A response in the Methodist Recorder

The Methodist Recorder of 2 June, 2017 carried the following enquiry -  I realise that art can be inspiring and I’ve fond memories of regularly going to the Royal Academy in London with a late friend. Nevertheless, could someone explain to me why there is a Methodist Collection of Modern Art? For I am surely not the only pew-goer who is puzzled as to why such a collection exists – TM. The Recorder kindly printed the following response in their 28 July edition -

In answer to TM’s question - Why is there a Methodist Modern Art Collection?:

For a primary response I can do no better than quote the words of the Secretary of Conference, The Revd Gareth Powell, words he kindly uses to endorse our presence on the Methodist Church website: ‘From the early Church to the present day, images have played a crucial role in the exploration of the Christian faith. The Methodist Modern Art Collection takes its place in this long tradition, providing an opportunity for new encounters, vibrant expressions of God's love, and a whole range of conversations about faith, Jesus and the human condition.’

So, how did it all come about? In the early 1960s John Morel Gibbs, a Methodist layman and art collector, keenly aware that Non-Conformists had little appreciation of the insights that contemporary artists could bring to the Christian story, decided to create a collection of original works that could be toured around the country. This he did with the help of a good friend and art-loving Methodist minister, the Revd Douglas Wollen. The vision and confidence they demonstrated at the time led to the acquisition of works that were to become the core of the present touring Collection.

The Collection includes leading names from the British art world of
the last 100 years, such as Edward Burra, Elisabeth Frink, Patrick Heron and Graham Sutherland. There is an international element as well. We have four works by French artists, two by an Australian and two by a Japanese hand. The Collection owned a painting, The Crucifixion, by Goan artist F.N. Souza thirty years before the Tate acquired its version in 1993. Incidentally, this same Souza painting will be on display at St. Paul’s Cathedral over the month of August as part of their programme of events commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Indian Independence.

The Collection is still expanding, with works by artists such as Craigie Aitchison, Peter Howson, Susie Hamilton, Clive Hicks-Jenkins and Maggi Hambling all added in the past decade. The entire Collection now comprises 54 paintings, prints, drawings, relief and mosaic works. It may be noted that, while support for the care and maintenance of the Collection comes from the Methodist Church itself, acquisitions have chiefly been made possible by funds from charitable sources.

As mentioned, the works, in whole or in part, are available as touring collection which travels widely, to town and city galleries, cathedrals, churches and schools, showing at some four to six venues a year. On an ecumenical basis, it has in recent times been seen to particularly good effect in the Cathedral cities of Lincoln and Salisbury and, as readers of the Recorder will recall, in October 2016 it was shown in the very fine surroundings of Bath Abbey. Within Methodism it has often been used to celebrate the refurbishment of a church building or to mark a new measure of engagement with the local community. Successful exhibitions have recently been held in Wrexham and Llandudno Methodist Churches: in one case in conjunction with the local University; in the other in partnership with the civic art gallery. The Collection has most recently been showing in West Sussex, at Haywards Heath Methodist Church, together with the town’s United Reformed Church.

When not on tour, the Collection is stored under the care of our custodian at the Oxford Centre for Methodism and ChurchHistory, at the Harcourt Hill Campus of Oxford Brookes University.

The artists represented in the Collection are an eclectic lot. Some are Christian (from various denominational backgrounds), others not, Thus they have widely differing perspectives on the Christian faith and story. A number of the works are, inevitably, rather challenging – as, of course, much of 20th & 21st Century contemporary art can seem – but they represent a determined and alternative attempt to comment on the Gospel stories. The paintings, prints and drawings speak to people in different ways – sometimes instantaneously, sometimes taking rather more time to implant that seed of understanding. For some people they will be seen as telling a familiar story in a rather different way, for others as being a resource for Mission, and for yet others - simply as a collection of fine, contemporary work or, as our somewhat over-worked strap-line would have it,  as  ‘The best denominational collection of modern religious art outside the Vatican.’

As our latest Annual Report states – ‘Many people encounter the Methodist Modern Art Collection via websites or in print, but it is through exhibitions that its principal work is carried out. At an exhibition, people can engage with the works at first hand; a very different experience from seeing reproductions. Although numbers are not everything, the year ending August 31, 2016 was a remarkable one, with over 30,000 folk seeing the Collection at the four venues at which it was on display.’

So, to summarize our response as to ‘Why there is a Methodist Modern Art Collection?’, I quote the open invitation extended by the Revd Beverley Ramsden, who co-ordinated the 2016 exhibition in St. John’s Methodist Church and the Mostyn Gallery, Llandudno –

‘Since 1866 St. John's Methodist Church has been offering a sacred space, to both residents and holiday-makers alike, at the heart of the beautiful seaside resort of Llandudno. In this our 150th anniversary year we are, as part of our celebrations, hosting the prestigious Methodist Modern Art Collection. The visual arts are an important telling of our spiritual lives, and artists have always been inspired by matters of faith. Modern artists are no different, but bring fresh perspectives to familiar and well-loved stories, challenging us to think differently about them and to respond in our own particular way. Do, please, come and experience this for yourselves’.

For details on the location of forthcoming exhibitions, for information on borrowing the Collection and to view a series of short videos as a record of the work of the Collection around the U.K., do please visit the Art Collection pages of the Methodist Church website (www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection, or simply search under ‘Methodist Art Collection’) where you can also find out how you can provide valuable support for our on-going work by joining the Friends of the Collection. The subscription income, together with the occasional generous donation from Friends’ sources, plays an important role in enabling us to keep these treasures in good order and the show on the road!

Bob Williams
Trustee of the Collection, Secretary to the Friends and Newsletter Editor