For the last ten years, Outset, a group of independent patrons, have helped Tate acquire contemporary artwork from Frieze Art Fair

  • Frieze Art Fair

    Frieze Art Fair

    Photo: Graham Carlow

Every year at the beginning of the Frieze Art Fair, you will find a small group of curators stalking quickly through the stands, trying in a few short hours to take in the thousands of artworks brought by the 170 gallerists from around the world. Their task is to uncover and acquire the best artworks from the show for Tate.

‘We do in three hours what normally takes three months,’ says Frances Morris, Tate’s Head of Collections (International Art). ‘It’s a crazy rush.’

This unusual shopping spree is funded by a group of independent patrons. Outset Contemporary Art Fund was set up by Candida Gertler and Yana Peel in 2002 as a way of bringing private funding to museums, and has been supported by Le Meridien Hotels & Resorts since 2008.

When Frieze began in Regent’s Park 10 years ago – the city’s first major contemporary art fair – the Outset patrons wanted to ensure it would be a success.  ‘We felt very strongly that it was not enough for serious supporters of the arts to just sit there and wish them good luck,’ says Gertler.

Their idea – to pick £150,000 of art from the fair and give it to Tate – was unconventional and completely original. But Tate’s director Nicholas Serota saw that it offered a chance to fill gaps in the contemporary collection and to assist our increasingly international collections strategy.

‘It was a big gamble for Tate because they didn’t know whether the fair would be any good,’ says Frieze founder and director Matthew Slotover. ‘It was quite ballsy to do it the first year.’

Although picking the works is done quickly, the planning and preparation is done very carefully. Each year two external curators join the Tate team, bringing their own expertise and ‘asking questions we might not have asked ourselves,’ says Morris. In the months before the fair, all the exhibiting galleries are contacted to find out what they are planning to bring, and a shortlist is drawn up.

However, things can change quickly on the floor. ‘You get blinded by the details. You have to see things in situ rather than as a list on paper,’ says Ann Gallagher, Head of Collections (British Art). ‘As you’re leaving you see things you didn’t see before. It’s so big, you have to work as a team.’

One piece that could easily have been missed was the Jimmie Durham work acquired in 2010. This sculpture is made from found objects including bone and a cola bottle, and was first exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in New York in 1993. ‘It was a quiet work,’ remembers Slotover. ‘I could have imagined the fair going by with collectors not noticing it.’ But Tate had been looking for an example of Durham’s work. ‘We never expected to find something of that vintage,’ says Morris. ‘We were bowled over.’

The Outset patrons are not involved in the decisions, but use the opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the art on show. ‘You all of a sudden see the fair through the eyes of a curator,’ says Gertler. ‘You feel on the inside. I think that’s what we all value very much.’The highlight for them is the VIP breakfast on the first day of the fair, where the acquisitions are announced.

Many artists have come into the Tate collection for the first time via the Outset/Frieze Fund, including Anna Barriball, Lorna Simpson and Tris Vonna-Michell. In 2004, Tate acquired Roman Ondák’s Good Feelings in Good Times, an artificial queue.

The number of works bought each year has varied – as few as three and as many as 12. ‘There’s such anticipation about it every year – the artists and galleries are wondering what Tate is going to buy,’ says Slotover. ‘Just the number of artworks Tate has managed to buy for not a huge amount of money is pretty amazing. It shows that museum-quality art doesn’t have to be millions of pounds.’

A testament to the quality of the works acquired through the fund is that they are exhibited and loaned regularly. ‘It’s quite moving to look back at 10 years and know that 86 works that we have a close relationship with have entered the collection,’ says Gertler. ‘You identify with what is going on at Tate and you feel you have a part in it.’

Frieze Art Fair takes place 11–14 October 2012, www.friezelondon.com. To find out more about Outset, visit www.outset.org.uk