Cornelia Parker on arts philanthropy in Britain

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In an interview with the artist talks government arts cuts and the ensuing rise of charitable investment in art

It's been a busy old year for Cornelia Parker. The artist got an OBE from the Queen in January. In May she helped organise a petition for Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s release and personally delivered it to Downing Street. Having curated the Second Government Art Collection (GAC) show at the Whitechapel which opened in September, her work was exhibited at Frieze in October. Next week she’ll take to the podium again to hand over the £60,000 Contemporary Art Society Award commission to an emerging artist.

Parker is probably best known as the artist who put the actress Tilda Swinton in a glass case for eight hours a day for a week during an exhibition at the Serpentine in 1995. Like sleeping beauty with her porcelain skin, Swinton lay there in repose as gallery-goers peered in at her. Parker missed out on the Turner Prize in 1997 – a rare moment in the competition as all four nominations were female – but it was her friend Gillian Wearing who won it so she “wasn’t too upset”.

Often her work explodes conventional objects or ideas and, quite literally, suspends the pieces at the moment of detonation. She has personally given Prince Charles a guided tour of one of her works and, another, made of a feather from Sigmund Freud’s couch, was famously hung in Gordon Brown’s dining room at Number 11 when he was Chancellor.

Aside from petitioning Number 10 directly, the artist has always been political in her work. She even used fluff collected from the House of Lords and Commons in ‘Political Abstract’ and showed us the blacked-out and scuffed “dark side” of the Chancellor’s Budget Box in her diptych, ‘Self Portrait with Budget Box’, 2011.

The importance of continued government investment in new artists is the clearest message to come out of Parker’s Whitechapel Government Art Collection (GAC) show, which closes next month. As curator, she organised 70 highlights from the 13,500 pieces in the GAC according to colour – red, yellow and blue- to allude to the different political parties. The show’s title, Richard Of York Gained Battle In Vain, is a popular mnemonic for recalling the colours of the rainbow. It is a good motif when you consider the cavernous government art collection which quite literally covers the spectrum of British art history from the last 100 years.

Parker remarks on the moratorium of investment into new art by the GAC, currently set to last until 2014. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? They’ve put an embargo on buying new works at the moment which is very sad. Suddenly the [GAC] will become a time capsule of a period of art history, although a very rich one.” Like the rest of art world following the swingeing arts cuts, Parker is busily embracing a growing culture of private support for the arts which has followed in the wake of repeatedly pulled public funding.

“What is emerging here is arts philanthropy like America’s,” she says. “People are starting to be encouraged to be patrons of the art, like philanthropists in the US where government financial support for the arts has always been low. The culture of collecting in this country is still in its infancy but people are now coming forward to support, say, The Arts Fund or the Contemporary Arts Society.”

She believes that the process of being weaned off the Arts Council lifeline has led wealthy organisations and charities to come to the rescue. But because Britain is essentially “starting from scratch” there are still going to be unavoidable casualties of the public funding famine. She also makes the point that this country doesn’t have the same enticements as in the US - like tax breaks for philanthropists funding the arts.

The redistribution of this country’s artistic heritage from London to the rest of the UK is also important to Parker. “The Contemporary Art Society bought works of mine at various points and scattered them across various places. Manchester City Art Gallery has pieces of mine which CAS bought. So does Mima [Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art]. CAS bought Embryo Firearms, which is I think a really important piece of my work, for The Herbert in Coventry. Norwich Castle Gallery has got a piece they contributed. It has been great for me, because I needed the money. But also for those regional museums.”

This year the Turner Prize is being held at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead – only the second time that it has ever been held outside London. Of the shortlist of four nominees, she predicts that Karla Black, a rather unorthodox sculptor, might be “the one to win” this year. “Perhaps because she’s the wildest card there,” she explains.

Parker will award the Contemporary Art Society Annual Award commission to an emerging artist and local museum on 14th November,

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