Hurn entrusted the Photo London selection to Magnum president Martin Parr. “The most simple thing was to let someone else curate the exhibition, and Martin is the person to ask if you want something done. He also has an exceptional eye,” Hurn says. Ironically, the only photograph Hurn has ever bought is by Parr. He purchased Butlins, Filey, England (1973) at Parr’s 1974 show at the Arnolfini in Bristol for £5. The image of dancers at the holiday park, which is embellished with glitter, features in the exhibition.
Swapped highlights include a 2014 photograph by Mat Black of birds sitting on electricity cables in California, exchanged for Hurn’s shot of retired gentleman at an MG car owners’ ball (1967), and a blurry orange photograph from 2013 of Hillary Clinton at the Liberty Awards by Christopher Anderson, which Hurn swapped for his 1962 portrait of Peter O’Toole smoking on a cobbled street.
The idea to develop a collection by exchanging works initially came about because a market for photography didn’t really exist until around 1970, Hurn says. “In 1959 there were no photography galleries in the UK; the first opened in 1968. The idea of photography as an art object that someone would buy was nonsense. I would simply ask people for pictures because they had no value; they were intended to be reproduced in magazines,” he says.
The practice stuck, despite a growing market for photography. “When I started out [Henri] Cartier-Bresson didn’t sign his prints because they were meant for magazines,” Hurn says. “Now it seems the definition of art is whether something can be sold by a gallery. We live in a bizarre world.”
Hurn’s first experience of the National Museum of Wales came early. “I remember visiting the museum when I was around four or five with my mum and seeing the ‘naughty sculpture’, which turned out to be Rodin’s The Kiss,” says Hurn, who grew up in Wales and moved back in 1970. “I was struck by the various things in cabinets that had been donated to the museum. Donated has always been my favourite word.”
Hurn has never considered selling his collection, which he estimates to be worth £2m. “It just wouldn’t be right, besides who is to say all the photographs would sell?” he says.
His gift has been instrumental in launching the museum’s first permanent gallery for photography. The inaugural show, due to open on 30 September, is an expanded version of the Photo London exhibition, and will include works by students at the photography school Hurn founded in Newport in 1973 as well as 19th-century prints.
“We now have a tremendous platform to display works from David’s collection as well as works from the museum’s collection that have never been seen before,” says Bronwen Colquhoun, the senior curator of photography at the National Museum Wales. “We have a long and rich history of photography in Wales and this donation is sure to raise its profile even further.”