Art matters

Corinne Miller is the Head of the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum Service. She has worked at the gallery, which has strong links to the University’s School of Art & Design, for four years.

After studying Art History at the University of Manchester and completing a Postgraduate Diploma in Museum and Galley Studies, Corinne worked in museums and galleries in Bury, Allerdale in Cumbria and Wakefield, before taking a post at Leeds Art Gallery, where she worked for 20 years.

What made you want to work in art and museums?

I have wanted to work in art galleries and museums since I was tiny. My mother painted a bit and was arty and a lot of her friends were passionate about art. Art History is my discipline, and I was a Young Friend of the Tate as a child, so I have always wanted to do it. I remember receiving a children’s magazine that always had a work of art in it, and I would put them on my wall alongside George Best.

How has the sector changed since you started?

It has changed massively over the last 30 years. I came into the profession when it was dominated by a connoisseurial approach to art history.

I was fortunate to go to University in the 1970s, training with a new generation of curators who were interested in the opportunities for collections for a wider audience. I have seen the sector move from being mainly aimed at connoisseurs and academics to becoming something that is far more accessible. The start of Lottery funding has also led to major capital investment in the sector.

Our collections are now better managed and we are more rigorous in the way we collect, adopting a more audience-focused approach.

What aspect of your work do you enjoy the most?

What really interests me is the interaction between people and collections. Being part of that dialogue, or interventions in that dialogue, is what I find inspiring – seeing people respond is always a great motivator.

The University and the Art Gallery have close links – why do you think it is important to support up-and-coming art students?

The history of the Art Gallery articulates the relationship between study and collecting. The Municipal School of Art was here and the art gallery was founded alongside it to provide a source of inspiration for students. The relationship between education and collections was strong from the very beginning.

What advice would you offer to students who may wish to one day run an art gallery?

You have to be tenacious about pursuing that career. It is tough, the pay is not good and it will be quite challenging at times. If you are not absolutely dedicated and passionate you will probably fall by the wayside quite quickly! It is not for the faint hearted.

What would be your dream exhibition to have in Wolverhampton?

I don’t really have a dream exhibition. I like to think every exhibition has something to offer. It is important to create a programme of wide interest. We show the work of new artists as well as historic artists.

This year at Wolverhampton we have shown the work of Vered Lahav and we are working on a show of Victorian artists from the Cranbrook Colony in Kent. I love this eclectic programme which you find in public galleries.

I am also interested in the role of art outside the space of the gallery. To this end we are working on a project around the city for viewing in the early evening.

If you were at University today, what would you study?

I would still study art history. For me it was interesting at the time and has sustained my interest ever since.

 I have been able to carry on my academic interest in art history alongside my career. I do a lot of management work now but nonetheless I do still have occasion to research and talk and go to exhibitions.

The subject is like a jigsaw. For example, I studied English watercolours and have discovered a view of Wolverhampton by Turner. Now I am fascinated about why Turner came to Wolverhampton in 1794. I have worked with Turner’s art for many years but did not know his work on Wolverhampton – another bit of the jigsaw.

What has been your greatest achievement?

The things I have enjoyed have been the big exhibitions I have done including Cotmania and Mr Kitson and a survey show of the work of Franke Brangwyn in Leeds.

I was also privileged to act as the lead on the development of the contemporary collection at Leeds to include some digital media and sound works. Commissioning works for that was an extraordinary experience which allowed me to work with artists like Bill Fontana and Georgina Starr.

In your opinion, what makes a great piece of artwork or museum exhibit?

I think it has to be the immediacy. Then you need to be drawn into staying with the work and for it to sustain you on multiple levels, so that every time you come to it gives you something different. I don’t think you should have a formulaic view of artwork. Alan Bennett said you know you have found a great piece of art when you want to put it under your raincoat and take it home with you and I would subscribe to that. You want to be with it a long time.

At Wolverhampton, we can show challenging works which deal with social issues. People have remarked how much they have enjoyed their visit because they have been challenged.

Something has made them think differently and they have walked out of the building with a new understanding of something.

Should people have to pay to visit art galleries and museums?

I would like to see services like art galleries remain free because that allows the widest range of people to visit and realise the real potential of the collections.

Galleries like this have taken generations to build up and they do represent our collective history. It would be a real pity to levy a fee. Inevitably the number of visitors would drop and it is an unhealthy way to think about visiting a gallery.

When I was young, I would just pop into the National Gallery and look at Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ and that would be enough. If you had to pay you would feel you have to slog around for a couple of hours to get value for money.

Art should not be relegated to a consumer activity, it should be recognised as a vehicle for us to come together to share our experiences of life and living.