Somerset House host Positive View's exhibitions, including last year's Henri Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, pictured here. Image © Robin Maddock.
Positive View Foundation attracted widespread publicity this winter with the exhibition Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, curated by William Ewing, which went on show at Somerset House last month. But Positive View has been going since 1994, when founder Andrew Page organised what he thought was a one-off event in aid of the Chickenshed Theatre Company. "My daughter was a member of Chickenshed [a North London organisation for children of mixed abilities] and they were trying to fund building a theatre, so I thought, ‘Why don't we do a photography auction?'" says Page.
"Photography has always been my passion, ever since I was a little kid, and I had worked with various advertising agencies from the 1970s on commissioning photography. Then I bumped into Lord Palumbo, who introduced me to Nicholas Coleridge [president of Condé Nast International], and I found out they were planning an exhibition of fashion photography, so I put it all together. I spent two years organising the exhibition, and Charles Saatchi, who I knew from my advertising days, gave me his Boundary Road gallery to show it for two months. Straight after the exhibition the prints went to Sotheby's and [photography specialist] Philippe Garner, and it became the first big photography charity auction in the UK."
The auction proved a huge success, so much so that by 1999 Page was fielding calls from photographers and galleries asking when he'd do it all again. "In a weak moment" he agreed to do so in 2000, then in 2010 he organised a third photography auction, which raised more than £500,000 for homelessness charity Crisis. By then Page was working as director of funding for Crisis, but although the auction had helped bring in so much cash, he had also realised it could make a direct impact on disadvantaged people's lives through participatory projects. He worked on one such project with Crisis and Central St Martins and saw first-hand "the very big difference that photography can make to a disadvantaged group. The group worked for a year and at the end five were selected to put their work in the exhibition," says Page.
"We never mentioned their backgrounds and purposely hung their prints alongside a Strand or Irving Penn, and included them in the big gala auction at Christies [where Garner was by then working] - one guy sold his work for more than £37,000 and got four more orders for prints. They discovered in themselves an incredible talent with photography, which helped them in terms of their vision of themselves within the community. The long-term effect was even better - one of the five is now head of photography at Crisis, the second has opened a gallery, two are doing an MBA course in Newcastle with a bursary on photography, and the fifth has set up his own studio. Photography has given them a career."
Hong Kong businessman Sir David Tang attended this third auction and approached Page shortly afterwards to tell him he was on to something big - "he sent me off to Switzerland to see [curator and patron] Lady Foster". Foster and Tang both offered to be patrons for a new charity that would both help turn London into a major photographic hub and fund participatory projects, and Page, at age 65, retired from Crisis to set up the Positive View Foundation as a permanent proposition. It launched 18 months ago, and in April 2012 announced its first exhibition - the Cartier-Bresson show.
Put simply, the charity aims to raise money for photography projects for disadvantaged young people by holding photography auctions, which are preceded by photography exhibitions. About 50 percent of the prints in each show will be available to buy in these sales, but the exhibitions will be credible in their own right, Page says, curated by major international names and held at Somerset House for the foreseeable future. "Somerset House isn't our permanent home, and I can't use the word partner at the moment, but they will assess each of my exhibition concepts and plans. They made a curatorial decision [on whether to host it] based on two criteria, really: the quality and international standing of the curator, and whether we can fill the galleries, create media interest and so on. I think we've delivered that with the first exhibition - we've broken all their records for exhibition attendance and had unbelievable coverage."
Ewing, former director of the Musee de l'Elysee in Lausanne, is already working on a second show to be held at Somerset House - Landmark: The Fields of Photography, an exhibition of landscape photography that will occupy the building's entire East Wing galleries from 14 March - 28 April. The exhibition will include work by international names such as Edward Burtynsky, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, as well as "new talent from around the world" picked out by Ewing, plus more left-field images such as shots from the depth of the ocean. "It's going to be quite an interesting mix," says Page. "We want the exhibitions to be at the level of the Royal Academy - they have to stand up in their own right. That's really important for us, and critical if we're going to get the right level of reviews."
Each curator will work with Positive View for a maximum of two exhibitions, and Page has already got Charlotte Cotton, formerly of the Media Space, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum, lined up for the second show of 2013, a celebration of 100 years of Vanity Fair magazine, which will be held at Somerset House in November. "It's their birthday, so we thought it would be great to do a centenary exhibition but also look at where the next 10 years are going," says Page. "So there will be a mixture of Steichens, all the wonderful archival material, but also images looking out to the future. The one after that, which Charlotte will also do, takes as its reference point Charles Saatchi's Sensations exhibition of paintings and sculpture, and will focus on sculptors who use photography, installations and 3D new media. There will be pictures on the ceiling, pictures on the floor - a lot more than just a gallery with pictures on the wall. We'll give a lot of attention to how we use the space to introduce a new breed of photography. It's early days, but I think it will be very interesting."
