BU Art Loan

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By Jeremy Miles

Bournemouth University has much to celebrate. Not only has it been described as one of the best new universities in Britain today but thanks to some of the world’s finest artists it has also been given an extraordinary visual makeover.

Anyone entering the main reception area of the Talbot Campus will find themselves first walking past some seriously impressive sculptures and then surrounded by paintings and ceramics created by some of the keenest talents in contemporary and modern art.

It is by any standards an extraordinary display of work equal to many of those held by leading galleries. Among the heavyweights on show are Sir Antony Caro and the late Dame Elisabeth Frink.

The quality and content of the works present – often the kind that would be way beyond the reach of most academic institutions – is the result of the University Art Loan Collection.

This project grew from a little stroke of genius which over the past decade has transformed the main campus foyer into a head-turning display area. It has now seen 100 artists lending works to the university, celebrated its 10th anniversary, one of the leading figures behind the initial idea, former Pro-Vice-Chancellor (academic), Professor Paul Light spoke of the startling visual contrast between the University in the mid-1990s and the sight that greets visitors today.

Professor Light, who worked with secretary and registrar Noel Richardson and university curator Julie Herring, to initiate the collection, remembers the campus at the time as something of a design nightmare offering an example of: “local authority brutalism, if not Stalinism, with a certain amount of post-modern Kitsch grafted on the front of it, pretty ghastly.”

So there was work to be done. Standing within the current display area he recalled: “This building caused us particular difficulty because it proved to be full of asbestos of the nastiest kind.”

But every cloud (even ones potentially containing asbestos dust) has a silver lining and the subsequent closure and decontamination of the building provided the thinking that time that was crucial to the realisation of the art loan.

It was actually Light’s wife, Vivienne, herself an artist, musician and writer, who came up with the idea of engaging with the artistic community and cultivating collection of art that had a meaningful connection with the Dorset area.

Executing that idea involved finding a way to avoid actually paying for the works in question. As Light put it, the general view of those with their hands on the university purse strings was: “You can do it if you like but not if it costs any money.”

“The politics of university are like that,” he sighed. “Even if you’ve got money you can’t spend it on art...”

Ironically, as Professor Light pointed out, the university has over the years “spent a great deal of money developing its relationship with the arts but it hasn’t done it kind of up front and openly.”

The challenge he said was to find a way of achieving their artistic goal “without spending any money that was not deniable.”

They suddenly realised the answer to the problem. If they could just get the artists to loan works to them for a year at a time a rolling programme could be created.

Happily local-based and often superbly well-connected painters and sculptors jumped at the chance and the works were soon arriving. However, even then problems were still encountered, not least from the university’s estates department which seemed to be remarkably concerned about the possible dangers posed by certain art works, particularly sculptures.

“This was the early days of health and safety,” said Light. “We had to have bollards around everything, ropes and notices and so forth. In the end the only accidents that ever happened were to the sculptures themselves.” He recalled an Ian Middleton work “with cast heads and briefcases and modular assembly. It was a wonderful thing but bits of it kept disappearing and turning up in other parts of the building.

“The students were actually disassembling it, dismembering and recombining it and hiding it and that, in a way, was a great sign of success. We’d managed to engage the most important audience of the art [at the university] which was the students who flow through and use the place.”

Although the disappearing sculpture parts were seen as a problem at the time. Professor Light says it was “ a problem that reflected the fact that art was beginning was beginning to engage with the university quite effectively.”

Today students, he pointed out, could not help but notice the art. The art loan project, guided over the years by leading local artists like Peter Joyce, Martyn Brewster and Brian Graham, had created a more stimulating environment for staff, students and visitors. It had also offered artists a platform to display their works and helped foster connections and added strength to the artistic community.

Offering birthday wishes to the art-loan scheme, he said he hoped it would offer, among other things: “artists who will cause the University’s estates department fresh and different challenges.”

© Jeremy Miles 2022