worldwide astonishment, in 2001 he announced the closure of his gallery but continued to develop and refine his collection, with the help of Marie-Louise Laband, his astute assistant of more than 20 years. Donating a series of smaller gifts, he tantalised leading museums with possible grand gestures before announcing, in a typical coup that allowed him to retain control to an unprecedented extent, the Artist Rooms package.”

Read the full article here

Speak Your Mind