Art show explores meaning of value

Yvette Hawkins with a Japenese handbound book which incorparates the Silkworm process
Yvette Hawkins with a Japenese handbound book which incorparates the Silkworm process
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Five contemporary artists have explored ideas around value and worth for a new exhibition at York St Marys. Yvette Huddleston reports.

How to quantify the worth of a work of art is a notion that has exercised humankind ever since the first cave dwellers daubed pictures of galloping bison on their walls.

Whether something is pleasing to the eye, how long it has taken the artist to create, the level of skill or technique that is evident may all be taken into consideration. In modern times, of course, monetary value also often has a significant part to play in how an artwork is judged.

A new art installation, Finding the Value, at York St Marys explores these ideas in response to a collection of artwork that was given to York Museums Trust in 2011 as part of a £2 million bequest from local brother and sister Peter and Karen Madsen. The money provided the financial trigger needed to launch the £8 million redevelopment of York Art Gallery.

“The financial value of their estates is very obvious, but Peter Madsen was also generous in leaving us his collection of paintings, prints, books and ethnographic and decorative art,” says Dr Janet Barnes, chief executive of York Museums Trust. “We decided to keep some of the objects – about 15 works – that pertain to our collection as a permanent record of his generosity and most of the rest was sold at auction to raise funds for the gallery.”

The question then arose of what to do with the pieces that remained and the Trust came up with a fascinating answer. They commissioned five contemporary artists – Andrew Bracey, Alison Erika Forde, Yvette Hawkins, Simon Venus and Susie MacMurray – to use the works as the raw material for new pieces that would investigate the meaning of worth – including aspects such as sentimental attachment and the inheritance of cultural values. “The artists were excited about the project,” says Barnes. “And they have all done very different things. They were all respectful and concerned about the thinking behind the work.”

When artist Susie MacMurray first saw the collection she was affected by the personal and emotional resonance contained within the individual pieces.

“I found it incredibly poignant when I saw all those objects sitting there because they had all been loved and here they were looking a little lost as they had become disconnected from the people who collected them,” she says. “They may have had personal significance but we can’t tell what it was anymore.”

Her response was almost a desire to protect them. “I kind of wanted to wrap them up,” she says. “Something happens to objects when you obscure them – they become more intriguing. They might not be worth a lot of money but they were valuable in another way to someone. It is about how we cherish things.”

MacMurray took one of the old suitcases in the collection and filled it with objects she had wrapped in gold wire – like presents. “I liked the idea of a gift,” she says, “because the objects were given to the Trust as a gift.” She also chose two of the paintings in the collection and completely gold-leafed them so that the image is totally obscured, thereby questioning the difference between value and worth. “It feels like a great privilege to have been able to handle someone’s collection put together over a lifetime,” she says. “I wanted to find a way of honouring the memory of the Madsens and their legacy. I hope that they would approve.”

• The exhibition is at York St Marys until November 2. Most of the new works will be for sale. All proceeds will go to the York Art Gallery redevelopment fund.