Hidden Treasure

Karen Brown seeks out the UTV Art Collection with its new curator

Amanda Croft, you have been appointed the new Curator for the UTV Art Collection. Can you tell me about the origin of the UTV Art Collection?

Amanda Croft: UTV will be 50 years old in 2009, so as an actual broadcasting corporation, it started officially in 1959, and by the early 1960s it was apparent in Havelock House that there was a certain emptiness in the corridors. Lady Angela Antrim, who was the wife of one of the leading lights of UTV, suggested at that time that UTV could become embedded as part of the visual arts scene by purchasing works of art that would then be exhibited on the walls of Havelock House – in the offices and public spaces.

What does the collection comprise? How did UTV as a corporation accumulate such a collection, and who has been responsible for it to date?

AC: At that time, and during the 60s into the 1970s, works were acquired by contemporary Northern Irish artists in particular, with one or two works of art by artists who exhibited regularly in the south of Ireland. But there was probably no real purchasing or collecting policy at that time, whereas today most corporate collections would have aims of enhancing the working environment and conditions of the employees high up on the list, followed by financial investment, and maybe a sort of historical documentation of the development of art as their agenda.

By the end of the 1970s, into the early 1980s, UTV realised that it had a sizeable collection of work, and it needed to address the issue of what to do with it and how to develop it. At that point, in the mid 1980s, they appointed Theo Snoddy as their first curator. By the end of last year there were around about 240 works of art by about 140 artists.

The majority of artists represented in the collection have a connection with Northern Ireland. They have either been born in Northern Ireland, or they have come here to live, to work and then left, or have remained here. So Northern Ireland seems to be the main connection. There are good examples of works by William Conor; and George Campbell, Arthur Armstrong, Dan O’Neill (including Artist in the Country) and Gerry Dillon, who had all worked together on the West coast of Ireland.

There are also works of art by artists of the following generation, in particular Basil Blackshaw, John Breakey and Tom Carr. As Curator, Theo Snoddy built up a representation of this middle generation of artists, such as Richard Croft, Neil Shawcross and Brian Ballard, and their immediate contemporaries. During the 1980s, UTV also collected and commissioned works of art by a younger generation of artists, including Rita Duffy, Simon McWilliams, Mark Shields, Paul Walls, and Ross and Paul Wilson – artists newly emerging from art college at the time. This notion of buying and supporting emerging artists is something that UTV wants to continue in the future – seeing its role as a benefactor of the arts as very important.

The UTV collection sounds a bit like a hidden treasure. Have there been any major exhibitions to date?

AC: Since 1989, until last year, Theo organised a series of exhibitions, maybe four shows per year, that toured throughout the whole of Ireland. He took between 20 to 40 works to venues, large and small, up and down the island. He gave a number of lectures and talks to local art societies, communities and corporate bodies, and also to schools. To accompany those exhibitions, he compiled two catalogues, which included biographical details of the artists, and these have been considered very useful for schools.

What do you aim to achieve during your curatorship of the collection?

AC: One of our aims is to refine the collection over the next few years. In particular a new catalogue will be developed to accompany a number of large-scale exhibitions that will include new acquisitions and recent works by artists already represented in the collection. The growing collection will have a number of priorities: to fill gaps in media which have been under-represented to date.

The bulk of the collection comprises paintings, with some sculptural pieces including John Behan’s Flight of Birds, an example of Carolyn Mulholland’s Poet’s Chair, and one of F. E. McWilliams Women of Belfast series. Up until recently there have been very few examples of fine art prints, photographs, mixed media or textiles. We recently bought a number of fine art prints showing a selection of different techniques, ranging from silk screen prints, to etchings, mezzotints, monoprints and lithographs etc. Most people associate ‘print making’ with reprographic, commercial prints, and in purchasing fine art prints, one of the intentions is to address this lack of understanding by illustrating the quality of contemporary limited edition prints by local printmakers.

Another priority will be to continue its development as an historical collection. For example, running through the collection are images of Belfast and its architecture, visual records of buildings that are no longer here, or that have changed. I would like to purchase more works of art with this theme, of the city and its spaces.

Can members of the public see these works?

AC: Yes, very much so. They can see the collection in Havelock House itself. I have always been impressed that when you talk to the staff in Havelock House they are all familiar with it, they all have their favourites. They feel that it enhances their work place, which is something that obviously a corporate collection should do. Members of the public can also access the collection simply by contacting UTV. We hope to develop public tours on a more regular basis, but meantime all that needs to be done is that you phone with either a single person or with a party, and a guided tour can be arranged.