An installation by the South African artist Dineo Seshee Bopape is this year’s purchase by the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) at Frieze London. “Sedibeng, it comes with the rain” (2016) is made up of a large cluster of abstracted metal figures, hung with charms and herb bags, accompanied by a slide projection of a woman’s hands moulding clay. It was bought on behalf of Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, on Britain’s south coast, where it will sit alongside the gentle pastoral landscapes by Eric Ravilious that make up the gallery’s core collection.
Announcing the purchase on Wednesday afternoon, Towner’s head of exhibitions Brian Cass described Bopape’s piece as the perfect fit for a collection that explores “the edge in landscape” in a seaside town. “Her work captures audiences emotionally and aesthetically, and engages very directly with the idea of landscape that from the beginning has been at the heart of Towner’s collection,” he said.
This is the second year CAS has bought work at Frieze using a £50,000 Collections Fund put together by its patrons. The partnership might seem an unusual one: Frieze is an international art market juggernaut; CAS is a lesser-known private charity that has been buying art, primarily on behalf of small regional galleries, for over a century. Until the 1990s it operated in a patrician manner: a well-connected curator would be given an annual budget to buy the art they wanted, and distribute it among member galleries as they saw fit.
Now, it does things differently. Firstly, power has been devolved: Towner put forward the winning bid to be the 2017 Collections Fund recipient, and was itself in charge of sifting through potential purchases from Frieze art fair’s 160-plus attending galleries.
Secondly, CAS has become an ambitious self-publicist. Its driving motivation for yoking the organisations together is simply the clout of “official partner” status. “We become part of their whole PR exercise, which is huge,” explains CAS director Caroline Douglas. “We’ve been around for 100 years or more but we do slightly fly under the radar, so it’s very attractive for us to have a platform on which to operate at a moment when everyone in the world comes to London to talk about contemporary art.”
She has evidence that her approach is working. Before the Frieze partnership, the annual Collections Fund stood at £25,000 — made up of 10 patrons each putting in £2,500. The opportunity to “buy in such a high-profile way” inspired long-term CAS benefactors Béatrice and James Lupton to match fund the patrons’ pot. “So it overnight doubled the amount of money we have to play with.”
The priorities of CAS and Frieze dovetail nicely. While CAS benefits from the fair being so big, the fair benefits from CAS being small. Frieze’s other fund partner is Tate — the institution has been buying at the fair since 2003, this year with a £150,000 budget. CAS, with a third of the money to play with, isn’t considered competition. “The two things work very comfortably together,” says Jo Stella-Sawicka, the Frieze fairs’ artistic director, who first approached Douglas about the scheme. “The galleries, they love the fact there’s more than one acquisitions fund. Any activity with a museum collection involved is always really valuable.”
But how long will those collections endure? This is the question that most troubles Douglas. While CAS provides its member museums with support to buy work, and some mentorship programmes, it can’t solve the chronic underfunding of regional museums. “It’s starting to be really dramatic,” says Douglas. She keeps a list of galleries that have recently closed or are on the brink of throwing in the towel.
I put it to her that there’s a touch of Stockholm syndrome about the partnership with Frieze: the fair is part of the commercial art world, and has certainly played its part in pumping up art prices to such a point that many UK museums can’t afford to buy except through charity. She sees this as a secondary concern. “I don’t agree that [Frieze is] causing all the problems for regional museums,” she says. “Most of them have no acquisition budget at all . . . The small ones have had nothing for years and years, and in the past 18 months or two years the screws have tightened even on the bigger ones.”
This weekend, Douglas has a glamorous schedule of dinners, talks and tours to give around the fair. Next week, she’ll be back at the coalface — hopefully with a few deep-pocketed fairgoers in tow.