Chris Ingram - Woking schoolboy to millionaire football club owner and art collector
PUBLISHED: 08:43 02 March 2015 | UPDATED: 09:14 18 March 2015
When Surrey businessman Chris Ingram was approached by Woking Council about making a financial donation to the town's Lightbox gallery, he went one better - he loaned them his entire collection of modern British art...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2015
What to do when you have netted £435m from the sale of your business? Buy a football club? Create an art collection? Chris Ingram did both.
When he sold his media agency, Chris Ingram Associates (CIA), in 2001, he found he had the time and money to satisfy his two great passions. So first he bought Woking Football Club, the hometown team he had supported since he was a boy, rescuing it from near bankruptcy. Then he decided to indulge what has since become an obsessive hobby – art collecting.
He talks about his discovery of art as if it were a cultish conversion, admitting he was a “complete oik” when, working as a junior at an advertising firm in the 1960s, he was invited to what was then Leningrad on a work trip.
“One evening, we were told by our tour guide that we were going to the Hermitage,” he recalls. “I hadn’t a clue what that was. Then we entered this room full of the most amazing Impressionist paintings and that was it – I was hooked. Being a fairly obsessive person, I started reading up on art and whenever I went on business trips I would slip off to, say, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam or the Prada in Madrid.”
When he sold his business, the multi-million pound windfall nudged him from being a part-time enthusiast into a full-time collector, although he began focusing on British art almost by accident.
“I was looking at some British work in Sotheby’s during a lunchbreak, and thought it was very good, but couldn’t understand the prices in relation to the others. So I approached a specialist and said: ‘Can you tell me why they are so low?’ And he said: ‘It’s called modern British art. You’re right – the prices are low, because it’s sort of unfashionable. You could build a nice collection for about £1.5m.’ That was it. I bought two works, and never looked back.”
A new home
Chris soon made his mark, outbidding dealers and paying top prices for artists whose work has since become much more expensive. But by 2002, he had a problem. He had such an abundance of art – much of which his wife found “miserable” – that the collection had outgrown his home and was left languishing in storage.
Salvation came from an unexpected quarter. At around the same time, the local council was planning a new gallery for Woking and asked if he would consider a financial donation. His response – “I won’t give you any money, but I could give you a first-class art collection” – knocked them for six.
The result was The Ingram Collection – believed to be the largest privately-owned, publicly accessible collection of modern British art – the bulk of which is now either stored or displayed at said gallery, The Lightbox, which opened its doors in 2007.
Since Chris made his remarkable offer, it has scarcely staged an exhibition that has not drawn on what is an unheralded but extraordinary collection of 600 works in oil and on paper, sculptures, installations and videos. In fact, the Ingram Collection is now so closely connected with The Lightbox that many think it is Chris’s own private gallery rather than an independent, publicly-funded museum.
The collection has been lent on what he describes as “a rolling medium-term loan”, and the presence of this substantial resource has given The Lightbox some serious bargaining power in terms of borrowing exhibits from other museums, which might well wish to borrow in return, and a new-found status.
Indeed, almost 100,000 people visit this angular construction of glass, concrete and timber, wedged between a dual carriageway and the Basingstoke Canal, every year – not bad for a town with a population of 63,000.
And this is particularly heart-warming for Chris, who lives near Woking with his wife Janet, with whom he has two children and five grandchildren. His ties with the area date back nearly 60 years, when he arrived at the local grammar school aged 10. At 16, he left to become a messenger boy in an advertising agency, becoming a board member at the age of 26, before setting up his own media agency for campaign planning in 1970.
Passion for soccer
Since selling his business, he has thrown himself into the life of his hometown, although he no longer owns Woking FC outright: “I’m now the landlord, owning the stadium and the ground, and the ground around it,” he explains. “When I stepped in, in 2002, they were in a real financial state. They’d been having a lot of successful cup runs that had brought in extra money, but had started working on the assumption that they’d always have them, and had continued spending at that rate. There’s now a trust in place and an effort to return the club to the fans, which has been largely successful. I’m not nearly as involved as I was.”
Although he continues to invest in and advise new digital and online businesses in London and New York, you sense his ever-burgeoning art collection is what really makes him tick. He follows his gut instincts, ignoring art market trends and often pooh-poohing the recommendations of his advisers.
“I have very simple views on art: anything I buy, I want to be able to look at again and again. I have also started buying almost as a curator, with exhibitions in mind. For example, our recent show, The Impact of War, staged to coincide with the centenary of the First World War, explored the response of artists in the collection to conflict in the 20th and 21st centuries.”
The main focus of the collection is the art movements that developed in the early and middle decades of the 20th century, with a particular emphasis on the post-war period. The works show artists’ responses to the existential anxieties and challenges of the contemporary world, and their search for new visual languages to express them.
It features a broad base of artists, with particularly strong groups of works by Dame Elisabeth Frink, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, Geoffrey Clarke, Lynn Chadwick, William Roberts, Edward Burra, Keith Vaughan, John Tunnard, Kenneth Armitage, John Craxton, Richard Eurich and Dame Barbara Hepworth. The 1940s’ work of the Neo-Romantics is especially well represented.
“My interest in art started very conventionally with the Impressionists and then moved on to the Post-Impressionists and German Expressionists, and I still love several artists from these later periods,” says Chris. “I was totally dismissive of British artists at that time, but then I discovered that some really compelling things had started to happen just before the start of World War I, that continued in our own idiosyncratic British way right up to the explosion of talent in the 1940s and 50s.”
Waterloo to Woking
But despite the quality of the collection, he believes it doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves. “Art critics aren’t sniffy, but, boy, do they think Woking is in the sticks,” he says. “It’s almost impossible to get them to visit. We’re just a 26-minute train journey from Waterloo, but you’d think we were in the provinces.”
It seems that not everyone in the local community is a convert either. “When, in a happy twinning of my two enthusiasms, we staged a football-themed show featuring the work of modern British artists to coincide with the Olympics, several people said, ‘Now, this is more like it. I don’t think much of your other stuff, Chris, but this is great.’ So I can’t pretend Joe Public is holding its breath, waiting for my next modern acquisition, but that’s one of the reasons we mix radical art with ‘softer’, more accessible work.”
A new element of the collection reflects Chris’s growing interest in contemporary and emerging artists, as well as the work of outsiders and disadvantaged groups. He doesn’t look for new artists at auction, but sticks to graduate shows.
To give just one example, at Chelsea School of Art, he walked into a room full of flashing lights, steam, noise and a saucepan overhead. It was so weird, he decided he had to have it and approached the artist, who presented him with a menu of prices for various components. When he said he wanted the whole thing, the artist thought for a moment and replied, “Ah, you want to buy my orchestra.”
Since then, Haroon Mirza has won the Northern Art Prize and the Silver Lion at the Venice Biennale 2011, and is one of the rising talents on the British art scene. Meanwhile, his orchestra still sits in a cardboard box in the safe room behind the WC sign at The Lightbox. Chris pats it fondly, waiting for the right day to unleash it on Woking.
• The Lightbox, Chobham Road, Woking GU21 4AA is open from Tuesday to Saturday, 10.30am to 5pm; and Sundays, 11am to 5pm. Closed Mondays and bank holidays. General admission is free or £5 for an annual pass to the main gallery and exhibitions. Tel: 01483 737800. Web: thelightbox.org.uk/the-ingram-collection