«We strongly believe in the public sector». James and Claire Hyman and the brainstorming that stands for a contemporary collection in dialogue with a remote visitor
Lampoon interview: The Hyman Collection
Among your latest exhibitions, in 2020 you organized two exhibitions that are on at the moment at the Arnolfini, in Bristol: A Picture of Health. Women Photographers from The Hyman Collection, featuring works by Heather Agyepong and Joe Spence:From Fairy Tales to Phototherapy. Photographs from The Hyman Collection.
James Hyman: The exhibitions have to do with mental and physical health, in particular mental wellbeing. It’s a theme that now has a relevance because of the pandemic. An intersection between Claire’s interests and mine.
Claire Hyman: Taking the collection to museums isn’t just about taking it to their walls. Museums have become creative in the past few years, more so during the pandemic and lockdown. What they are trying to do is to take the works outside to the public through advertising or community projects. For example, in our case, with the Arnolfini exhibitions, we invited a group of people that have mental health issues to discus their life experiences with curators and critics. It’s about going out to people: as private collectors our aim is to reach out and engage with different communities.
JH: We collaborated with different mental health organizations and the show is curated by specialists who also lead workshops. This is how we think our collection can reach the communities: a kind of collaboration between different specialists and a dialogue with the viewers.
EP: The Hyman Collection is a private collection begun by James and Claire Hyman in 1996 that, today, consists of over three thousand artworks in different mediums, by female and male international artists from across the world. In the last fifteen years, the focus has been primarily on British photography. Over time the collectors decided to concentrate on Britain, in order to support and promote young and mid-career contemporary artists, especially women working with photography, while preserving the memory of elder photographers and raising awareness in the media in Britain and abroad. Through a series of acquisitions, commissions, loans, donations and grants, as well as philanthropic activities, such as research fellowships and partnerships with Universities and other art organizations, James and Claire Hyman seek to stimulate research and a critical debate on photography.
JH: We have been collecting since we met twenty-five years ago. My background has been in art history. I did a PhD in The Courtauld Institute of Art, London and taught there as a lecturer. I studied the art and politics of The Cold War, 1945-1960. At the time, in the Eighties and Nineties, I had the chance to actually meet British artists such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff – I was studying art but the makers of it were still around. That started to make me think of art, not only as something historical but also contemporary, as something that was going on around me.
CH: My training is not in art. I have been working as a specialist in oral surgery but I have been learning a lot as a collector.
JH: When we started it was mostly about paintings, sculpture and contemporary art. A standout moment was in 2010. I was at an art fair in Brussels and for the first time I saw the works of South African artist Zanele Muholi. Another South African artist was Athi-Patro Ruga, who works in tapestry and photography. Collecting work from the African continent would have been interesting, but then talking to people in England, I realized there were a lot of artists working with photography all around me that weren’t being given the status that they should have been. It was appropriate to collect what was around us.
How to start an art collection
EP: Do you have a fil rouge or a theme to explore through your collection?
JH: I suppose that up until 2010, we had collected nineteenth-century photography, twentieth-century Modernist photography, paintings and Chinese sculpture, such as Zhang Huan’s. In 2010 we saw the collection as a direction, and it was then that it became more about being focused on British photography.
CH: To start off with, you should start collecting what you like. As the collection grows, you then see what the gaps are in your collection, what you missed out, what you still have to include and what to focus on.
JH: For a collector in 2020, there were a lot of opportunities. Exploring on Instagram is a good way in. A lot of unknown, but also well-known, artists and photographers show and sell their works on it. It’s often very small prints but it’s an opportunity for collectors, at an entry level, to buy artworks at a lower price than if they went to art fairs. In the contemporary scene, whether it’s the artist or the dealer, there are many people that are eager to talk about their work, to communicate and educate, so there is plenty of information to start with. You refine your taste as soon as you start acquiring a few works and then you realize what you want to do with them. Do I like this picture? Can I afford it? Is there somewhere I can hang it? Which direction will the collection go in, the shape of it, whether there will be themes in it.
EP: In 2015 you launched the website www.britishphotography.org as an education resource.
