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The Art Fund has announced they are committing £5m to a new scheme aimed at developing collections of international Contemporary art in regional UK museums and galleries.

Inspiration for the initiative titled Art Fund International came in 2003 during preparations for the Art Fund’s centenary exhibition when the UK’s biggest independent art funding charity reviewed the 850,000 works acquired by British institutions in the previous century to which they had contributed. The list, seriously short of works by non-British artists, highlighted the lessons of the 20th century when UK museums largely failed to acquire the art of European and American masters.

“It’s a desert out there. If you wander around regional museums and galleries you get the sense that nothing exists outside of these islands,” said Art Fund director David Barrie.

Exceptions to this tend to be concentrated in national institutions in Edinburgh and London, hence the decision to deem ‘regional’ in this instance as anywhere outside of the two capital cities.

Following on from the centenary revelations, the charity conducted consultations with over 50 professionals in the Contemporary art sector, which highlighted the need for exhibition space and funding. Digging into their reserve funds for the new initiative (that will run alongside their regular grant-giving programme), the £5m will be rolled out over a five-year period following a two-part application process.

Accredited museums or galleries who wish to work in a partnership with at least one other organisation with expertise in Contemporary art are being asked to submit a 1000-word proposal of interest by June 22. Short-listed applicants will then be asked to submit formal bids. Up to five successful candidates will be announced in November.

The initiative was announced against the symbolic backdrop of the African Galleries at the British Museum, home to Man’s Cloth, an imposing hanging work by contemporary Ghanaian artist El Anatsui (b.1944) that The Art Fund presented to the museum in 2002. Such material represents the kind of cultural diversity that Art Fund International aims to promote. Although proposed acquisitions can be in any media from any part of the world, the aim is to highlight non-Western traditions.

“We are not ruling out Western artists but we are looking for work that plainly represents a non-British tradition. It would be wonderful if there were a selection of sub-Saharan African, Indian and Islamic works,” said Mr Barrie.

Last October the Art Fund published a report that said museums were so strapped for cash when it comes to buying works of art that now only one in 50 consider adding to their collections as a top priority.

The Collecting Challenge said rising prices and a severe lack of funding threaten the whole future of public collecting in the UK.

By Stephanie Harris