Roll up, roll up for the Martin Parr Foundation membership scheme

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Would you want Martin Parr to take your portrait? You might say it’s a brave soul who goes in front of his penetrating lens, but it’s part of a portfolio of benefits the Martin Parr Foundation is launching in its Membership Scheme.

Parr set up the Bristol-based Foundation in 2014 to house his archive, but in October 2017 it opened to the public in a purpose-built space, offering free access to much more – a rolling programme of exhibitions, a large photobook library, and a growing collection of prints. Parr’s used the opportunity to hone in on British and Irish photographers, as well as work taken in the British Isles by others, and put the focus on their documentary work – an area which he believes is still underrated.

“Post-war British documentary photography continues to be under-appreciated and I wanted to make a small contribution to rectify this,” he stated when the Foundation launched to the public. “The Foundation will support and preserve the legacy of photographers who made, and continue to make, important work focused on the British Isles.”

“Most British documentary photographers struggle to get a venue [to show their work in the UK,” he says to me by phone. “Photography exhibitions in the UK focus on photography that tips over in to the art world, for example Wolfgang Tillmans, Andreas Gurksy, or Jeff Wall. But our fantastic British talent doesn’t – except in the Don McCullin show coming up at Tate Britain. I hope that it will be a game-changer.”

Martin Par at the Martin Parr Foundation © Louis Little

As such he’s keen to make the Martin Parr Foundation as accessible as possible, which means keeping the exhibitions free “as a matter of principle”. That’s where the membership scheme comes in, giving the Foundation another important income stream, alongside what it’s very successfully bringing in from its shop, and its programme of talks and workshops.

Membership starts at just £35/year for Foundation membership, which gives holders invitations to private views at the Bristol-based institution, a welcome tour, priority booking for its photobook library, access to exclusive membership events, and a 10% discount at the shop. Supporter membership costs £125/year and offers holders all of the above plus a tour of the foundation with Parr, first access to discounted tickets, plus an exclusive, signed 10×8 print each year. Patron membership is £750/year and offers all of the above plus an annual patrons dinner with Parr, first access to special events, and that portrait by Parr.

“If people sign up every year, they’ll get a new print every year,” says Parr. “And the primary booking is important – a lot of our events get totally sold out, for example the talk tonight with Bruce Gilden. I’m amazed how well all the public events are going.”

“It’s a way to raise money but also allow them to become part of a community,” he adds. “We’re allowing them to support what we do.”

In fact what the Foundation does is so interesting that it could easily get arts funding, as Parr happily concedes, but he prefers to go it alone, organising and curating the exhibitions himself with director Jenni Smith and the rest of the team. He set up the Foundation with no outside investment, putting in his own money [“I’m very lucky I get well-paid jobs”] and also the proceeds from part-selling, part-gifting his 12,000-strong photobook library to the Tate in September 2017, a move which was supported by the LUMA Foundation.

Crowds, Puck Fair, County Kerry, Ireland, 1982 © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Parr’s photobook collection was world-renowned and international in focus but, now that it’s gone, he’s building a library with a special focus on British and Irish photographers. “I bought Chris Killip’s book collection when he left Harvard, a solid collection of 2200 British and international photobooks,” says Parr. “I’ve since gone out and rebought books by Bill Brandt, David Bailey’s Box of Pinups and so on – I had quite a few duplicates [that didn’t go to the Tate] and since then have researched more [on British photography] and have accumulated new set of books. I have also added magazines, for example I have a full set of Camera Work, a full set of Creative Camera, and all the Don McCullin Sunday Times spreads.”

The inventory for this library is complete and it’s already proved useful to researchers – Parr says that “Tate were here”, for example, researching the McCullin Sunday Times spreads for the forthcoming show [it opens on 05 February]. The Foundation is now starting to catalogue the growing prints collection, which includes work by Keith Arnatt, Richard Billingham, Elaine Constantine, John Davies, and much, much more. 

As for shows, Parr has so far exhibited his own work, Town to Town by Niall McDiarmid, and the David Hurn Swaps show; he’s got exhibitions by Document Scotland, a collaboration between Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James, and Ian Weldon coming up – the latter a documentary photographer based in Newcastle, who specialises in shooting weddings. “I think no gallery has shown wedding photography before, it’s never taken seriously by the photography world,” says Parr. “And yet he has shot a great subject, taken great pictures, and been paid for it.”

The Roof, 2017 from the series It’s called ffasiwn © Clémentine Schneidermann and Charlotte James

The talks and events programme, meanwhile, includes about two events per month, with John Myers and Krass Clement are lined up to give talks soon, and Alec Soth, Eamonn Doyle, Cristina de Middel and Niall McDiarmid due to run members’ events. More workshops and a photography holiday with Martin Parr are also on the cards. It’s all testament to Parr’s connections but also to his influence in photography in Britain and beyond – an influence that probably can’t be overstated, and which set to continue far into the future.

“The Martin Parr Foundation is a charity, which means that everything is already in the public domain, and I’ve arranged it that after my demise my that estate goes to the charity,” says Parr. “It will continue after I’ve gone. Basically it will still be there when I’m dead.”

Martin Parr Foundation Membership is now open, for more information visit The Martin Parr Foundation is based at 316 Paintworks, Arnos Vale, Bristol, BS4 3AR. The Foundation is open to the public from Wednesday – Saturday from 11.00 – 18.00. Admission is free

Stirling, Scotland, on 23 June 2018. Pro-Scottish Independence march, in Bannockburn, Scotland. From the Document Scotland exhibition A Contested Land which will be shown at the Martin Parr Foundation, Bristol from 16 January to 16 March, 2019 © Press image by photographer Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
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