Why a collection of British photography is probably going abroad

Lack of support from UK institutions could mean that James and Claire Hyman donate vast collection elsewhere


Over the past 20 years, the London dealer James Hyman and his wife Claire have assembled a private collection of more than 3,000 images by European and US photographers spanning the entire history of the medium. They are also the most active buyers of British photography in the world and are in the process of putting their British collection online at Hyman is considering the future of their British photography collection and is in talks with museums to donate the extraordinary cache.

The Art Newspaper: Why did you launch the website?

James Hyman: Some of the best photography today is being done in this country but it is not being supported as much as it could be by British institutions or private collectors. When I take part in fairs such as Paris Photo or AIPAD in New York, I sell a lot of British photography to American museums; curators there recognise the quality and appreciate that the work is, from a global perspective, underpriced. So I sell far more British photography to museums around the world than to any institution in this country because curators here aren’t so engaged with the work. The website is part of our attempt to spread the word internationally and to make a private collection more public.

The UK has always lagged behind the rest of the world in the appreciation of photography. Is the situation improving?

What we lack here is someone promoting our own photographers at an institutional level. Simon Baker is the curator of international photography at Tate Modern and he’s very interested in developments in Japan. That’s fine but what I’ve been campaigning for is a senior curator of British photography at Tate Britain.

Tate has two hurdles in trying to build its photography collection. The first is: do they have the funding for a senior curator of British photography? It’s not enough to simply give the job to an existing Tate curator with little knowledge of photography. Secondly, the institutional view of photography has been filtered through the lens of conceptual art. So it’s fine if you’re Richard Long or Gilbert & George, who are seen as artists using photography. But when it comes to great British photographers such as Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Roger Mayne, Tony Ray-Jones or a host of wonderful contemporary photographers, Tate has never really understood the work. This affects their collecting, especially of historic photographs. They have bought too many works that were printed later and not enough original vintage prints. They have focused too much on the image, not the historical object.

If Tate Britain were to hire a photography curator, would you consider giving your collection to them?

It’s complicated. I’ve had a number of conversations with [departing Tate director] Nicholas Serota. He is personally engaged but he explained that his senior colleagues are not interested. With a new head of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, and Serota’s own imminent departure, it will be interesting to see if things change. Also, I think that if you donate to them, they do not respect the work as much as if they’ve had to buy it. My gallery represents a fantastic painter, Michael Andrews of the School of London. When he died, his archive was donated to Tate. They’ve had it for 16 years but they’ve still not catalogued it. Their funding priorities are such that they don’t seem to be able to catalogue what they already have.

Tragically, the institutions in this country are in demise. The Library of Birmingham has fired key curators looking after its acclaimed photography department and severely curtailed access to it. The National Media Museum in Bradford is transferring over 300,000 photographs to the V&A and the space it opened at the Science Museum in London in 2013 is rumoured to be closing after it completes its planned exhibition schedule. [The Science Museum says: “there is no question of the Media Space gallery closing, however we haven’t yet made firm decisions on what will be programmed there in 2018 and beyond.”] They have good curators at the V&A but the photography department there is small and badly funded, and they don’t even have the money to catalogue what they’ve already got. [The V&A says it has catalogued 90% of its photography collection and that these records are available on its online database.]

Also, I believe in a global culture, so I would rather my collection stayed intact and went somewhere abroad. It’s going to be a commitment for a museum; we’re more active collectors of British photography than any public institution in the world. We buy 100 or 150 works at a time—entire exhibitions such as recent touring shows of the work of Anna Fox and Daniel Meadows. I would love for this work to be seen abroad and for our collection to become a way to promote British photography internationally.