Eminent critic and artist Roger Fry, other members of the Bloomsbury Group and DS MacColl, keeper of the Tate Gallery, established the Contemporary Art Society (CAS) in 1910 to promote the work of living artists. But they also wanted to ensure that this art would find its way into national and municipal galleries where, according to the 1912 CAS annual report, ‘some of the finer artistic talent of our time is imperfectly or not at all represented’. Since then the CAS has presented over 5,000 works of contemporary art and craft to museums and galleries across the UK. The society’s activities and purchasing funds are financed by individual and institutional membership subscriptions, along with significant arts council and lottery grants, donations from trusts such as the Henry Moore and Esmee Fairbairn, and private bequests. Corporate collectors who pay for advice from the CAS and individual members who pay for CAS cultural activities also function as patrons of contemporary art, as every extra penny the CAS earns goes towards buying works for museums.

From the outset, the CAS tried to avoid purchasing art work by committee, preferring to invite individuals (critics, curators, academics and private collectors) to spend a specified sum on behalf of CAS. Since the 1950s, the process of purchase and donation has been systematised – works bought by a small number of purchasers are accumulated and stored. At the end of a three or our-year period the works are displayed together in an exhibition. Finally, they are distributed among member institutions.

In January 2005 the CAS once more made that distribution, on this occasion of over 150 works, all of which are displayed until 12 March in showCASe, an exhibition split between the City Art Centre and the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh. Curators from the 100 or so museums and galleries that are members of the CAS have submitted a wish list of six works and made a case for bringing each of their choices home to their own permanent collection. The full diversity of museum and gallery life in Britain is represented. National institutions like the Tate and the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and small distinctive collections like the Pier in Orkney, are geared towards acquiring contemporary as well as modern art. But there are other members, such as regional museums from industrial towns across the country, whose remit extends way beyond art, let alone contemporary art.

It is a formidable challenge for those giving and those receiving to choose work that will resonate in a variety of settings. Once the distribution process is complete, each work will have taken a journey from artist’s studio, through the selectors, into the distribution scheme, and ended up as part of an established permanent collection. But this may be the last time that this process is undertaken. In place for 50 years, the notion of central purchase and subsequent dispersal has become problematic for ideological reasons as much as logistical ones. Director Gill Hedley is hoping that the member institutions will this year formulate and propose alternative models for gifting work.

Meanwhile, she has continued to select buyers ‘for their ability to take risks and look beyond the obvious’. They bring new insights to the process partly because they have no direct experience of putting together a public collection, she adds. Considering the open remit, all buyers accepted that their subjective (albeit informed) responses were going to be their best (and indeed only possible) guide in making purchasing choices.

Lisa Corrin, formerly chief curator at the Serpentine Gallery, now deputy director at Seattle Museum of Art noted that almost all her criteria—relating to geography, medium, theme or sensibility—were formulated as she went along, though on reflection, she felt that in many of the works she was attracted to, the artist had, at that moment, found the ‘right key for their voices’.

Andrew Patrizio, writer, curator and director of research development at Edinburgh College of Art, was wary of attempting prescient choices. He saw it as irrelevant whether or not the pieces were ‘indicative of a particular current going on in British art’, and says ‘The artists I looked to all had a definite sense of energy, individuality and flair that would distinguish them from either pedestrianism on the one hand or trendiness on the other.’ He discovered the extent of his love of the graphic in artists such as Louise Hopkins, David Connearn and Richard Wright, who all embrace continuousness and reiteration rather than progression or topicality.

Thomas Frangenberg is a private collector and lectures in history of art at University of Leicester. Already involved with the British art scene following the YBA generation, he seized the chance to acquire works from the generation of artists emerging in the last ten years. There is a wide range of materials and disciplines in his selection. Even the ‘flat’ art (photography, painting, drawing) has some kind of architectural or sculptural quality, such as Angela de la Cruz’s huge broken painting, Shez Dawood’s billboard-size photograph ‘The Party’ (1999), or David Musgrave’s wall-drawing ‘Giant (4)’ (2000).

Also interested in landscapes and architectural spaces, Patricia Bickers, editor of Art Monthly, concentrated on conceptual discussions and allegorical gestures, such as Joonho Jeon’s ‘Drift/Wealth’ (2003), where the artist appears to wander through the forbidden Royal Palace pictured on a Korean banknote, or Nathan Coley’s ‘Manifesto for Bournville’ (1999), parodying modernist architects parodying themselves wearing their own signature buildings as hats. As a professional critic, Bickers seems to have warmed to works such Haley Newman’s documentation of her ‘performances’ that examine their own histories.

During the first stage of distribution, each artwork acquires meanings in relation to a particular buyer’s selection. Will these meanings be dismantled and new ones formed once the work moves into a new collection? The works will arguably be richer for it—the challenge for museum curators (and ultimately the test for the distribution scheme) will be to provide a lively context in which new dialogues and meanings can arise.

Kirstie Skinner is a writer, lecturer and programme co-ordinator for the contemporary art members’ group Spin, a joint initiative between the National Galleries of Scotland and the CAS