After that Page hopes to put together an exhibition of photography from China, Korea and Japan selected by a Western curator; he'd like to follow it with an exhibition of European photographers selected by a curator from Asia and exhibited in the region, in a kind of cultural exchange of perspectives. In fact, he's keen to tour exhibitions to Dubai, Moscow and possibly Paris in future, tapping into the huge expansion of interest in, and collectors of, photography in those areas. Page is also being savvy in how he markets Positive View to collectors in the UK, joining forces with art fairs such as Art13 and the Photo Art Fair, both of which will take place in London next year. "Art13 is being organised by the same organisation that puts together Hong Kong Art Fair and Art Basel, so it's going to be 50/50 art and photography, with all the major global galleries coming over," he says. "We're the philanthropic partner, so we've got our own stand and will be using it to talk to the international galleries, build our relationships and get our brand out there. At Photo Art Fair, the fee photographers pay to get their space will be paid directly to the foundation, and we will get a percentage of all the work sold."
Page is also working directly with commercial photography galleries, with Brancolini Grimaldi, Michael Hoppen Gallery, Alison Jacques Gallery, Phillips de Pury & Company and Thomas Dane Gallery all signed up as Founder Gallery Patrons. Page hopes to add five more galleries to the list, and will launch an initiative with them next year, hopefully at Art13, in which each gallery can sell up to 10 images online. The portal will be hosted by Positive View, and the charity will receive a percentage of each sale made through it. It's another income stream but, as Page points out, the association with the galleries does more than just bring in cash - it helps them access photographers for the exhibitions and auctions, and introduces them to collectors. "We couldn't have done it without the galleries," he says. "By having them as partners it's a demonstration to others that we're legitimately building up. They can become almost ambassadors for us in that clique."
The galleries, for their part, benefit from the publicity - the Cartier-Bresson show includes images by Boris Savelev, for example, who is represented by Michael Hoppen, and Page claims a whole new tranche of possible collectors have contacted the gallery as a result. It's a relationship that requires a careful balance, though, because, as Page also points out, he needs to ensure that both the exhibitions and the auctions are credible to the gallerists, photographers and collectors. "It's important that photographers feel the auctions are an asset for them, unlike the typical charity auction," he says. "I'm very critical of charity auctions where works don't reach their proper value, because that's insulting to the photographer and terrible for their reputation. I want our auctions to be better than Christies' own auctions, so that they attract the international buyers."
Follow the money
Ensuring the auctions reach their proper value also helps ensure that Positive View will raise big funds, as all of the profits from them will go towards the organisation's charitable works. In the absence of any government funding, Page is also seeking out corporate and private partners to help meet the costs of staging the exhibitions and running the foundation day to day, with Barclays already on board and providing £180,000 per year to pay for the three full-time staff salaries (including Page's own) and their small office at Somerset House. Somerset House helps out by providing its spaces at "cost price" and Page hopes to get corporate sponsors such as luxury label Armani on board to help pay for the shows. Corporate patrons and ‘Founder Members' will be given benefits such as limited edition books, private events and invitations to Positive View's Annual Photography Symposium - an exclusive three-day think-tank held in a castle in Umbria.
"It will happen every May in Todi Castle - the owner is a massive lover of photography, so he wants to make the castle somewhere where people come to talk about photography. It was piloted last year by Bill [Ewing], who invited a handful of people from all over the world, mostly curators and museum directors, to discuss photography, and it was a massive success. We're doing it slightly differently, inviting guests to discuss where photography might be in 10-15 years' time, and to help us develop our curatorial practice. It will also enable us to look at and build interest in some international personalities, who might like to join our Arts or Education Boards."
And it's the Education Board, whose members will be appointed and announced in May 2013, that is really at the crux of Positive View's charitable mission, because it will establish the programme of projects, workshops, lectures and debates that Page hopes will transform the lives of disadvantaged young people.
Positive View will invite a limited number of organisations per year to bid for five funding awards, each of which he hopes will total about £500,000. Page expects participatory photography organisation PhotoVoice to come to Positive View with a proposal, for example, but also envisages working with charities, arts institutions and even private individuals - as an interim measure before getting the foundation up and running in its future guise, he's funding a project called Ho, Beau, which was set up by Ben Millar Cole and puts cameras into the hands of some of London's most disadvantaged homeless. This project will end in 2014, and works from it will be included in future exhibitions at Somerset House and in a hardback book. Page also envisages working with some projects in the longer term, funding them for three years on the trot rather than as a one-off.
"We're not going to go out and deliver projects, we're finding other people to do that," says Page. "We're more of an assessment point, to make sure the projects are needed, and will have the outcomes they hope for in terms of achieving real change in people. We hope it will be a mixture of small charities that really matter and independent individuals too."
For more details, visit www.positiveviewfoundation.org.uk.
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