At the turn of the year, Sevenoaks’ own Eleanor Jill Constantine was made MBE for her services to the Arts through her work with the Arts Council Collection as Director.
CommunityAd caught up with Jill Constantine MBE to find out more about her incredible work, passion and vision for the world of art…
You were recently made MBE for your services to the Arts through your work with the Arts Council Collection, can you explain to readers the incredible work you have done in this field and what made you first get involved in art?
I became interested in arts from an early stage. I was born in Sheffield and my grandfather was an artist and paintings conservator and my father was the Director of Sheffield Art Galleries so art has always been part of my life. I studied art history and undertook a number of jobs including voluntary work before joining the Arts Council and then moved over to the Southbank Centre, London in the late 1980s alongside the Arts Council Collection (ACC) and Hayward Gallery who manage the Collection on behalf of Arts Council England.
The Collection has no permanent gallery space so some people may not be aware of its existence. Its main role is to support artists in this country by purchasing their work at an early but critical stage in their careers. It now owns over 8,000 works and includes many of the best-known artists of post-war Britain. Works can be seen in touring exhibitions, loans to galleries here and abroad and uniquely amongst other national collections in hospitals, universities, schools and public buildings across the country. When I became Director, I was tasked with expanding our reach and also steer the new acquisitions for the Collection. I’m delighted to say that with the exception of this past year, on average, over 2,500,000 people will see work from the ACC in a UK gallery justifying its claim to be the most widely seen of all national collections.
Through your work in the Arts, do you have any memorable moments that you look back at with fondness?
I have fond memories of working with many artists and on a number of exhibitions but there are a few that will remain very special. The ACC owns Antony Gormley’s Field for the British Isles which was a landmark acquisition in 1995/6 and aided by the fantastic volunteers who come to help, I oversaw its installation in over seventeen venues across the country including a sixteenth century barn, cathedral cloisters and a disused department store.
Working with artists who curated shows from the Collection including Grayson Perry, Yinka Shonibare and Ryan Gander, the latter selected our 70th anniversary exhibition, Night in the Museum in 2016.
And if I had to choose one highlight it would be that 70th anniversary year. We were able to raise money to commission eight artists to make a work for the Collection. The same year also saw the launch of the National Partners Programme whereby a cohort of four galleries were given funding to curate shows drawn from the ACC providing year-round visibility for us.
What was your initial reaction when you were first told you were being made an MBE?
Surprised, delighted and deeply honoured and I am very touched by the kind messages I have received since it was announced. I also feel it is a recognition of the important work the ACC does across the country so I feel very proud for the Collection.
In terms of your future work, what plans do you have this year and how damaging has the last year been for the Arts during the pandemic?
A few of my personal plans have had to be put on hold but fortunately some projects I was involved with before the pandemic have continued, including being a trustee of Turner Contemporary, Margate, a gallery which Kent is rightly proud of.
I am looking forward to seeing galleries reopen but in spite of government support, it will take a long time for the arts to recover. The nature of the arts means that a high proportion of people work in a freelance capacity and this past year has caused them real hardship. The arts in this country have a huge global reputation and generate billions for the economy but I fear some institutions may not survive and that will be a tragedy for everyone.
What do you enjoy most about living in Sevenoaks?
You get the best of both worlds – near to a major European city as well as access to the many cultural activities and galleries across the region. The countryside – my place of birth, Sheffield, is very hilly so I do feel very much at home amongst the North Downs. I’m a keen walker so am enjoying the fresh air and this year really noticing the change of seasons. Sevenoaks is a lovely friendly town I and am very happy that we made the decision to leave London and make our home in the district.