Alix Collingwood Swinburn
After a BA in Visual Culture from Brighton University Alix Collingwood Swinburn studied a Masters degree in Art Museums & Galleries at the University of Newcastle. She currently works as the Curator of Durham University’s six-thousand piece Western art collection. Alix’s work as a curator of a collection without a ‘home’ or museum space challenges traditional ideas of viewing art, and has generated a creative and innovative curatorial response.
Alix defines her interest in “the contemporary role of the curator, in how we work with collections, and how we make them active and central to the user's experience”. Alix has previously said of the aims of her work that ‘creativity should be embedded into education and everyday learning and that art should be seen as a tool for research, education and social change”. The Definite Article spoke to Alix about working to diversify and democratise the Universities body of art, and celebrating art for all.
Hi Alix, thank you so much for speaking with the Definite Article! We are excited to engage and shine a light on our University’s fantastic art collection. Could you tell us about yourself, and your role at Durham University?
Hi Emily, thanks for having me. My official title is curator of the Western Art Collection and I have worked here for four years. I work with the collection of modern and contemporary art; we currently have around six-thousand art-works. The art collection currently lacks a central space and so can be found instead around the University estate- in the Palatine Centre, the Business School and within colleges. I previously worked as Curator at MIMA (The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), working there from its beginnings as a local authority run art gallery into its management by Teeside university. I particularly enjoyed working within the university-education context, as there are affinities between curating and learning.
Where is the collection from? What does it mean to ‘curate’ it?
The university has been collecting for decades. The art collection is comprised of works donated to colleges and departments. More recently, works have been acquired to support teaching, research, wider student experience and engagement. The University Library and Collection department has developed an Acquisitions Panel and a Collections Development Policy meaning any acquisition has to fit our strategic aims for the collection. Collecting is a considered development, and it takes resource and capacity to look after collections.
I see. What are the ‘strategic aims’ of the western art collection?
We are trying to fill the gaps we have and continue to represent contemporary practice. For our collection a generalised aim is the diversification of the collection- it is somewhat typical of collections of its period - it contains a large proportion of dead, male white artists. We are working to make the art more reactive and more relevant to our contemporary times.
How are you working to achieve this? How can art be contemporary and reactive?
We are attempting to acquire more artists from the local area and currently active artists. It is important that when looking back at the collection all periods are represented. Artists responding to current socio-political events are integral to the collection. For example, Craig Oldham’s work is a recent gift to the collection. It is a limited edition print created at the start of the first lockdown, and contains the slogan ‘May they Never Be Deemed Low Skilled Again’. It was a response to Priti Patel’s immigration ‘points-based’ immigration system in which ‘low skilled’ workers would not be able to enter the UK. The piece points to the fact that it was these so called ‘low skill workers’ who kept the UK going throughout Covid. The works were sold and the profits went to local charities in Manchester..
Very poignant. Can you give me some big names in the collection?
We have a Damien Hirst, prints by Andy Warhol, Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Sandra Blow, Salvador Dali and Picasso. More recently we have focused on artists from the region and who are working currently. We have acquired a work from a recent PHD student Finola Finn, who won a commission at Lumiere, with ‘Know Thyself’ a throbbing red heart at the Counts House. We have collected a Craig Oldham print which is a project called ‘In Loving Memory of Work’ which reflects on the miners strikes of 1984/85 and is incredibly relevant to this area. Equally collages by Jo Stanness feature brutalist buildings in County Durham. We always try to collect considerately, and consider the conceptualisation and interpretation of the piece when collecting.
What does your job comprise of as curator of the collection?
My role at Durham takes two strands, firstly: collection management and organisation for the long term, organising public exhibition space and the practical management and care of artworks. Collection management focuses on looking after the artworks to ensure they are enjoyed by future generations to come. We are working to make the collection accredited. This is a a standard of best practise, and includes elements of conservation, collection care, collection engagement, documentation. sThis is what we are actively working towards. The second side of my role is around increasing access to the collection, and utilising the collection within the university and our local communities…
How have you been promoting the collection/ widening access to the local community?
The collection has been relatively unknown in the past, both in the university community and in a wider national and international community as it doesn’t have a museum/home and perhaps lacks a identity museum or venue identity. Part of what we’ve been doing is thinking about how to increase access to a collection that doesn’t have a public space. We have been lending the collection out and developing public facing activities with the collection, with exhibitions in our other university museums, and in temporary pop up exhibitions. We have also developed an arts festival, working with Durham County Council, student music and student theatre called ‘Summer in the City’ (www.sitcfestival.org). The visual arts programme is inspired by and works with the art collection. We also work with MA and BA students to work on curatorship and curating their own exhibitions. Furthermore, we have set up the ICAN art network for any students interested in art or creative visual culture, to share best practise and ideas.
