Obituary: Frank Constantine: Visionary gallery director who ensured Sheffield took its place on the national art map
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Frank Constantine, who has died aged 95, took Sheffield's art collection to a standard that rivalled that of many other British cities, and created a public programme of education and inclusion that was ahead of its time and widely imitated. When he was appointed the director of Sheffield City Art Galleries in 1964, only the Graves Gallery, above the Central Library, was open, and one of his first tasks was to bring the Mappin Art Gallery back to life. The Mappin, now no longer an art gallery, but incorporated into Weston Park Museum, had suffered a direct hit during second world war bombing. Keen to bring to Sheffield the modern and contemporary art on show in London, Frank rebuilt the Mappin with white interlinked open spaces that prefigured the capital's Hayward Gallery.
He built strong ties with other organisations, particularly the then Arts Council of Great Britain, on whose panels he sat, and which was responsible for touring many of the great exhibitions of the 1960s and 70s. In the Mappin, Frank introduced new facilities for hanging both the temporary exhibitions that drew people in - among them Landseer and His World (1972), British Painting 1900-60 (1975), Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1976) and Homespun to Highspeed: A Century of British Design 1880-1980 (with David Mellor and Fiona MacCarthy, 1980) - and the permanent collections that kept them coming back.
At the Graves, Frank supported his staff in curating a parallel series of exhibitions, encouraged striking graphics, and introduced one of the first gallery cafes. At any one time in the 70s and 80s up to five exhibitions might be running in Sheffield City Art Galleries, and the Arts Council relied on the organisation to host the first British Art Show (1979).
Despite the generous bequests of John Newton Mappin and John Graves, Sheffield did not have a collection to match such other regional cities as Birmingham, Liverpool or Manchester. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, had somehow passed Sheffield by. However, Frank spotted acquisitions in the sale rooms and in deserted corners of commercial galleries that others missed. He bid at Sotheby's in 1976 for the Paul Nash oil Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, Snow. "I got it for a song," Frank recalled. "Nobody else could see it."
Frank found paintings at the bottom of the market that he knew should be at the top; and indeed, now, would be unobtainable for a regional art gallery without huge fuss and effort. It was this open eye, this ear to the ground, that made Frank so admired.
When he first encountered David Hepher's two-part painting No 21 in London, Frank said to the dealer Angela Flowers: "Hmm, I like that. But we can only afford the righthand section," the front door in this portrait of a suburban semi. So he bought the front door for Sheffield, and it certainly was a popular work, which thousands enjoyed and identified with. A year or two later he went back to Flowers. There in store was the lefthand half, unsold. "You'll never sell that," Frank said. So a deal was done to Sheffield's benefit, and both halves of No 21 are now reunited.
Born in Sheffield, Frank was the youngest of three children of the painter and picture conservator George Hamilton Constantine and his wife, Catherine. He was educated at High Storrs school and Sheffield Art College, and his first job was drawing catalogue illustrations for a local furniture manufacturer; as a painter himself, he produced effective landscapes. During the second world war he served in North Africa, Palestine, Syria and Italy, initially with the Royal Engineers and then with the Inter-Services Liaison Department (ISLD), a cover name for MI6. He met his wife, Eileen Dumbreck, in 1945 and they married the following year. On demobilisation, Frank trained as a picture conservator at the Courtauld Institute in London, returning in 1946 to work in Sheffield, where his father was director of the Graves. Frank's career turned increasingly towards the development of Sheffield's art collections, to the making of exhibitions, and above all to ensuring that the city's galleries and the art within them were accessible to everyone.
He was just below medium height, so looked quite small behind his huge director's desk and its piles of papers and books. But his glittering eyes, sharp neat beard and the elegant wigwam that his fingers made as he considered a problem bred security, discretion and continuity. His office at the Graves was always open to his staff; but he had a side door on to a landing so he might suddenly have vanished when his secretary announced an inconvenient caller.
He would be the last to claim credit for anything, and characteristically point to his chairman - for much of the time the Labour councillor Enid Hattersley (mother of Roy) - as the driving force, and his staff as incomparable. Sheffield's galleries, however, were moulded by his hand. He inspired a new generation of curators, and before his retirement in 1982 gave me as keeper of the Mappin (1976-84) his secret for life: "Keep your options open, lad; keep your options open." This unassuming, gentle and perceptive man showed that a well-ordered art gallery will bring sharpness and vitality to a city, and is an essential component of civilised urban life. He was appointed OBE in 1981.
Eileen died in 2009; Frank is survived by his four children, John, Anne, Malcolm and Jill.
Mike Tooby writes: As keeper of the Mappin from 1984 to 1992, I wrote its centenary history in 1987. Frank's approach to its reopening in 1963-65 dominated the later part of the story. It was a real statement about how - and why - to restore a bomb-damaged Victorian edifice. It became an example of the new concept of the "white box" space.
Frank worked with Lewis Womersley, the city architect also responsible for the rebuilding of Sheffield's housing through modernist schemes, and it was a fascinating counterpart to that enterprise. The new architecture followed the recognition that Mappin's bequest was not a gallery of Victorian art, but a Victorian's idea of contemporary art. Sheffield would have a new gallery to place contemporary work in a historical context for a new vision of the civic value of art.
The Mappin's Victorian painting collection had also been reduced when the building was bombed. Frank and his staff had the ability to work ahead of the fashions in the market. He set the tone for how a regional centre can embrace the local, the national and the international, and help embed art in civic life.
Harry Francis Constantine, art gallery dir- ector, born 11 February 1919; died 26 July 2014
No 21, a diptych by David Hepher, 1971. Constantine, below, could afford to buy only the righthand panel when he first saw it. A year or so later he acquired the other half
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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