The New Hall Art Collection has long been a hidden gem of Cambridge’s contemporary art scene, but now it’s stepping into the limelight to reach a wider audience than ever before, finds Alex Fice
The so-called ‘town and gown’ divide is present in most university cities, but in Cambridge it’s especially palpable. You may be surprised to discover, however, that the key to unlocking the door between these two worlds is within your grasp – you just have to know where to look.
Though some college gates are notoriously firmly shut to the public, the doors of Murray Edwards College are open and ready to welcome visitors to see a very special display. The New Hall Art Collection – which recalls the college’s original name – is Europe’s largest collection of work by women artists, featuring luminaries such as Paula Rego, Maggi Hambling, Barbara Hepworth and Lubaina Himid.
Rejecting convention, the artworks are housed not in a single gallery space, but positioned throughout the college halls, and the backdrop – the buildings of Murray Edwards College – constitute an artwork in their own right. They were designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon in the 60s as a ‘manifesto for the education of women’, building the idea of female empowerment into the very bricks and mortar of this institution – Cambridge University’s third women-only college.
How the artworks are curated is fundamental to the experience for visitors and resident students of the college, says assistant curator Naomi Polonsky, who undertook an important rehang of the works during the pandemic with head curator Harriet Loffler.
“Our doors were closed and our programming was on hold, so we had the time to properly consider how to curate the spaces,” she says. “We have highlighted key works from the Collection by artists such as Alexis Hunter and Chantal Joffe, and created an archival display with documents important to the founding of the Collection. One of the central walkways is dedicated to works of portraiture and self-portraiture, while the bar area is curated as a ‘constellation’ around Rose Wylie’s atmospheric Billie Piper (A Combo Painting).”
The pandemic deprived us of encounters with art and made everyone consider the significance of the arts and their value in our lives – something which has led to a swell of support, says Naomi.
“When museums and galleries started to reopen, we received lots of messages from people asking when we would be open to the public again, which I think shows the Collection’s importance to people – locals and visitors, as well as students at Murray Edwards.
“In times of crisis, people always flock to see art as a way of seeking comfort and making sense of the world. One of the tragedies of the pandemic is that art was inaccessible to people, unless it was on their sitting room walls or computer screens. I’m so glad that we’re now able to be a place for people to come together and experience art again.”
As museums and galleries around the world steer their way through challenging times, an important aim for Harriet and Naomi is to grow a wider awareness of the Collection. A big breakthrough in this regard has been the opportunity to participate in the London Art Fair, from 19-23 January, as the Fair’s official museum partner. The collaboration will ensure that the New Hall Art Collection reaches a greater audience, putting it firmly on the map – not just in Cambridge, but on the global stage.
“We are delighted to be the London Art Fair’s museum partner this year, and showcase works from the Collection to new audiences,” enthuses Naomi. “Our display focuses on the themes of myth-making and self-fashioning, and features works by over 20 artists, including Maggi Hambling, Miriam Schapiro and Tracey Emin. The pieces in the exhibit – which include paintings, photographs, prints, textiles and ceramics – engage in evocative storytelling and play with traditional notions of femininity.”
Throughout 2022, Murray Edwards College will also be hosting the temporary exhibition What Lies Beneath: Women, Politics, Textiles from February to August. The display will explore how, in the last few decades, women artists have employed and experimented with craft practices – making powerful statements about gender, race, class and their place in the world. “We will also be staging performances by the artists Emily Perry and Linda Karshan, so there is lots to look forward to!”
For more information, please visit New Hall Art Collection’s website.