Spring: The mechanism at the BM for acquiring the work of modern/contemporary artists is as follows. Curators from various departments concerned with collecting this kind of work make up what is called the Modern Museum Acquisitions Group. Each of us makes as persuasive a proposal as we can to the other members of the group. If we all—or a substantial majority of us—agree, the proposal then goes forward for funding to various other groups within and outside the museum. The proposal has to be made again to these other groups, but it will carry a certain weight of approval from the Modern Museum group which may help the cause. If agreement is not reached—as happened with a recent proposal of mine—I have to go away and make my proposal stronger and more convincing to my other colleagues on the group.
In a time of constantly dwindling financial resources, this system has the virtue of forcing curators to consider very carefully how significant a particular acquisition is going to be – not just to the Department in question, but to the BM as a whole. In this context I would be faced with the same questions whether I was proposing the acquisition of a modern ikenga sculpture or a photo or painting by Mthethwa. Of course there are one or two departments in the BM other than my own which collect work by contemporary artists of African heritage. If colleagues from these Departments (e.g., Prints and Drawings) present proposals for acquiring such work to the Modern Museum group, I would use what knowledge I have to analyze and come to a decision on their proposals, just as they would of mine—in recent years I have acquired prints by Mohamed Bushara with their support, just as they have acquired prints by John Muafangejo with mine. Our healthy skepticism, until further convinced, of one another’s proposals is a useful and very informative way of gauging how our public may respond to particular works.
Of course, by the time a work of art reaches the stage of being put to the Modern Museum group as a proposal it may have been through a long process of consideration and discussion with the artist and perhaps with other people and institutions outside the BM. As Chika mentioned in an earlier post “art does not just happen or install itself in a museum space;” and Laurie’s highlighting of the importance of the October Gallery in London is an extremely relevant point. I have been very fortunate to have been able to meet artists and discuss their work not only in their own homes and studios, but also through a number of venues such as the October, Iniva, the Beardsmore, the Brunei at the School of Oriental and African Studies and at Gasworks Studios, all in London, as well as Metal in Liverpool, the Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno and many other venues around the UK. In Africa my fieldwork in various countries usually involves working with contemporary artists, as does my involvement with workshops supported by the Triangle Arts Trust – in the past three years I have worked closely with artists at Triangle Arts workshops in Mozambique, in Ghana and in Nigeria.
The purchase or commissioning of a work for the African galleries is therefore the culmination of a long process, very often with a specific space in the galleries in mind. Of course, the process of discussion with the artist—and an essential part of the proposal to the Modern Museum group and to other groups in the BM—will always include “what the curator proposes to do with the work in the specific space of the galleries,”* whether a touring exhibition is proposed of which it may form a part, and whether and in which contexts the work is likely to be published in the immediate future. I think this* was a question which Chika was earlier interested in posing (?) and it also seems to me to raise the question of the artist’s ability to “talk back” which formed part of our earlier deliberations. In other words, how much the artist’s voice is heard and how much the curator dictates what is heard and how it is interpreted by the public.