LONDON - At a reception in October as the Frieze Art Fair was in full swing, the art world learned that Tate would receive four new artworks purchased at the fair thanks to the £150,000 raised this year by the UK-based Outset Contemporary Art Fund. Among the works were a sprawling sculpture of black inner tubes, ribbons, canvas and hosepipes by young South African artist Nicholas Hlobo and the compelling view of New York City from the window of the Belgium-born, London-based artist Caragh Thuring, captured in oil and graphite on linen. These works joined 86 others by emerging and “re-emerging” artists – as Tate Director Nicholas Serota calls them – bought on the museum’s behalf by Outset during the last decade.  

Outset founder and director, Candida Gertler.

“The Outset Fund has contributed more than £1 million towards Tate  acquisitions over the past ten years,” says Serota. “Its commitment to new art has enabled Tate to secure works at Frieze for the benefit of today’s audiences and future generations.”

Founded in 2003 by Candida Gertler and Yana Peel (who has since moved on to run the Hong Kong–based charity Intelligence2Asia), the Fund primarily supports the arts by connecting its patrons in a meaningful way with what Outset calls “the process of production and institutional collecting.”

Beyond the annual gift to the Tate, has a history of supporting purchases or projects at the National Gallery of Art, London, the Israel Museum and the National Gallery, Berlin and of funding collaborations between visual and performing artists at the Barbican and Sadler’s Wells, among others. Outset co-sponsored Steve McQueen’s British Pavilion exhibition at the 2009 Venice Biennale and recently purchased a large-scale sculpture by Alexandre Da Cunha for the British Arts Council Collection.

With affiliated chapters in Germany, Israel, India and the Netherlands and with plans to create two new chapters in the U.S. and Scotland in the coming year, Outset has proven itself to be a new model of arts philanthropy. It is able to move with speed and precision, thanks in large part to its highly engaged patrons and to its dynamic director, Gertler, who spoke with me from her London office in the weeks following Tate announcement.

Nicholas Hlobo’s Balindile I, 2012, was acquired through the Outset / Frieze Art Fair Fund to Benefit the Tate Collection 2012.

Let’s go back to the time leading up to 2003 and your founding of outset. How did you get started on this philanthropic endeavour?

I was very curious about the ways one could become involved in the art world beyond just being a collector or going to university to study it full-time. I had taken courses at Sotheby’s and elsewhere, so I started inviting speakers I had enjoyed hearing to give presentations in my living room on subjects I was personally interested in but didn’t know a lot about. I asked friends and acquaintances, like the parents of children who were in school with my children, if they wanted to share that experience and, in return, maybe help support either an exhibition or the publication of a catalogue on a subject that was dear to the lecturer’s heart.

So the first event that you staged included a few dozen people whom you then asked to make a donation?

I would say that there were about 20 people in my living room and I just cleared the sofas away and put up a screen and a video projector and off we went. The curator was Colin Wiggins, from the National Gallery, and he talked about the differences in aesthetics between northern and southern cultures. We raised something like £7,000 that evening.

That’s not an inconsiderable sum for a first outing.

That’s right. And then the next step was that the people who would come into my home were happy to follow these lecturers out into the museum world. Sean Rainbird, who’s now the director of the National Gallery of Ireland, was another great lecturer who gave us insight into the contemporary program at the Tate, where he was then a curator. We made arrangements to go to the Tate as a group and visit the art he’d been talking about.

I soon met Yana Peel when she came to one of the events that I had organised and she was enthusiastic in the same way I was about wanting to be involved and informed, rather than just giving a donation. We decided to register as a charity and settled on the name Outset because we felt we were at the beginning of a journey – and also a bit off the beaten track.

Was it also that you weren’t particularly interested in being in the “in set”?

We were definitely not interested in chasing celebrities or big names. That’s why we have never had a board of advisors – we don’t want to be about who has joined and why they have joined. That said, we certainly have some prominent people associated with Outset, but I think they’re quite grateful that we are not using them to promote ourselves. We really want our projects to speak for themselves.

A still from Shezad Dawood’s Piercing Brightness, 2011, supported by Outset.

So how did the frieze project come about?

Shortly before Outset was born, I was introduced to Matthew Slotover and Amanda Sharp, the directors of Frieze, which was about to launch in London, and we sat together and talked about how we could enhance the experience of this new art fair. We came up with the idea of creating a fund that would purchase a work for the benefit of the national collection. And it really was a matter of putting Yana’s acquaintances and my acquaintances together and asking them each to give £5,000 towards the project. Initially, there was no question of also seeking big donations from foundations and corporate sponsors, as we do now; we focused on individual donations of £5,000 and raised £150,000 that first year. 

When did you decide that tate would be the beneficiary of this project?

We hoped they would be from the start but we didn’t know if Tate would accept the gift. In the beginning people were saying, “Well, it may be a little problematic for the museum to align with a commercial art fair.” So I asked for 15 minutes with Nicholas Serota and I came out of that meeting with a big smile on my face – he was absolutely in favour of this relationship with Frieze.

Back in 2003 there was a lot of distrust of the commercial art world — and the burgeoning phenomenon of splashy international fairs — by the denizens of the not-for-profit art world. So, the generosity of your proposal notwithstanding, it must have taken some degree of bravery for serota to say yes.

To do anything worthwhile, you can’t be worried about all the things that might go wrong. Nick is an open-minded person who could see the potential and was not scared of his critics. In any event, we’ve never attached strings to the Outset/Frieze London Fund or to any donations we have made to Tate or other institutions other than expecting that the projects we support are serious and fit into the remit of the institution.

How do your patrons “participate” in the frieze prize?

We have events in which our patrons get to know the guest curators at a private function and they are invited to the announcement ceremony, which alternates between Tate Britain and Tate Modern. Then we all go with the Tate curators to the fair and hand out plaques to be displayed alongside the selected works. In that way, we have conversations with the dealers or even the artists, which makes us feel very connected with each work. And then often it happens that these artists apply for funding for a residency or further projects down the line. And this means that these relationships have longevity and are not just one-off occurrences.

I think it’s fair to say that in probably 80 percent of Outset projects, we will come back to that curator and institution and continue deepening these relationships. That gives our patrons the opportunity to engage with the museums over the years, and often they have become involved there in their own right. So I see Outset as a bit like a stepping-stone towards what may be a more serious and direct engagement by our patrons.

What’s the philanthropic climate in the uk like right now?

Well, I think you are well aware that tax relief on charitable donations is very different here than in the U.S. So that already presents a different ground on which to fundraise. What I’ve been experiencing the last few years in which the economic environment has become tougher for everybody, is not that people are reluctant to give but that they want to give with impact. That means we have patrons who will ask for a meeting in order to determine which of the projects we are supporting most comfortably aligns with their philanthropic endeavors. So if they are more interested in education, they will be happier that their money be directed to Outset Family, which supports educational projects and social and community outreach programs. Or if they are interested in say, contemporary photography, they will be more comfortable supporting a photography-based project.

Maybe it’s the economy or maybe it is a sign of the increased sophistication of our Outset patrons, but they are definitely more directed and have very strict and precise ideas about how their money should be used to bring about the greatest good.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]