Britain’s ‘art lending library’ finds four new homes

Arts Council Collection of nearly 8,000 works is planning 24 exhibitions with regional partner galleries


The Arts Council Collection, the world’s largest loan collection of Modern and contemporary British art, is partnering with four major galleries outside London to stage 24 exhibitions over the next three years.

Founded in 1946, the collection acts as “the nation’s art lending library”, making nearly 8,000 works by more than 2,000 artists available for loan to museums, galleries, hospitals, schools and other public buildings across the UK. On 27 October, the organisation launched the National Partners’ programme of exhibitions as part of its 70th anniversary celebrations. The scheme will give an itinerant collection four semi-permanent homes until spring 2019: the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, Birmingham Museums Trust, Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne and Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The participating institutions responded to an open call by Arts Council England last summer.

“Having no permanent gallery means the nature of the collection is somewhat elusive, in spite of the fact that 1.5 million people encounter a work from the collection every year,” says Jill Constantine, the head of the Arts Council Collection. “The partnership will start to address that as we will have a substantial presence at the partner galleries all year round.” The regional initiative reflects an organisation that does “something like 97%” of its work outside London, Constantine says.

Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery has kicked off its programme today, 28 October, with shows dedicated to some of the Arts Council Collection’s most recent acquisitions by emerging artists. Benedict Drew’s two-room installation KAPUT (2015) imagines Richard Branson’s space travel ambitions as a latter-day Grand Tour, while Looking North presents sculptures, paintings, ceramics and film by five artists from northwest England (until 26 February 2017).

The gallery is also planning a major exhibition to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised male homosexuality in England and Wales. Coming Out (28 July-5 November 2017) will draw together works by artists including David Hockney, Gilbert & George and Steve McQueen from the Arts Council collection and the Walker’s own holdings. The show, which overlaps with the Queer British Art survey at Tate Britain in London (5 April-1 October 2017), is due to travel to Birmingham Museums in November 2017.

The National Partners’ programme is “an opportunity to see the range and diversity of the [Arts Council] collection”, Constantine says. Among the highlights for next year are exhibitions dedicated to light works at Towner Art Gallery (A Certain Kind of Light, 21 January-14 May 2017) and childhood experience at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Tread Softly, 27 May-3 September 2017). The artists Ryan Gander, Rana Begum and Lubaina Himid are organising shows at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (Night in the Museum, 26 November-12 February 2017), Yorkshire Sculpture Park (15 July-29 October 2017) and the Walker Art Gallery (Naming the Money, 7 October 2017-18 March 2018) respectively.