Between poles and tides, Kate V Robertson: Object (hood), Michael Barr: HOSTIPITALIDADE and The Torrie Collection, all coming to a close this week, have each used, appropriated and explored various facets of the University of Edinburgh’s art collection.

We spoke to Edinburgh University’s Art Collections Curator Neil Lebeter to understand the process behind building a public facing, contemporary, university collection.


The ECA final year degree show happens every summer, around the beginning of June. This is an opportunity for graduating art and design students to show case their new work, often as an amalgamation of their research and practice throughout their degree.

It is also an opportunity to get their name and practice recognised and to (hopefully) sell a few pieces. Since Edinburgh University began building a contemporary art collection, the degree show has been the first port of a call when purchasing new artworks.

Each year, a group of four to five academics attend the degree show in the hopes of scouting out exactly what they need to build upon and diversify the growing collection. This group of individuals includes both Neil Lebeter and the academic honorary curator, Gordon Brennan ever year, after that a selection of academics from across disciplines are asked to attend to help decide which artists to pick.


Make sure to buy some art while you’re there! This is one of the most important parts of keeping a contemporary collection up to date and relevant within the world of contemporary art. With such a vast array of graduate’s work to choose from it is important to select what works together to form a sound collection:

“The thing I want to avoid, is an example collection… one thing from sculpture, one thing from painting, [we’re] not just ticking boxes, it needs to have a coherence to it”

Once the artists and their artwork have been selected, they’re approached to accept an offer of a Purchase Prize. This can be a tough decision for some artists as a private collector could offer a more substantial amount of money upfront. However, the chance to be a part of the University collection can offer visibility to early career artists, promoting some positive long-term benefits.


Once the offers are accepted and the art is officially a part of the collection, it is now time to decide where it is best placed within the University and beyond. Being a city campus with plenty of public space, the University of Edinburgh itself is as good a place as any to display some of the newly acquired art.

Students wandering through the various buildings of the university can easily spot select works from last year’s ECA degree show, as most are dotted around campus.

“The collections generally have a working life and an exhibition life, especially with oil paintings, oil paint is more robust as a material, we don’t have very many oil paintings in storage, as they’re all out on campus, it does present quite a challenge in keeping track of where they all are”

Of course, another space within the University playing host to many of the artworks in the collection is Talbot Rice Gallery. The gallery has hosted a great number of works from the collection over the years; it is an ideal location to provide antiquated pieces of art with a new, contemporary dialogue. TRG3 has recently seen artists Michael Barr and Kate Robertson explore the collections archive in order to create their exhibitions, while Between poles and tides displays new acquisitions from the collection concerning themes of cosmology, politics and Deep Time


The works from the collection would be useless kept in storerooms, away from the public eye. An important, but challenging aspect of curating the collection is to make sure that it is being used to the best of its ability. Like any collection, one of its primary jobs is to go on loan to institutions around the UK and abroad.

“We’ve sent works all over the world and we’re very supportive of loans, most institutions are because it’s good promotion for the collection, and then people get to see Edinburgh University art collection”

“The university was founded on this kind of municipal responsibility; it was significant even in the foundation of the institution that this was the city’s university. I think you just take that same principal now that the university is global to think along the same lines”

Going beyond Edinburgh is of vital importance if the artists and their artworks are to be recognised on a global scale.


In a time when local and international art institutions are facing ever-stricter funding cuts, entities such as the universities contemporary collection play a vital role in the future fabric of the art world.

“Institutions like higher education institutions hold public collections like any other public institution does, these aren’t our collections, we hold them on behalf of the people they represent, like the students and staff and for this university, the general public, because we’re publicly funded like anyone else is. So, at this time if we’re able to collect then we should do everything we can to make sure the collection is good, coherent and is for everyone, not just for us”

As well as thinking in terms of an artistic service, the collection team also look to further develop and enhance the process of building the collection. Over the next 5 years, the contemporary collection aims to include researched-based collecting from ECA academics as well as physical artworks from students…

“We’re working with Kirsten Lloyd, and collecting around her research, so socially engaged practice, loosely based around globalisation after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So again, this will be a part of the collection which is used and accessed by everyone, but with something like that; the purpose is for research and teaching”


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