Ben Uri Gallery and Museum: The evolution of a force for good
Ever since the foundation of its original incarnation as the Ben Uri Art Society in Whitechapel, east London in 1915, the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum has had an enduring impact on the capital’s cultural scene. The motivation of the founders was to help Jewish immigrants get a foothold in London’s art world, and the institution has since evolved to incorporate the wider, diverse immigrant artist experience in Britain. Over the course of the intervening century, the gallery has been relocated, first to Holborn, then Soho, before moving to its current address at 108a Boundary Road in St John’s Wood in 2002, following a five-year hiatus. For some 15 years afterwards, Ben Uri’s governing board sought to secure a larger, more central venue that would enable the full extent of their collection to be displayed. Despite their efforts, those hopes would be dashed, leading to a change of strategy.
David Glasser, the chair of the trustees (who has just relinquished the role of director) and Sarah MacDougall (his successor, previously head of collections and the Ben Uri Research Unit) agreed to an interview with The Upcoming to discuss the organisation’s evolution over the last few years.
In September, having changed its focus, the Ben Uri launched “the first fully virtual museum of its kind in the world.” Glasser admits that digitisation was not the museum’s first choice, and outlined its original ambitions to create “almost a national museum of art… [of] meaningful size [with] a view on the immigrant contribution.” He and the Ben Uri board had architects involved in three potential buildings over 15 years in their bid to find a location to represent “a secure future for this institution that actually delivered, we call it, public benefit.”
Glasser had what he describes as a lightbulb moment in 2015, when Sarah MacDougall and her colleagues created a major exhibition held at Somerset House to celebrate Ben Uri’s centenary. Entitled Out of Chaos, it proved an enormous hit with the public. 2015 was a year marked by the devastating effects of a refugee crisis, and the display of émigré artists, including work by an Ethiopian, had an emotive impact on many visitors. It also convinced Glasser and his team that their decision to expand the collection to reflect the overall migrant reality was the right one. However, the National Lottery’s provision of £400,000 funding for the exhibition only brought to the fore the fact that the generosity of Ben Uri Gallery and Museum’s donors far from matched soaring property prices in London.
In the aftermath of the Somerset House exhibition, Ben Uri’s trustees and senior management went back to the drawing board, concluding that “the future might be best secured in a merger with a university that didn’t have as good, or as interesting a collection as ours.” An agreement was reached with the University of East Anglia, custodian of the remarkable Sainsbury Collection – and it would have seen half the Ben Uri collection absorbed as a complement to theirs, together with the research centre and also possibly the wellbeing programme, but unfortunately it collapsed due to lack of support from an important stakeholder at the university.
Following this disappointing turn of events, David Glasser urged the board to consider a fresh approach in the search for a solution that would ensure Ben Uri would survive and prosper. They resigned themselves to the fact that plans to secure a large building to house the collection were failing to bear fruit, and it was agreed that their location, somewhat off the beaten track in north London, meant they could only attract the volume of visitors they were hoping for by digital means.
In 2018, the senior management decided to redefine their collection practices and recategorise by recognising the pre-eminent works separately from the core, while deaccessioning others that were surplus (either being far from the best examples available or repetitive and rarely exhibited). That year, the gallery sold a number of pieces at Sotheby’s to fund their new direction, prompting several top advisors, including Sir Nicholas Serota, chair of Arts Council England, to resign. Glasser responds stoutly to questions about the repercussions of the decision, asserting that he and the charity’s trustees had to fulfil their legal obligation to always act in the best interests of the charity. Withdrawing the works when no alternative financing was available would have been in breach of that duty, and the trustees were unanimously unprepared to jeopardise the institution’s future in favour of the retention of works generally unseen by the public.
The Ben Uri has invested the funds generated into its redevelopment, taking on four new members of staff and creating what Glasser refers to as “a new Ben Uri for a new century.” They are proud of the research centre, led by Sarah MacDougall, which highlights the role and contribution of the immigrant community in this country. The team have managed to broaden the context of their collection with the acquisition of works by the likes of Kurt Schwitters, a German, non-Jewish artist who spent the last few years of his life in London and the Lake District. The gallery have also recently bought a major work by Scottish painter Peter Howson from a series on the Holocaust. Such acquisitions have embellished a collection already reshaped by works such as The Handmade Map of the World by the Dominican-British artist Tam Joseph.
Director Sarah MacDougall’s Ben Uri Research Unit has an evolving database, which records Jewish and immigrant contributions to the British visual arts, including artists together with gallerists, art historians, art restorers and collectors. She explains her research team uncover stories such as the women from Australia and New Zealand, who came to the UK in the 20th century for artistic training due to a lack of opportunity available at the time back home. Several of these narratives have prompted online exhibitions, a recent example considering the work of Indian artists to mark the anniversary of Indian independence. Entitled Midnight’s Family and curated by Rachel Dickson (senior research manager at Ben Uri), the exhibition was held to coincide with the end of British colonial rule in India, declared at midnight on 15th August 1947. It received wide coverage in the Indian press – indeed, during that period 5% of Ben Uri’s Google analytics were from India. The Gallery and Museum created three online platforms for Midnight’s Family: the classic exhibition format, a 3D format and the exhibition’s catalogue, the latter being accessible via the Issuu electronic publishing platform. Dickson worked alongside an eminent Courtauld Institute academic in the dissemination of the event.
MacDougall describes how Ben Uri’s digital platform extends the gallery’s reach internationally. In fact, 15% of the current benuri.org visitors are from outside the UK, with immediate access to over 40 exhibitions, 100 films and 200 school programmes, all of which are fully searchable. The archive goes back to 1925, and, though some aspects remain closed, works that haven’t been added to the virtual platform can be viewed by appointment at the gallery. Upstairs at 108a Boundary Road there will continue to be a major exhibition every year, the next on Gustav Metzger (an immigrant Jewish artist who came to Britain as part of the Refugee Children Movement in 1939), which will take place in May 2021. It will be made available online to those unable to visit in person.
David Glasser spoke with evident passion and pride about Ben Uri’s Arts and Health programme and the pioneering research they have put into the development of this side of the organisation. There are three divisions to their Arts and Health programme: the first, Starting with Art, organises placements for art therapy students in residential homes for the elderly, where they use 30 of the collection’s most stimulating and engaging art works; the second, Ways into Art, is a public programme that uses the 30 pieces in a digital format; the third, Art in Residence, involves explorative research into the challenges faced by people living with dementia. Professor Michael Baum of University College London has been working closely with Ben Uri to help formulate a programme that can be scientifically proven to benefit sufferers of dementia or social isolation. For the last three years, the department has been involved with the Nightingale House care home, to whom they have loaned a large work by Solomon J Solomon, a Jewish-British painter and one time member of the Royal Academy. Of course, more recently, the devastating effect of Covid on care homes has forced Glasser and Arts and Health programme manager Emma Hollamby to reassess and transform these wellbeing programmes. Their translation into a new and more broadly available digital format is a work in progress.
Glasser is adamant that, in all likelihood, the pandemic would have dealt a hammer blow to Ben Uri, had the decision not been taken to restructure the institution. He and MacDougall remain proud of the museum and gallery’s Jewish heritage, both determined to steer their ship towards an increasingly diverse, largely virtual future, transcending ethnic and religious barriers.
For further information about the Ben Uri Gallery and Museum visit here.