Tate goes shopping at Frieze

“Can you paint a picture of the next five minutes of this, does it just go on and on?” asks Frances Morris, Tate curator, watching a film – a potential Tate purchase – at Frieze Art Fair. “Does the projector come with it? No? Oh that doubles the price.” Other comments flood in, then the wave of smart jackets, clicking heels, confiding voices, sweeps on to the next hopeful booth. “I find it really amusing, it makes me smile” (Candida Gertler, director, Outset Contemporary Art Fund). “We could show this in so many different contexts” (Ann Gallagher, curator, Tate). “Political, yes, but in a veiled way” (Adam Szymczyk, director, Basel Kunsthalle). “I’m just being a bit scathing . . . Enough!” (Nicholas Serota, director, Tate).

Every year, Tate goes shopping at Frieze. This week I trailed behind, eavesdropping, trying to grasp how our national collection is formed, what such acquisitions reveal about trends in taste and scholarship.

Tate’s budget, provided by the philanthropic Outset, is modest – £120,000. Millions of pounds worth of art is on sale in Regent’s Park. A committee – Serota, three Tate curators, two guests, this year Szymczyk and Bogotá-based curator José Roca – has a few hours before the fair opens to look, argue, negotiate prices, pare down a shortlist, buy. They must move fast but not impulsively – “we wouldn’t spend on an artist we knew nothing about, you can’t buy on spec,” says Morris. So they target – artists on their wish-list, geographic locations. The presence of Polish-born Szymczyk and Roca reflects Tate’s current preferred collecting areas – eastern Europe, Latin America.

“Our first priority is to acquire three major works by three women artists,” Serota announces. Outset can hardly believe its luck with Alina Szapocznikow’s “Tumour”, a wall-based polyester sculpture in toxic yellow, made in 1969 shortly before Szapocznikow died of cancer, and incorporating a crushed photographic self-portrait. Indisputably important, hauntingly caught between surrealism and pop, “Tumour” resonates with recent soaring interest in formal yet autobiographical work fixated on the body by women artists suchas Louise Bourgeois.

Szapocznikow, born in Poland in 1926 and a Bergen-Belsen survivor, was unknown half a decade ago; then her work was swept into the rising post-feminist market, and a transatlantic retrospective is now touring. “Almost every year we try to acquire a work and a private collector gets in first because they are so in demand and so rare,” says Serota. “But ‘Tumour’ is more raw and more affecting than ones we looked at before.” For Morris, the purchase – sweetened by a discount from the gallery, New York’s Broadway 1602 – is “a triumph”. Gertler names the piece her favourite in Frieze.

Still pushing at eastern Europe, the group lingers at Bucharest’s Andreiana Mihail gallery and at Berlin’s Galerie Barbara Weiss, where Romanian Geta Bratescu’s “The Gate”, a work collaged from fragments of the Larousse dictionary, iconic in Romania, makes it to the shortlist of 10. “We are conceiving a display in our heads as we are walking around,” muses Morris. “Szapocznikow is an obvious candidate for a mixed display.”

So, proposes Gallagher, is “Xilitla”, Melanie Smith’s single-channel video of British collector Edward James’s Mexican garden, first shown at this summer’s Venice Biennale, and here at Zurich’s Peter Kilchmann Galerie. Noting the upright projection – fashionable overnight thanks to Tacita Dean’s vertically orientated “FILM”, the latest Unilever commission to grace Tate’s Turbine Hall – everyone is drawn to this. Szymczyk notes “the idea of ruin and modernism”, Roca that it “also deals with symbols of nations”; Serota its “more than anecdotal interest to Tate”, which has many works from James’s surrealist collection.

Other film and video, much favoured Tate media, make the shortlist – one by Brazilian Tamar Gumaraes at Galeria Fortes Vilac, and Duncan Campbell’s absurdist abstract film about Sigmar Polke, at Hotel. But Smith’s British-Latin American connections are satisfying, and another discount is clinched. “Xilitla” strikes me as perfectly embodying convergences of history and the contemporary, local and international – dovetailings increasingly popular with collectors and curators.

“Do you like the contrast between our stand and the rest of the world?” laughs Joaquin Garcia Martin at Madrid’s Galeria Helga de Alvear. Outset does: this 40-year retrospective of Helena Almeida’s monochrome photographs and drawings referencing the human body – her own, discreetly transformed and abstracted – is of museum standard. A portfolio of 38 drawings, which Almeida nearly refused to include, is snapped up, also at a generous discount. Tate has long been seeking an Almeida photograph; this strengthens its hand, and is a terrific body of work – not just a single piece – with which to introduce the 77-year-old Portuguese artist to Britain.

In past years Outset purchases have sometimes been fashion-led, minor, bitty. This trio by contrast forms the strongest set of Frieze acquisitions since the scheme began, enhancing Tate’s holdings of women artists without sacrificing quality to any political agenda. Encore!

The 2011 Outset/Frieze Art Fair Fund to benefit the Tate Collection is organised and funded by Outset Contemporary Art Fund with support from Le Méridien Hotels & Resorts

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