On the eve of this year’s COLLECT: The International Art Fair for Contemporary Objects, 16 curators from around the UK are gearing up to convince a panel of expert judges that they should be given the funds to purchase a new piece of work for their collections.

Opening on Friday 10 May at the Saatchi Gallery, COLLECT gives individuals and craft-collecting institutions the chance to view the best of modern-day practice, but also sees the Art Fund Collect scheme come to a head. Museums and galleries across the UK have been encouraged to apply, with 12 shortlisted for a chance to receive part of a £75,000 pot for new acquisitions. The result of a partnership between the Crafts Council and the Art Fund, the initiative has seen 27 pieces of work head into public collections since its inception in 2008, contributing £350,000 towards the acquisition of work.

Shortlisted curators from organisations as diverse in scale as the British Museum and Cumbria’s Lakeland Arts Trust are out to convince judges that their rationale for purchasing a piece from one of the galleries exhibiting at COLLECT. Among those they will need to convince are Art Fund Director Stephen Deuchar and former Chairman of the Crafts Council and Art Fund, Sir Nicholas Goodison.

Thoughts of a Dragons’ Den-style grilling come to mind and, although the curators will feel the pressure of the task ahead, judging panellist and Executive Director of the Crafts Council Rosy Greenlees suggests that taking part is as important as winning.

“Art Fund Collect is a process that asks curators to not just focus on the selection of a piece of work, but how it will fit into their collection,” she explains. “We aim to develop the curator’s way of thinking and develop their expertise, asking applicants to tell us how they intend to go through the process of selecting a piece of work, rather than just what they want to buy.

“At the end of it they will be asked pertinent and probing questions by some important people, so even if they are not successful, they have experienced a thorough, robust process. It’s a professional development opportunity.”

National crafts ecology

Greenlees describes Art Fund Collect, now in its final year, as something that developed due to the small numbers of applications coming through the Art Fund for craft objects. Inspired by similarly successful schemes funded by the National Lottery a decade ago, which saw craft items make their way into public collections, the scheme has sought to strengthen the national crafts ecology. That both large and small organisations can apply to secure a significant new acquisition is something both the judges and applicants see as a major strength.

“It creates a level playing field,” says Yvonne Hardman, Gallery Officer at Touchstones Rochdale, who came away from COLLECT in 2012 with a new piece that has rapidly become a focal point for the Greater Manchester gallery’s collection. Super Jumbo Nigella, Wave, by Japanese artist Junko Mori, now resides in Rochdale thanks to Art Fund Collect. And although Hardman felt the pressure of meeting the judges – as well as meeting the rising expectations of the local press who followed her attempt to ‘slay the dragons’ – it’s an experience she still savours.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to be able to buy something that we’d otherwise have to do a lot of fundraising for. Junko’s was the best piece at the fair and it really is a significant addition to our collection. I feel enormously proud to have been through the process and to have succeeded, especially when we were up against so many bigger organisations. It makes you realise that you can operate on a national level.”

Touchstones purchased Mori’s work from London’s Adrian Sassoon gallery, who will once again be at COLLECT this year, alongside more than 30 domestic and international exhibitors including Japan’s Yufuku Gallery, China’s Hanart TZ Gallery and blås&knåda from Sweden. For Greenlees and the Crafts Council, COLLECT is an increasingly successful focal point for the evaluation of contemporary practice and the sale of new work.

“COLLECT is about developing a private market, but also encouraging acquisition through public collections,” she says. “It’s very important to recognise that these are museum quality objects and we want to promote that way of thinking.”

COLLECT is at the Saatchi Gallery, London, 10-13 May 2013. www.craftscouncil.org.uk/collect
The winners of this year’s Art Fund Collect will be announced on 11 May.