Moira Lindsay joined the Visual Arts team as our new Head of Collection this month to look after our British Council Collection of more than 8,700 artworks. Read this interview to find out what brought Moira to the British Council.
Tell us a bit about your past experience and career...
I seem to have been slowly making my way south from Scotland with a long spell in Liverpool!
I was lucky enough to get a job almost out of my History of Art Masters, so I worked first at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and then at the University of Liverpool Victoria Gallery and Museum in curatorial collections roles.
I moved to Liverpool during the planning for European Capital of Culture 2008, which was an exciting time in the city. I really did see the impact that culture can have and its important ongoing role in the city’s ecology.
Summer gallery visitor services work as a student in Edinburgh was also valuable as it made me more aware of what audiences are interested in, and what they expect from collections. Since I began my career the digital possibilities for connecting collections and people have expanded so much and really can change how we work and who we reach.
What kind of collections have you worked on and what you’ve most enjoyed about them?
My interests are fairly broad and the collections I have worked across have also been wide-ranging but with a predominance of European, especially British, art. I am really looking forward to widen my knowledge of visual arts globally and making connections.
It is a cliché that everyone loves the British artist J. M. W. Turner, but of course I do, and I was lucky enough to have them in the two collections I previously worked in. I remember about 10 years ago giving a talk about Turner and someone approached me afterwards to thank me, explaining that he had previously struggled trying to grasp Turner’s role in the history of British art. I still remember that, and it reminds me that the conversations around the art are equally important as the care and display.
I especially love British art between World War One and World War Two; it’s great that slightly unfashionable 1930s-40s realism. In the British Council Collection, we have work by well-known artists such as Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Cecil Collins, John Craxton and Henry Moore but I am also really interested in artists that are less known to me from the early period of the Collection such as Lawrence Gowing, Gertrude Hermes, Leonard Huskinson and Leslie Hurry, especially our prints and drawings. We have a beautifully simple engraving study of a girl’s head by Robert Sargent Austin, and the Mabey Collection of posters has some stylish Art Deco designs and typography - already I am seeing some interesting connections within across all our art forms.
Contemporary art practice in the UK is also really exciting and strong and the British Council Collection has an amazing range within it. I really enjoy the Collection works by David Shrigley, Grayson Perry and Yinka Shonibare MBE, which have proven so popular with our international audiences. I am drawn to the lucious red and performative qualities of Scottish artist Claire Barclay's sculptural installation Fallen. Ensuring that collections reflect visual arts practice throws us some great challenges in terms of collections management and care.
There are lots of behind the scenes activities that happen around the care of collections that are probably not very visible but are crucial to our programmes, and, with my practical head on, moving collections to new locations and database projects have been challenging but really satisfying.
What makes collections so interesting to work with?
I love their uniqueness. All collections reflect their origins, purposes and people associated with them; they have their own histories and narratives and are ever-evolving. There is no longer a perception that collections are just precious things being guarded and kept behind closed doors. They are now being activated and brought to the wider public in all sorts of exciting ways, through exhibitions, displays, education programmes or digital platforms.
Even though much of our work is computer-based, there is something really special about seeing an original artwork close up. Everyone who works with collections will have moments when they are quietly in the art store and something wonderful catches their eye. It is even better when looking at collections with visiting curators or artists as they initiate conversations that can lead to interesting projects and collaborations.
What are you most looking forward to at the British Council?
Getting to know the British Council Collection! Then of course drawing out its potential, both physically and digitally.
I love those moments when I can get away from my computer and spend some time with the collections going through racks or shelves of art works. It is the best part of the job, a privilege that I never forget and it is why I do what I do.
The British Council’s global network is something that I am still getting to know, but our reach is immensely impressive, and the conversations and projects the Visual Arts team are working on are ambitious and wide-ranging, which really excites me about working here.
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