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Acquisition policies

How do institutions like museums decide what type of art they should buy? In this article, Dr Maddie Boden delves into acquisition policies.
A photograph of a woman reading a book on a chair in a library
© University of York

We’ve covered how the University can buy art, but there’s another question we haven’t answered yet. What rules does the University follow to make decisions about buying art?

While it might not seem obvious, this is an important issue: how does an institution shape and grow their art collection? Collections should be unique, but also have a recognisable identity. To achieve this, museums and other institutions need to carefully consider what type of art they add to their collection.

To help them make these complicated decisions, many collections have acquisition policies, a set of written guidelines for buying art.

These policies exist for several reasons.

Firstly, if the collection is a public body – funded through the government like a national or state museum – their purchases need to be transparent and accessible to the taxpayer (who’s technically paying for the art!). They have to disclose how much money they spend on new acquisitions. Policies can include rules about where collections can buy art. This avoids any dubious sellers who might be trying to sell stolen or forged artworks!

Secondly, an acquisition policy gives continuity to a collection. The policy will lay out themes such as ‘Twentieth Century British Sculpture’ or ‘American Abstract Expressionism’ and these themes will guide future purchases. Here’s an example from the Arts Council England Collection acquisition policy:

The Arts Council Collection is responsive to developments in contemporary art and through the acquisition process aims to represent them and to support emerging British artists.
Arts Council Collection acquisitions are for the benefit of the public through the Collection’s function as a contemporary loan collection. Only the best work by post-war and contemporary artists working in the United Kingdom will be acquired.

Finally, acquisition policies rely on expertise. Collections rely on art historians, curators and other art world experts to consult on new purchases. This involves discussion and collaboration. Importantly, research conducted by art historians can shed light on gaps or absences in certain collections. This was the case when the Tate Museums updated their gallery spaces and acquisitions policy to prioritise buying work by women and artists of colour.

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The University of York currently does not have an acquisition policy for their art collection. However, they are currently developing one, in addition to hiring a full-time curator to look after the art collection. Imagine that you’re applying for that role. What do you think would be important to include in the acquisition policy? Think back to some of the questions we’ve asked you in previous activities: Should the University acquire work by Yorkshire-born sculptors? Or, should the University consult students before buying a new artwork?

© University of York
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