Birthday honours

On 27 September, the national fundraising charity the Art Fund threw a party at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The charity had a good deal to celebrate. It has been helping museums and galleries in this country acquire works of art since 1903. In the past 20 years, it has played an especially important role in ensuring that the UK's stock of contemporary art remains topped up.

A good example of this patronage is Artist Rooms, a collection of work by artists from the UK and abroad, including Diane Arbus, Joseph Beuys, Damien Hirst and Anselm Kiefer. It is jointly owned by Tate and the National Galleries of Scotland, and is currently on a nationwide tour sponsored by the Art Fund.

There was another reason for the festivities at the Whitechapel. The Art Fund trustee Michael Craig-Martin celebrated his 70th birthday in August and le tout Londres gathered in the East End to pay tribute to the singular contribution that this Irish-born former native of Washington, DC has made to art in this country.

He is best known as the academic patron of the Young British Artists ("YBAs") who emerged in the early 1990s and one of whose number, Hirst, has work in the Artist Rooms show. Craig-Martin's teaching at Goldsmiths, where he is now emeritus professor of fine art,was midwife to a generation of artists whose success has been global and sustained. As well as Hirst, he taught Gary Hume, Liam Gillick, Sarah Lucas and Julian Opie.

I meet Craig-Martin at his studio in Hoxton, east London, where he continues to work as an artist. One room contains several large, vividly painted canvasses that investigate what he has called the "slippage between words and images, between what something is and what it looks like".
I ask him what he thinks is the most important lesson that he taught his now-celebrated students. "How to be themselves as artists," he says. Craig-Martin is also keen that I don't overlook his work as an Art Fund trustee. He tells me that he is proudest of helping the National Gallery and the National Galleries of Scotland to acquire Titian's Diana and Actaeon. It's quite a legacy.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Which Tories is it ok to love?