Sheffield's Going Public art philanthropy project reveals the future's promises and threats

Josh Spero hears from those at the heart of a new project to generate art philanthropy for public museums (and a cathedral or two) in a time of cuts

Aptly, given the odd weather we've had lately, there were contrasting fronts this morning at the launch of Going Public, a project where four art collectors are loaning work to be shown around Sheffield's galleries and cathedral.

At the Knightsbridge home of participating collector Nicolas Cattelain (he has a certificate of ownership for Martin Creed's 'The lights going on and off' hanging on the stairs), we heard peals of joy and presentiments of doom, all around the same topic.

The project, said Kim Streets, CEO of Museums Sheffield, was aimed at showing how 'private philanthropy can have a role in the public arts sector', and the presence of not just Cattelain but Eugenio Re Rebaudengo, whose family are lending some of their collection to Sheffield, showed the generous, innovative side of art-giving.

But more than this, philanthropy was necessary, Streets said – she could forecast in twenty or 30 years' time there being no public money at all for art galleries. Philanthropy won't just become an attractive way of punching above your budget but the only way to make sure the doors stay open.

The collectors loaning to Sheffield as part of Going Public are Cattelain; the Rebaudengos; Egidio Marzona; and Dominique and Sylvain Levy. They join long-dead supporters of Sheffield's arts scene like John Newton Mappin and JG Graves, from the era before the state supported museums and galleries (an era on the return, perhaps).

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This was all, of course, framed as 'starting the conversation' about philanthropy, art, the public and private spheres, but there is a certain nervousness underlying the project, and also relief at having pulled it off. It seems like a good example of first-mover advantage: by engaging with the friendlier foundations, Sheffield gets great art and is in a prime position to deepen these relationships, beating other cities to it. Other regions, who can learn from Sheffield at a conference on this subject later in the year, need to move fast.

Nicolas Cattelain put it most starkly as we sat in his drawing room amid a Dan Flavin light sculpture and eighteenth-century French furniture: galleries needed to beware collectors taking advantage of them. 'The elephant in the room,' he said, 'is how you mix public and private interests.' We have all seen collectors promoting this artist over that, he continued, in their own interest: a loan to a prestigious collection increases the work's value.

That's why an early approach is important: 'Being in the driving seat is key there, otherwise it's going to happen to you anyway – in the wrong way, with the wrong people.' Public collections, he implied, will be lumbered with lesser works of minor artists from rapacious collectors – and will have to be grateful for it too.

STILL, IT WASN'T all funding cuts and collectors fleecing the nation – there was plenty of joy thanks to the art being loaned and the creative way it is going to be displayed.

One of the highlights will be works from the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo on show in Sheffield Cathedral, and I spoke to both Eugenio Re Rebaudengo and the Very Reverend Peter Bradley, dean of the cathedral, about their co-operation, as we all stood in front of a 17th-century Venetian wood carving, part of Nicolas Cattelain's collection.

Eugenio praised the dean's 'incredibly open mind', which is borne out in his willingness to have a Chapman Brothers sculpture installed in his cathedral. The work – 'Cyber Iconic Man' (pictured below) – features a mannequin hanging upside down while blood pours into a bucket from his Christ-like wounds.

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The piece, whose installation could be seen as childishly provocative, would in fact prompt visitors and churchgoers to a radical reconsideration of the violence of Christian imagery, the dean hoped. Christ on the cross, for example, has become 'over-familiar' as an image of brutality and has lost its original potency.

Moreover, he thought the Chapman Brothers' piece could lead to discussions of martyrdom and sanctuary, poignant since Sheffield was the first city, a decade ago, to declare itself 'a city of sanctuary', open to migrants and those seeking asylum.

Beyond the Chapmans, there will also be Dan Flavin's '”Monument” for V Tatlin', one of his most splendid and pure pieces; a Fiona Tan video of Saint Sebastian (pictured middle); and Duchamp's 'Boite-en-valise', a readymade.

The dean's eyes were fully open to the economic opportunities the whole Going Public project offered too: since Sheffield was so dependent on design and manufacturing, raising its artistic bona fides and integrating art into public life could make it a place where 'the artistic community has a direct impact on industry'.

If other cities in other regions are to see any of this impact work in their favour, they'll need to steel themselves and follow Sheffield's lead.

'Going Public: International Art Collectors in Sheffield' runs 16 September-12 December



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