JH: As a private collector, if you want the public to see the work and have access to what’s privately-owned, one way is to make it available online. What we did with our website is to try to put as much information online as possible: it might be an essay on a particular picture or a paper on a theme when we do our online exhibitions. It becomes a resource. The dilemma if you are a private collector is the balance between what is subjective and what seems to be an objective overview. We should ask ourselves: If people visit our website, are they getting an objective view of what British photography is? On one hand a private collection is subjective, but on the other hand it depends on our tastes, on what is on the market and on what is available. Every institution has a responsibility of what they are communicating to the public. The problem you have with photography is that when you see an image of a sculpture or a painting, you know that you are seeing a reproduction, whilst if you see a photograph on the internet, you think you have seen it, but you haven’t. You have seen a reproduction of it. With historical photographs, it matters on what paper it is printed, how it is printed, what size it is. These things make it an object and not just an image or an illustration. Photography has to overcome that barrier and we as collectors and educators have to remind people that it is a physical object.
EP: In 2018, you donated 125 photographs to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, US, and in 2019, one hundred photographs to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, UK.
JH: The reason we made it public through the website is that we started lending to museums and wanted to help curators to see the collection. What we want to do with the website, the donations and exhibitions is to support and promote British photography and help raise awareness, donating part of the collection to institutions. The reason we chose Yale and Bodleian Library is that they are not just museums but also research centers. By donating, we encourage the engagement with photography. We work to make the private collection public, to spread the word. Donating to America and Europe is also a way to legitimize British artists that seek approval outside the country.
CH: Donating abroad has been helpful for British artists. What we are doing, and our real motivation, is to spread the word, educate and try to get everyone involved in it.
JH: Whereas, in collaborations, what we find interesting is to see our collections through somebody else’s perspective, whether it is a curator or a critic. Curators often chose the subjects of the exhibitions and this makes us explore, in our minds, what the collection is about in a different way.
EP: In 2019, you commissioned visual artist, performer and actor, Heather Agyepong, to create the series Wish You Were Her (realized in 2020) that focuses on the work of Nineties American vaudeville performer, Aida Overton Walker, known as ‘The Queen of the Cakewalk’.
JH: Another aspect of our collection that came up in the Arnolfini exhibitions was: how many artists are referencing earlier works? Whether it is early historical figures or language or postcard or carte de visite – which is an interesting dialogue with the past that nowadays many museums have responded to. If you have a historical collection with historical photographs, for a lot of people it’s something they can’t engage with or find irrelevant to them. Artists like Heather Agyepong, insert themselves into that historical nature, making the viewer question himself, history and the way he looks at the past.
EP: In a world overwhelmed by images, what are your vision and hopes for the future of photography?
JH: Today, it’s harder than ever to be a photographer because it’s an immediate and easy medium. The conceptual side matters. Nowadays everyone can document their lives, but to have a project and a vision is harder. For example, artist Joe Spence, that we currently are showing at the Arnolfini, was documenting her life through what she called ‘phototherapy’. Performance and self-portrait was the heart of her work. She was doing this back in the Eighties and early Nineties, in a way that could be done on Instagram today. Yet one way of doing this is about how you construct your outside appearance, while the other has to do with what is inside. One can look back at some of these photographers and see the seeds of what is going on today. As collectors working with curators and critics in exhibitions, we need to question ourselves on what resonates with today’s viewer and what makes these historical photographs relevant today.
Dr. Claire Hyman
Claire is a Specialist in Oral Surgery. She qualified in dentistry from Manchester University in 1995 and went on to gain her Fellowship in Dentistry at The Royal College of Surgeons and Physicians of Glasgow in 1998. In 2000 Claire was accepted as a Specialist in Oral Surgery. She is an active member of the British Association of Oral Surgeons. For the past 16 years Claire has worked as an Oral Surgeon for the Royal Free NHS Trust.
Dr. James Hyman
James is an art historian and art dealer. He received his PhD from the Courtauld Institute (University of London) and is a leading authority on twentieth century British art, especially the painters of the ‘School of London’. His doctorate on the subject was published as The Battle for Realism. Figurative Art in Britain during the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2001). He is a trustee of the Robin and Inge Hyman Charitable Trust and of the Kraszna-Krausz Foundation.