“A personal relationship with the artist, goes to the heart of my collecting.”
Jo Baring is a devoted art collector as well as the director of the Ingram Collection of Modern British & Contemporary Art – one of the UK's leading art collections. With years of experience in the art world, we talk to her about the artists she supports and learn about the ING Discerning Eye Exhibition, a show that supports artists by making their work accessible to the public.
FAM: Hi Jo, your home is teeming with art, are you running out of space?
Jo Baring: Well actually I deliberately leave space because my collection is not complete, but it is increasing constantly – art is my life it is not just a job.
Tell us about how your collection started, was it when you were studying at the Courtauld?
It really began when I was working at Christie’s and I visited the sculptor and painter Breon O’Casey who was once Barbara Hepworth’s studio assistant. I immediately fell in love with his work and asked if I could buy a sculpture. Luckily he allowed me to buy one very cheaply! It is still one of my favourite pieces and I ended up buying a lot from him over the years and I have painting and prints by him and he even once did a sculpture of me.
Do you have a particular process in mind when are collecting?
A personal relationship with the artist, I would say goes to the heart of my collecting. I have taken that into everything I do. I buy from artists and often get gifts from artists like Clive Barker, the British artist, who gave me a work from his playing card series which I adore.
I listened to your podcast series and you go out of your way to champion female artists, is that something you bring into your collecting?
Well that’s more recent, I looked around my sitting room and with the exception of O’Casey it is pretty much all women artists, like this Sam Taylor Johnson. Maybe because in my professional life I champion female artists so it is natural I build a relationship with them.
One of the most prominent works is the painting above your sofa, what’s the story behind that?
Oh that’s by Sophie Vallance Cantor, I got given a small work as I was curating a show in lockdown and then starting collecting her work more seriously. The title is very meaningful for me because it’s called Even Tigers Need a Rest, and for someone who is always running around and doing things I have that above my mantelpiece to remind me take it easy!
You spent many years at Christie’s, how would you describe your time there?
I really enjoyed it and worked my way up to become a Director specialising in Modern British art, but as you move up the greasy pole you get further away from the artists and their work. One of the biggest clients was the collector Chris Ingram and after 10 years at Christie’s I went to work for him and his collection inhouse.
Were you headhunted by him?
I got to know him through Christie’s but it was actually a recruitment agency that put me in touch with him. His collection is museum quality and I was giving acquisition advice on buying really incredible pieces of art. When you are advising it is quite a personal relationship and you have to have a certain chemistry. He is really paying for someone to give honest advice and say “don't buy this for these reasons.” When you go round a gallery the dealer is usually saying this is amazing you have to buy it but actually he is paying me to be able to tell him that the condition isn’t great or it has been sold multiple times in the last 5 years.
Do you advise him on works and artists that you expect to go up in value?
We don’t buy with investment in mind but it is safe to say that since the collection started the works have gone up hugely in value. I am always very wary of people who say this is a good investment or this will go up in value, but if you buy works from artists who are already present in institutions, works that are in really good condition with very good provenance, then you know you are buying a quality work of art and the stars are aligning.
The British artist Elisabeth Frink features prominently in the Ingram Collection, do you think you have been instrumental in elevating her stature?
Well we have 28 works by her, so I don’t think it is a misnomer to say that we have played a part in the rejuvenation of her reputation, purely because we have been able to loan out so many works and support museum exhibitions. It is an interesting discussion about the role of private collections and patronage because it is all interlinked, the commercial and museum world.
What is Chris like to work with?
He’s great, he knows that if you want the best you have to pay for it. So if you are going to be the one who is going to set an auction record for something then so be it – it takes experience and confidence to know that’s what you have to do occasionally. He started from nothing and set up his own business which then quickly turned it into a multimillion pound enterprise and I find it inspiring working with an entrepreneur.
He is also a philanthropist?
He is an old school philanthropist and there is huge amount of generosity in what we do. Because of his ties to Woking, he lends a lot of his collection to the local Lightbox Gallery which means it is very integrated with the local community. Recently Chris and I were both involved in a project that engages with local schools and as part of the local community, we helped organize an initiative with the elderly suffering from dementia. It’s very meaningful and shows the potential for art to change lives or make a difference to somebody’s day.
How did he start out collecting?
He had sold his business, then he had the money and time to start collecting which was initially just a personal hobby. He saw it as tragic that nobody could see it as he quickly ran out of space in his home.
The Ingram Prize was set up to help artists in those difficult years after graduation, could you tell me about your involvement?
Yes, the Ingram Prize is the most exciting thing I do. And for the artists involved I feel like their mum in a way. If I meet them for a coffee I’m always trying to buy them a cake, or feed them! We have that kind of relationship and I write references for them, or if a dealer has offered to represent them and makes them an offer I will give them a straightforward honest appraisal.
And the current exhibition, The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition?
Well despite the restrictions we were determined that the exhibition should go ahead so we decided to put it all up online. The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition is very much a selling exhibition and we felt strongly that we could not abandon the artists this year – artists need to make a living, especially this year.
Tell me about some of the artists involved?
Well in my selection I have Cathie Pilkington who was the first professor of sculpture at the Royal Academy and she is now keeper there and Clare Burnett who is President of the Royal Society of Sculptors, so really well known artists but also younger more emerging artists and you can buy their work for a few hundred pounds. A lot of the artists are featured on my walls – I put my money where my mouth is and enjoy making their work available to others. There’s Amy Stevens, Anna Liber Lewis and Des Hughes amongst many others.
It sounds like you really care about the artists you work with?
I feel so proud when I see them get a solo show because some of them I have known for years and some are good friends and we go for walks along the river. I find it all hugely fulfilling and rewarding.
The ING Discerning Eye Exhibition is ongoing now.