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AGENDA: Throw open the vaults and let art see the light.

Byline: SARAH EVANS

There is something rather dreadful about locking works of art away. Paintings, musical instruments, jewellery sit in secure store rooms and dark vaults hidden away from human sight to appreciate in value, to protect them from damage and sometimes just because there is no where else for them to be.

It wouldn't seem so awful if we were all surrounded by beauty in our everyday lives. But we are not. I'm a bit of a Victorian when it comes to aesthetics and believe that daily exposure to beautiful things is morally uplifting and influences decisions and behaviour for the better. If the doors of the secure vaults could be thrown open and the beauty they hide be shared, we would all be better for it.

Two exhibitions currently showing in Birmingham are interesting examples of private art going public and benefiting us all.

Behind Closed Doors at the Barber Institute is wonderful. Despite its name, which for me is far too reminiscent of all those harrowing 70s sociological texts about middle class wife battering, it manages to do what the Barber does so well, bring together individual little masterpieces that are both representative of certain genres and also special in their own right.

This exhibition, as the title suggests, consists of works that are owned privately by people living in Birmingham. This adds a certain frisson to the event. One group are sniffily asking why no-one was interested in their De Wint, Paul Nash, Lucien Freud or whatever.

Another group are trying hard to remember in whose house they saw No 17 or 27, while some are glumly pondering why they've never been invited to dinner parties where any of the exhibits hang on the walls.

There is an interesting short essay in the catalogue for this exhibition by Paul Spencer-Longhurst, Private and Public Collecting. It outlines some of the sociological thinking that underpinned nineteenth century collections and exhibitions.

To this period belong many significant art collections acquired by the growing wealthy middle class as well as the foundation of the great regional art galleries and museums. The rationale behind public exhibitions Paul Spencer-Longhurst explains, was in part, that "wilder sections of the population would be tamed by exposure to great art . . . . . ..The function of collecting and displaying art was deemed to be essentially educational and improving to the working man".

Whether it is today the "wilder sections of the population" that climb the Barber stairs is debatable. Perhaps the photographic exhibitions that take place outside the Central Library through to Symphony Hall reach out further.

Nevertheless, the exhibition presents art we would not otherwise see, so through collectors' generosity, is continuing an important tradition.

The other exhibition that also comes about through individual generosity is British Watercolours 1640 to 1860 at BM&AG. Most of this exhibition was in the ownership of one man, Birmingham industrialist James Leslie Wright who left his remarkable collection on his death in 1954 to the city of Birmingham.

How and why this collection came into being is outlined in Tessa Sidey's essay for the catalogue. In addition to the city bequest, Wright decided that his children could borrow up to 33 drawings from the collection in their life-time in addition to the 12 each were able to choose and own themselves.

Tessa Sidey points out that "this careful construction allowed his collection to maintain a family association while entering the wider public arena". As Wright himself declared "Let the people see them and enjoy them". It seems a good and reasonable balance - all the advantages of the freedom and individuality of a private collection ending up in the public domain and one extended family being able to share their treasures with all their neighbours, friends and visitors.

I like the idea of inspiring art hanging on the walls of homes and places of work as well as being in art galleries. There is so much art in existence.

Paintings are not like novels. You don't have to be taken up by a publisher for your work to have permanence. You produce it yourself. We need more of the innovative schemes to get art out of the vaults and into people's homes and daily environment
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 14, 2008
Words:704
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