Yorkshire’s unhidden treasure trove

Jill Constantine with the Flat Tree by Anthony Gormley, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture by Simon Hulme
Jill Constantine with the Flat Tree by Anthony Gormley, at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Picture by Simon Hulme
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Yorkshire Sculpture Park is home to the Arts Council Collection sculpture store. Chris Bond spoke to its boss ahead of a new exhibition celebrating land art in Britain.

WALKING into the Arts Council Collection sculpture store at Yorkshire Sculpture Park is a bit like the scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the precious artefact Indiana Jones has risked his life for is boxed up and locked away in a giant warehouse.

Okay, it isn’t quite on that epic scale, but the main difference is that the art treasures stored here are frequently loaned out to galleries and museums for people to enjoy, rather than constantly being kept under lock and key gathering dust.

Most of the collection’s 8,000 works are housed in London but more than 800 are stored at the sculpture park near Wakefield. The store is the length of half a football pitch with several rows of shelves carefully stacked from top to toe with red and blue crates. They might not be much to look at but inside they contain artistic gold by such famous names as Barbara Hepworth, Antony Gormley and Damien Hirst.

These works have been housed in West Yorkshire since 2003 and Jill Constantine, the acting head of the Arts Council Collection, says it gives the ACC an important base in the North. “It allows us to draw on the strengths of places like Yorkshire Sculpture Park and audiences not only here but at galleries right across the region. Yorkshire has this real dynamism for sculpture, it’s the birthplace of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth so it seems a natural home for it.”

Among the sculptures housed here is Gormley’s Field for the British Isles, a sublime work consisting of 40,000 miniature terracotta figures, which was bought by the ACC in 1996 shortly before Gormley created the Angel of the North. “People love this particular work and its enduring popularity is extraordinary and that’s very important to the collection because we want people to engage with contemporary art,” says Constantine.

“Art and sculpture can sometimes be a difficult subject for people to get their heads round and I sympathise with that, which is why we are trying to encourage a greater understanding of what contemporary art is.”

The Arts Council Collection was established in 1946 with the aim of creating a body of work that represents the ever-changing face of British art. “We’ve got most of the best-known names of British art in the last 70 years – Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, David Hockney, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and Damien Hirst.”

But rather than buying paintings and sculptures that then hardly ever see the light of day, about 25 per cent of the collection is out on loan at any given time – the highest rate of any collection in the country. “We don’t just lend to galleries we also lend to public institutions, so we work with hospitals that have a group of works from us that they can distribute around the country. We also lend to schools, universities and charities,” adds Constantine.

But moving these artworks up and down the country does create its own logistical problems. “Sculpture presents its own particular challenges not only because of its size and complexity, but also because of the conservation issues of having a collection that is touring extensively.”

The sculptures aren’t just loaned out in this country, with the ACC working with the British Council to help showcase the best of British art abroad. “That’s one of our Damien Hirst pieces,” says Constantine, pointing to a couple of blue crates. “We’re supposed to be lending that to Moscow in the summer.”

The collection also contains paintings, drawings and photographs and it’s still growing. “We’re still buying, we have an acquisitions grant from the Arts Council so we are still collecting.”

The ACC receives £180,000 from the Arts Council which is supplemented by additional grants. It may sound like a lot of money but the astronomical sums that some works of art fetch – Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) sold for a record-breaking £89m last November – puts it in perspective. Which means the collection tends to buy the works of up and coming artists before they become famous. “By being rather canny I think we’ve built up quite an astounding collection,” adds Constantine. “We bought a David Hockney when he was straight out of art college. We don’t normally do that but he offered us a painting which we bought. But a month later he said he didn’t really want us to have that one and offered us another. So we did a swap and we’ve got We Two Boys Together Clinging which is one of his most famous paintings, so we’re rather glad we did that.”

The Arts Council Collection provides many of the pieces that make up a touring exhibition on display at Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s Longside Gallery that runs until the middle of next month.

Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979, features the work of 24 artists and groups and is the most comprehensive exhibition of British land art ever seen. The exhibition, which includes pieces by Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long and Antony Gormley, examines how landscape and nature influenced conceptual art in Britain.

The exhibition offers a glimpse into a priceless national collection that tells the story of post-war British art. “We work closely with galleries and museums and we also make the works available to schools to borrow,” says Constantine. “That’s important because some children would never go to a gallery so it really is an extraordinary resource for the nation.”

• Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979, a touring exhibition from the Arts Council Collection, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, to June 15.