The Hyman Collection donates 125 photographs to Yale Center for British Art

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London-based collectors Claire and James Hyman have donated 125 photographs to the Yale Center for British Art, gifting key works by leading figures in British photographic history – including Bill Brandt, Bert Hardy, Roger Mayne, Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Anna Fox, and Jo Spence – to the 44-year-old institution in New Haven in the US.

It’s a move that could be interpreted as a damning indictment of UK institutions’ commitment to collecting British photography – particularly as, the last time BJP caught up with James Hyman (our May 2015 issue), he said building such collections has been “left to private individuals, and it shouldn’t have been”. In the same interview Hyman also singled out Birmingham Library and its curator of photography collections Peter James for praise – yet in the intervening time, both the photography archive and James’ job have fallen victim to funding cuts.

But Hyman says the donation should be viewed in a positive light as evidence of the growing interest in British photography abroad – an interest which may spark more commitment in the UK. “Hopefully Yale’s engagement will raise the international profile of British photography and, in doing so, will make us think about it more at home,” he told BJP.  “It is a positive move that a number of US institutions are now showing proper interest in British photography, and sometimes to get Britain to appreciate what’s going on at home we need accolades in the States.”

The donation has added a number of names to the Yale Center’s collection – such as Bert Hardy, Roger Mayne, Anna Fox, Fay Godwin, John Blakemore, and Colin Jones – and the institution has now employed an assistant curator of photography, Chitra Ramalingam. The Yale Center hopes “to build its photography collection in innovative ways that reflect not only the multifaceted nature of photography as a practice but also the complexity of Britishness at this moment in history,” says Ramalingam

She added: “The photographs included in the Hymans’ gift compel us to examine both these questions, as the Center launches research projects and exhibitions that deepen our understanding of the material, aesthetic, and social history of photography.”

Hampshire Village Pram Race © Anna Fox

“We are deeply grateful to the Hymans for advancing the Center’s collection of modern and contemporary British photographs. Their magnificent gift includes works by many notable practitioners new to the institution’s holdings,” said the Center’s director, Amy Meyers. “Their generosity comes at an opportune moment, since we have begun to develop our collection of photographs both actively and strategically to represent the wide breath of the medium, as well as its historical and social significance to British culture.”

The Yale Center for British Art is a public art museum and research institute that houses the largest collection of British art outside the UK. Presented to the university by Paul Mellon, the collection reflects the development of British art and culture from the Elizabethan period onward and includes more than 2000 paintings, 250 sculptures, 20,000 drawings and watercolours, 35,000 rare books and manuscripts and 6000 photographs. The institution has “made a firm commitment to expand the breadth and depth of its holdings” in photography over the last decade, according to its press material, “with works that range from early photographic experiments to contemporary innovations with the medium”.

The Center reopened to the public in May 2016 following a large project to conserve its Louis Kahn-designed building; an exhibition of the Hymans’ donation is now on show there until 29 March. “It is a step in the right direction,” observes Hyman. “Photography is so accessible to younger audiences, who maybe have an affinity for it. Museums are all recognising that photography is a good draw – this is good for Yale, and hopefully good for British photography too.”

Claire and James Hyman started their collection in 1996 and, while it includes artworks in all media, they have increasingly focused on British photography over the last decade. The Hyman Collection includes nearly 3000 artworks and covers both conceptual and documentary photographs – for example it includes the biggest collection of Bill Brandt’s work in the UK. It’s open to researchers and collectors by appointment, and also seeks to “support and promote British photography through acquisitions and loans”.

In 2015 it launched the website, which aims to be both an educational resource in its own right and an online guide to the collection. “Once the images are on the website it’s very easy for curators to see what we have, and everything is properly catalogued and mounted,” says Hyman. “We have made life very easy [for curators who want to borrow works]. It’s not an obscure private collection.

“In the last 18 months we have committed to lend around 100 pictures for shows in the United States, Germany, Spain, across the UK and so on. Prints from the collection are currently on show in the Towner Art Gallery [in the show A Green and Pleasant Land – British Landscape and the Imagination: 1970s to Now] and are coming up at the Museum of London. We have lent all over the place, so the work is getting out there.”

Gypsies by Jo Spence

Hyman is currently unable to show work in his own gallery though because, while he continues to work as a dealer, he closed his Mayfair space last summer. “Our rent nearly doubled. It is extraordinary how fast rents have gone up, and by how much,” he tells BJP. “Central London is very difficult now. So this year we’re at AIPAD, Photo London, Paris Photo and working with private collectors, but without a gallery space. We will review the situation in due course.

“I’m not sure what I will do,” he continues. “It gives freedom not having a gallery – I’m currently in Paris seeing clients, and have no guilt about not being in the gallery. But I really do love putting on shows.

Ultimately, Hyman is keen that The Hyman Collection stays together but isn’t sure if it will end up in a British institution, go overseas, or be part of something that he and his Claire set up. But while he believes that the UK “still has some way to go to celebrate what’s under our noses”, he’s also positive about recent developments.

“Now is an interesting moment, it feels like things are happening,” he tells BJP. “Tate Britain has employed Kate Bush [as adjunct curator of photography], Martin Parr has opened his Foundation, we’ve made this donation to Yale. Yes, we can be negative about The Media Space and Birmingham Library closing [their photography interests], but there are also some very positive signs.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy