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'Imagining a University: Fifty Years of The University of Warwick Art Collection' on view at the Mead Gallery
Simon Patterson, Cosmic Wallpaper, 2002, digital wallpaper.

COVENTRY.- The fiftieth anniversary of the University of Warwick also marks the fiftieth anniversary of its Art Collection. Imagining a University examines how the ethos that shaped the University also influenced the development of the collection, featuring the work of over 60 artists including Hurvin Anderson, Claire Barclay, Jack Bush, Terry Frost, Tess Jaray, Patrick Heron, Richard Long, Melanie Manchot, Francis Morland, Yoko Ono, Eduardo Paolozzi, Fiona Rae, Ann Redpath, Lucie Rie and Andy Warhol.

The exhibition opens with the modernist utopia of the early University where the great, abstract ‘colourfield’ paintings were hung like flags for the new, egalitarian age. It looks at how prints were bought to respond to ideas of a community in the 1970s, humanising the campus. In the 1980s, both the University and the collection were rewired by a new phase of development that included the creation of the Mead Gallery, while at the millennium, commissions sought to redefine public art in the context of a university. In the twenty-first century, the University Art Collection has many roles: delivering teaching, learning and research; introducing thousands of children and their families to the University; providing work experience for students and opportunities for artists; developing a sense of place and identity for the campus; initiating and extending discussions with its audiences.

Fifty years ago, a generation of university staff and architects had the opportunity not only to imagine what a new university could be, but to build it. These new utopias were designed for a new generation of students who, armed with student grants, came from a wide variety of social backgrounds.

From the outset, art was intrinsic to The University of Warwick campus. Its founding architect, Eugene Rosenberg had trained with Le Corbusier in Paris. He conceived not only modernist buildings, characterised by white tiles and ribbons of windows, but copper light fittings, chrome and rosewood tables, teak chairs by the Danish designer Fritz Hansen and huge colourfield abstract paintings, hung in the bright spaces of the buildings.

In the 1970s the abstraction of American artists Jack Bush and Gene Davies and of British artists Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, John Hoyland and Tess Jaray gave way to a low budget, determined acquisition of prints that populated corridors and seminar rooms. Works by artists including Peter Blake, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono and Bridget Riley started to moderate Rosenberg’s vision of the institution, reinforced by a more domestic style of red brick, white balconied buildings for the Social Sciences faculty.

The 1980s saw a rewiring of both the Art Collection and the University as publicly funded institutions came under greater scrutiny. The Mead Gallery opened in 1986 and its curator, Katharine Eustace, began a programme of identifying and cataloguing the collection. The exhibition programme provided an impetus for acquisitions and, in particular, works that articulated a more conceptual approach to the landscape.

In the 1990s, the experimental Special Collections Scheme, managed through the Contemporary Art Society and supported by Arts Council England Lottery saw the commission of major works for new buildings including Everything , a poured painting by Ian Davenport, 9 metres high and 12 metres wide, that references the earlier colourfield paintings.

Today the collection numbers over 900 works of art and is used in teaching and research. Some works are research outputs themselves. It is visited by hundreds of school children each year who follow the sculpture and colour trails, by families who participate in workshops and by visitors who navigate their own preferences through the Art Collection App or the audio trail.

The Art Collection is a critical mass; from it new resources are developed, new audiences reached and new ideas ignited. It can serve a wide range of changing policies and purposes but, in itself, remains open: to be developed, interpreted and seen anew by the next generation.

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