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May 26, 2008 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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The Jim and Mary Barr Collection

The Jim Barr and Mary Barr Collection, part of City Gallery’s New Zealand programme for the International Arts Festival, opened on 23 February. The exhibition allows mere mortals an opportunity to view an extensive and unique private collection of work by both local and international artists. The collection raises the interesting issue of collecting visual art. Who should we be collecting? And why should we be?

Perhaps the best local example of great art collection is Jim and Mary Barr. What makes them privately collect, what drives them to do so? What inspires them to support artists instead of relying on the usual corporate and government spheres?

There is a good dose of both egotism and love of art in this collection. Attending a talk by Jim and Mary Barr offered insight into collecting, with a number of key variables being identified.

Firstly, ignore the critics. According to Jim Barr, if you were to collect everything Mark Amery (The Dominion Post art critic) liked there would not be a lot left.

Secondly, listen to who an artist peer group thinks is going to be a winner. Find out who they like, before investing in any work. Outside the realm of professional collecting, some of the best collections of art can be found amongst artist themselves who trade and swap their works on a regular basis. Take for example the Living Together: Works from Artists’ Collections exhibition, curated by Jessica Reid, held at the Michael- Hirschfeld-gallery in November 2007.

Thirdly, the collector needs to develop some sort of personal relationship with the work itself. Jim and Mary Barr initially shared stories about how they purchased the work and who from, where it was hung, where their thoughts were at the time and so forth, explaining that a work should invoke some sort of interaction rather than fitting in with the wall paper.

This may explain why Jim and Mary Barr are supporters of the likes of Ronnie van Hout. The collection shows a number of van Hout’s works which span his career after he obtained a Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Fine Arts Masters Degree. Ranging from ‘Muriwai 1972’, an acrylic on plaster diorama of Colin McCahon, to his more introspective works such as ‘I guess I lose’, a sculpture of Van Hout’s decapitated head with the speech bubble words of ‘I guess I lose’.

Finally, do not be put off by the materials that contemporary artists use as a barrier to collecting an artist’s work. Let the conservators worry about preservation, that’s their job.

Jim Barr and Mary Barr either loan to galleries or alternate their collections in their Wellington apartment, as they wish to have “as many people to share the pleasures we get from works in our collection.” Which can only be a good thing. The exhibition runs until 15 June.

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