Collector Chris Ingram on why philanthropists need to step up to support UK galleries
The generally diplomatic British art collector and businessman Chris Ingram, 80, sees no reason to hold back his views on some fellow art-buyers. “The biggest change in the market has been the number of billionaire so-called collectors who are buying art, putting it into freeports and not even looking at it,” he declares over lunch in London.
A major collector of Modern British art since selling his media-buying business two decades ago, Ingram’s credo is clear. “I like the collection to be seen,” he says. It’s not just warm words: in the past financial year, 73 per cent of the 400-plus works in the core collection were on public display, while the contemporary and outsider-art collection of nearly 200 works also travels widely. Since he suffered a stroke in 2016, limiting movement on his right-hand side, art has offered Ingram a distinct motivation. “In a way, it’s kept me going,” he says.
Unlike many of his collector counterparts, he says he was never tempted to have a private museum for his holdings. “People would have to go there, to one place, whereas I’m sending art out to them,” he says.
As a result, Ingram’s works have adorned some surprising venues recently, ranging from The Clink prisoner rehabilitation restaurants at HMPs Styal and High Down to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s Barbara Hepworth retrospective last year. Works from the Ingram Collection are also frequently on display at The Lightbox gallery and museum in Woking, the Surrey suburban town where Ingram grew up, and an institution that he has long supported.
Ingram notes that as well as skewing the display of art, the new money in the market has also “upset its value”. There is, he says, “no difference to these buyers, whether they get something at say £60,000 or £80,000, so the rest of us fall back” when bidding. The impact, it must be said, is not all bad news for Ingram, whose first purchases of Modern British art were made when prices reflected the category’s unfashionable status.
He is reluctant to give the current value for the whole collection, as it isn’t for sale, preferring to focus on what it does, though a trustees’ report put it at more than £10mn in 2021. He is prepared to highlight some individual pieces whose values have grown over time. In 2002, Ingram bought a 1965 Hepworth oil and pencil work for £14,000, now valued for insurance at £180,000. In the same year, he purchased an Elisabeth Frink Riace warrior sculpture for £40,000, and notes that a work from the same series, “Riace II” (1986), sold publicly for £230,000 in 2008. Work by Frink, who runs deep in the Ingram Collection, has since made more than £1mn at auction.
Ingram is not a straightforward interviewee — he keeps me on my toes by frequently answering questions with a follow-up question or two. It seems part of his inbuilt instinct to challenge the status quo. Curator and art adviser Jo Baring, who is director of the Ingram Collection, recalls that in the early days, “I would often tell Chris that ‘in the art world, we work like this’ and he would answer, ‘Well, why?’”
It perhaps explains why he seems just as comfortable branching out from Modern British and into the contemporary realm. “Supporting the current generation is a natural adjustment,” he says. He sees his role as partly educational in a world unfamiliar with business practices. Already a regular at degree shows, Ingram noticed how uncomfortable young artists were when it came to selling their works. “Many didn’t know how to invoice me,” he says.
This observation contributed to the thinking behind the Ingram prize, a free-to-enter competition for UK-educated artists at the start of their careers, launched in 2016; its 32 shortlisted artists are on view this week at Cromwell Place. The shortlisted works are in a range of media: as well as paintings, there are films, sculptures and installations with materials that include recycled sari silk and St John’s wort seeds.
Winners’ work is bought for the Ingram Collection while all of the shortlisted artists are offered ongoing support, including a professional development day that covers areas such as copyrighting, applying for residencies and, of course, invoicing. The prize, whose previous winners include Sin Wai Kin (nominated for last year’s Turner Prize), had its highest number of entries this year, Baring says.
Also this month, works from the Ingram Collection are on loan to venues ranging from Woking coroner’s court — 16 works including a 1990 lithograph by Elisabeth Frink — to Brasenose College, Oxford — 24 pieces, including David Hockney’s etching and aquatint “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean” (1962). The collection has joined forces with the Women’s Art Collection for the exhibition Women & Water, featuring work by artists including Frink and Tracey Emin (Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, until February 25). Ingram and Baring are still buying, including opportunities that fill any gaps in the Modern British holdings. The future of his collection is squarely with the nation, Ingram says. “There’s nothing for my children and grandchildren to fight over,” he semi-jokes.
He is conscious that it isn’t just artists who need support now. “It is very saddening that councils are pulling out of local museums,” he says. The Lightbox is one of the latest to face an uncertain future as Woking borough council has proposed stopping all funding for arts and culture as part of a £12mn cut to local services. Ingram confesses he is “confused” by the UK government’s policy towards culture, including severe cuts in London, but lays some of the responsibility at the foot of private individuals. He questions once again: “Where are all the others who could make sure their collections are seen by all and sundry?”