Your role as curator of the art collection is particularly interesting as the collection has no ‘home’, museum or central place for display, and challenges a traditional academic way of engaging with art. How has this challenged you as a curator ?
It is our be our ultimate ambition to have a space. We are currently looking at a medium term solution,to display the collection and to test the want and need from an art gallery space from the local community. I am keen for the space to become an ‘art hub’, and that it has a wider holistic offer- including workshops, film spaces, potentially resident artists working within the space. I am also keen that it won’t be a permanent, long term display but offer shorter term rotating exhibitions increasing our ability to change and interrogate different works and different themes from the collection, alongside showing artists from outside of our collection.
Sounds great! You have also created the Student Art prize- could you tell us a little about that and how students can get involved?
The art prize concept responds to student feedback around the display of student artworks and conversations with Alumnus Richard Roberts, who is incredibly passionate about art. So the concept of a yearly art competition with cash prizes was born. The Student Art Prize is very generously funded by Richard Roberts, a St Johns College alumnus. and offers £1500 for first place, £1000 for second and £500 for third. He has funded the art prize for the next twelve years providing an opportunity for art to flourish and expand within the university. The winner is added to the art collection each year and sits within the wider collection. The theme for this year is heroism and is inspired by the events of the last year, however we are encouraging for students to approach and interpret the theme in its broadest sense and seek heroism in nature and objects - in anything! You can find out more at www.dur.ac.uk/art.collection/artprize/
Are you providing any support to students who may want to enter?
This year The Art Prize will be running an Art School, with various artist workshops, talks and activities- there will be art packs available to be sent out to students to encourage creative activity throughout the year. Details will be on the website soon, so do keep your eyes out. [The Art Prize closes on the 15th February 2021 and any entries are strongly encouraged].
As an MLAC focused magazine are there any pieces from the collection which might be of particular interest to our readers?
We have two series of Salvador Dali’s work; Biblia Sacra and Divine Comedy, illustrations for both books respectively, perhaps of particular interest to students studying Spanish. Also, there is a portfolio of artworks called ‘Hope and Optimism’. It iscreated in is a charitable project launched in 1990 with the benefactors being Magdalen College, Oxford, and art and artists around the world. They invited each the National Gallery or the equivalent in each country in the world to nominate an artist and donate a print to the portfolio, a nominal set were printed and auctioned them off for charity. The series has a resounding message of the international or global citizen and engages with some really interesting artists.
Brilliant stuff. How can students get more involved in the art collection?
We have various opportunities throughout the year. There are many opportunities to get involved in the Summer in the City Festival. Last year we had students work on podcasts on specific pieces of the collection for us, interviewing artists and arranging art trails around the city. This year we are mainly looking at remote work, but we are always excited to hear from people about ways they might want to get involved.
Has the collection got anything planned for the future, and coping with Covid?
We are talking to DUAS abo our civic responsibility to share the artwork with the students and the communities around us. Our recent (pre-Covid) exhibition projects, teaching, pop-up curating projects with the students is really about getting the collection seen and used. I am keen that the collection is an active, useful resource- it’s not just frames on a wall !
Thank you so much for talking with us today Alix! We are hoping to continue to shine light on the work of the curators of Durham’s other art collections within the coming weeks!
No problem! Thank you!
[Please do continue to explore Durham University’s brilliant archives and art collections online: https://www.dur.ac.uk/art.collection. The collection ut running a Street Gallery Project. Working with East Durham Createsand regional artist Ellie Matthews in Seaham, Ellie encouraged a local community to respond to images of works from the art collection and other artistsposted through their letterbox and pin the responses they to their windows to create a ‘street gallery’. We are hoping to start a student street gallery project beginning in the Viaduct, and to grow this project over the next year.
[Check out local artist Eleanor Matthews ‘Street Gallery’ here: https://www.eleanormatthews.com/artworks]
I love the sound of a street gallery. As a closing remark Alix, could you comment on who the collection belongs to and how students might respond to it?
Although under the ownership of the University, the collection is very much present within students and community realms,, in that it is is more than happy to talk to students about the works and any particular areas of interest. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.]