Art is intrinsic to the University of Warwick – to its physical, social and academic environment. The University itself was founded in 1965, fulfilling Lord Robbins’ vision of a new, meritocratic university system. Warwick articulated this vision in its construction of a modernist utopia – a fusion of architecture, design and contemporary art on a 750 acre greenfield site, at the edge of a major city.
The University’s founding architect Eugene Rosenberg, was a leading exponent of Modernist architecture, and had studied with Le Corbusier in the 1920s in Paris. He was determined to create not merely architecture for a new university, but an environment. He chose furniture by contemporary designers such as Fritz Hansen, and he insisted that the University start an art collection which would not be sequestered in a gallery but occupy the same social and teaching spaces as the students and staff. Outside the specific framework of a museum context, these works function as open texts, offering different readings to successive generations of campus inhabitants and visitors, who must develop their individual journeys around them.
Rosenberg bought widely for himself but insisted on the contemporary and the abstract for a new campus: brightly coloured, large canvases responsive to the Modernist aesthetic, which worked architecturally in terms of adding colour and shape to the spaces he had created. Among the first, large scale paintings acquired during this period is a distinguished group of nine important paintings by Jack Bush, Gene Davis, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and John Hoyland, which were presented to the University by Alistair McAlpine, scion of the University’s building contractors, McAlpine and Son.
Another significant group of paintings in the Collection came to the University with the incorporation of the Coventry College of Education into the University’s Institute of Education in 1979. The College had, under its dynamic Principal, Miss Joan Browne, CBE, amassed its own collection of largely figurative work from the 1950s. Intended to inspire generations of trainee teachers, this collection provides a useful counterpoint to the dominant abstraction of the University’s Collection, and includes works by artists such as Mary Fedden, Julian Trevelyan and Stanley Spencer, not all necessarily in oils. The appointment of the University’s first curator, Katharine Eustace, in 1985, the opening of the Mead Gallery the following year, and the founding of the Friends of the Mead in 1987 provided a focus and a catalyst for updating the Collection by purchase, gift, and commission; it was at this point that the University joined the Contemporary Art Society. Exhibitions in the Mead Gallery provided an informed context for the acquisition of works intended to hold their own on campus.
The integration of art and campus increases access to the Collection. It also does away with storage problems since, unlike most museums, practically all the Collection is on display. However, this approach is not without its own problems. If a work is in a gallery it assumes cultural significance through the visually neutral space, the narrative created through the juxtaposition of artworks and the texts produced to accompany the exhibition. Furthermore the gallery audience is endowed with the expectation of some sort of cultural exchange. On campus, however, the encounter between viewer and art is unsought and, despite extended labels and a comprehensive website, it is sometimes hard for the Warwick viewer to navigate the meanings of the works on show.
In 1997 we proposed a new phase of collecting to the Arts Council Lottery through the Contemporary Art Society Special Collections Scheme. We focused on works that would make connections with the academic or physical landscape in which they were sited. We did not want work that memorialised Warwick. We were looking for an active engagement between the work and the site, but an engagement that was not time-bound and could transcend the original context. We wanted to activate rather than disable the ever-changing collective imagination of generation after generation of staff and students.
From being a phenomenon of a new society, to an entity that communicates the position of the University at the leading edge, the art collection has assumed a new role in the twenty-first century. Increasingly, the way that artists work is similar to the research practices of universities. We facilitate connections between international artists and academics, and buy and commission artworks that offer opportunities for the diverse communities connected with the University to engage with them.
Sarah Shalgosky, Curator
Text source: PCF / University of Warwick
This description was originally written for a catalogue.