A National Collection

The achievements of UK art education have been marked in various ways, including showcase exhibitions of the work of graduating artists (the Young Contemporaries in the Fifties and Sixties; more recently the New Contemporaries and Fresh Art) and some exhibitions that focussed on particular educational practices [1].  Many of our colleges and universities have also established their own institutional collections to support or to celebrate the educational process.

It was not until the mid-1970s that there was a conscious effort to bring into existence a collection of works by artists who studied or taught in the art schools: the NCDAD passed on not only its validation work but also a collection of paintings, sculptures and fine prints.  Indeed it purchased these works specifically for the purpose.  The CNAA collection is important for three reasons.  Firstly, it has its roots in the tradition of art and design education for which Britain has gained such a high international reputation.  Second, the collection shows the strength and confidence with which artists in Britain embraced the prevailing abstraction of the 1960's and early 1970's (prominent among them being works by Sean Scully, Robyn Denny, Bridget Riley, John Carter and the late Kenneth Martin).

The third and most important reason is that the collection carries a message: it underlines the main principle underlying the Coldstream reform of the early Sixties - that practising artists and designers should exercise a controlling influence over higher education in the field.

The last Chairman of the NCDAD was Stewart Mason.  He convinced nervous assessors at the Department of Education and Science of the propriety of a project to assemble and bestow an art collection: he selected paintings, sculptures and prints to create a visible symbol of the achievements and vigorous independence of the art schools.  They would, he believed, 'immediately demonstrate the impact of the art and design sector upon what had hitherto been a strongly technologically-oriented body’ [2].  The art schools had developed a strong tradition, an ethos, and it was that ethos that the collection was to embody.

The CNAA Trust put forward the idea of building a national collection when it convened a seminar, accompanied by a second exhibition of the CNAA collection, in 1999 [3].  The proposal gained the support of a number of university-level fine art courses and of the subject association [4].  As the trust explored ways forward attention focussed on the possibility of a virtual, rather than a physical, collection.

After the millennium a national hanging committee selected works of art by artist-teachers at a number of UK universities and colleges and those works were assembled around the nucleus of the CNAA collection to form a permanent website.  The new website, funded by JISC [5] and carried out by VADS [6]), was launched by Alexander Graham-Dixon at the British Academy in 2003.  The works are accompanied by a database of information that can be interrogated using specially developed software.

[1] E.g. The Developing Process, an exhibition held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 1959.  A catalogue was published by Kings College, Durham.

[2] Robert Strand (1987), A Good Deal of Freedom: art and design in the public sector of higher education, 1960-1982.  London: CNAA.

[3]  The Education of Vision, an exhibition that inaugurated the Wingfield Gallery in Suffolk to accompany a national seminar documented in a resumé  edited by Stroud Cornock, published in June 1999.

[4]  The National Association for Fine Art Education (NAFAE)

[5]  The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) is an independent advisory body that supports further and higher education by providing strategic guidance, advice and opportunities to use Information and Communications Technology to support teaching, learning, research and administration.

[6]  Visual Arts Data Service, University of the Creative Arts.