Art? I wouldn't have it in the house

There are exciting developments in art - but how to find out more, and get your eye in? John Windsor previews one man's remarkable collection
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Bursting to buy cutting-edge contemporary art, young couples with money to spend can be seen traipsing round fairs and galleries looking dazed and confused. Young British art may be the new rock'n'roll - but will dinner guests snigger? Buying the right house, the right car or furniture, even new clothes, never demanded as much taste and discrimination. Help!

Take heart. A collection assembled by one man - 218 artworks by 100 living British artists - could soon be showing at a public gallery near you and give you useful ideas. It was conceived from the start as a public collection, and is mostly pictures, rather than installations or objects. That may sound tame. But it is precisely its reaffirmation of the power of the visual image that gives the exhibition its edge. That, and the emphasis on women artists, and artists working outside London.

The collector? A wealthy philanthropist in the Getty mould? Not at all. He is Paul Wilson, 36 and unemployed. He and his wife, Jill, live in a modest house in Barnham, Sussex, and their home contains no art at all.

He studied art history at Edinburgh University - which does give him an edge over the dazed and confused - but he suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and cannot even walk to the corner shop. He can drive, but has found it less taxing to send artists the train fare to visit him, or invite them to send photographs of their work.

As for the money, all the art he has bought in the past six years has been paid for out of an inheritance of less than pounds 200,000, which has now run out. The collection has doubled in value since he started spotting young talent, but he cares not a jot for the kudos that might bring. No dinner guests of his have ever clapped eyes on his purchases. They have been stored by the artists, or by the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull, where the collection was first shown. "I have no wish to possess art," he says. "Hang any picture in your home and it soon becomes stale, reduced to wallpaper. That's sad."

In more senses than one, accessibility to the public is the theme of the collection. "I'm anxious that people should learn to value their ability to respond to art, instead of being told how to respond," he says. He hates the idea of a public collection that patronises those unschooled in art, but some works can be appreciated on different levels. For example, there is Jane Brettle's huge, 6ft by 7ft Cibachrome diptych photograph of a dyed, xeroxed silverprint showing a portico with Doric columns, the glass over the one on the right smashed. "People's first thought might be of the old order being smashed," he says. "If they get that far - and I don't see why they shouldn't - they have come a long way.

"But there's a subtext. The architectural orders are genderised. Doric is masculine whereas, inside classic buildings, the Ionic and Corinthian orders represent femininity. Jane has written a thesis on how architecture reinforces gender problems."

To encourage people not to feel intimidated, he told the artists who were making the exhibition's audio commentaries: "Imagine that you are having a conversation in a pub. Just give your gut response to things."

Patricia McKinnon-Day's photograph, Asperges, shows a bathroom with bath, lavatory, floor and walls covered with smeared red carbolic soap. Wilson explains that the French asperger is the verb used for splashing the face when washing - and for sprinkling holy water. "Patricia has a Catholic background. Carbolic soap is symbolic of the cleansing of sins, but it hasn't left behind a pristine bathroom.

"Such political points are important to me, but so is valuing an artwork for what it is. Something that brings joy and raises the quality of life is something greatly to be valued."

Paul Hedge, co-founder of the Hales Gallery in Deptford, remembers Wilson from seven years ago, when he had hardly begun art buying and would arrive in the gallery's cafe at about 3pm after getting up late. "The staff would say, `here's that guy coming in for late lunch again - we'd better rustle up something for him.'"

Wilson could have been any other shy, undecided would-be collector. Hedge recalls: "He used to ask me about art and I gave him loads of catalogues, but he never revealed his hand. Then, one day, he let on that he was a collector. He'd realised that you can find the newer artists quickly through the smaller galleries.

"When he moved to Sussex, he'd phone me and ask `What's on the menu?' and we'd drive down and show him a handful of work. Or he'd ask us to take this or that artist down to meet him. There wasn't a stick of art in his home. Even when he phoned up to say he'd buy something he'd seen, he did not want it delivered. He'd arrange for a van from the Ferens in Hull to pick it up.

"He's a very easy person to get on with. And I've quite fallen in love with what he's been doing. I feel part of it. One of the best things about it is that it shows that anybody with a bit of vision can go out collecting and make a good job of it."

But Wilson says: "I wouldn't necessarily encourage everybody to buy art ... It should not just be a matter of buying up blue-chip names. You need to be well informed and to have a passion for it. I seem to have had that from an early age." Indeed, by his early twenties he had viewed more than 1,000 art exhibitions.

He reads about 20 art magazines, including Frieze, Parkett (Swiss), Art Monthly, Make, Art Forum (American), Art+Text (Australian), Art and Design and Portfolio. "The artists I dealt with knew I was well informed, not just a casual. I wouldn't have started the collection unless I had been confident that I could do a good job."

Artists who are now known names were swept up in his enthusiasm. He met Cathy de Monchaux, whose metal sculptures were already famous on the Continent, at Goodwood Sculpture Park three years ago, and commissioned a "life drawing" of two hazy figures on drafting film, standing between wing-like steel cut-outs. Monchaux says: "He obviously wanted to do his own thing in a special way, so I thought, `Why not? He seems to be getting it together.'"

Some artists, sharing his vision, sold to him cheaply. Through Paul Hedge, Jonathan Callan sold him his two big fibreglass panels of red splashes (1994) for pounds 2,500. They were already worth pounds 4,000-pounds 5,000.

More than half the works were bought direct from the artists, the rest from dealers, including, besides Paul Hedge, the London photograph dealer Zelda Cheatle, and Monika Kinley, champion of "outsider" art. Wilson says: "If you want good stuff, you can buy only a certain amount of it direct from artists, because a high proportion of good artists are represented by dealers. I do respect the dealers' role. The vibrancy of the current art scene is partly due to them."

He took to hiding his mission from young artists, pitying the way that the prospect of display in a public collection induced them to sell to him too cheaply. He did not even put his name to the collection, instead inventing for it the brand-like tag, "Mag".

But when it came to finding a home for it, he found he had to be a somebody in order to impress. "My aim had been to be anonymous, to efface myself from the whole thing," he says, "but =, like it or not, I'm the common denominator. I can't erase myself from the history of people who collect. I offered my collection to about 60 regional galleries. I had thought that because people like something for nothing, finding a home would be easy. I was naive in that respect. At times, I thought: `What on earth am I doing?'"

The Ferens Gallery agreed to take the exhibition when it was only about 40 per cent complete, at a time when it was pursuing an acquisitions policy that paralleled Wilson's. "We met each other at the right time," he says.

And now that his dream has come true? "I do feel ill. It's taken a lot out of me."

The Mag Collection is at the Fruitmarket, Edinburgh, until 7 March, at the Cartwright Hall, Bradford (14 March-31 May), Orleans House, Twickenham (2 May-21 June), Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne (8 August-11 October), York City Art Gallery (15 February-28 March 1999), Laing Gallery, Newcastle- upon-Tyne, mid-April-June, 1999), and then abroad.