The collection is made up of 53 works by 25 international (mainly British) artists who worked in the UK . It is important for three reasons:
Firstly it has its roots in the tradition of art and design education for which Britain has gained a high international reputation since the war, including works by artists prominent in shaping the system from the pre-War years to the present day.
Secondly the collection shows the strength and confidence with which artists in Britain embraced the prevailing abstraction of the 1960's and early 1970's. Prominent among them are works by Robyn Denny, Bridget Riley, John Carter and the late Kenneth Martin.
Thirdly, and most importantly, is that the collection was designed to carry a message.
The main principle underlying the Coldstream reform of the early 1960's was to give practicing artists and designers a controlling influence over the system. The administrative task of the NCDAD was to maintain standards at degree-equivalent level, and that work was managed by its Registrar, Robert Strand. Strand, who served both NCDAD and the CNAA when the work was transferred, tells the story of the transfer in his chronicle of art and design validation, A Good Deal Of Freedom.
The last Chairman of the NCDAD was Stewart Mason. He had earned a reputation as a patron of the fine arts in the years during which, as Director of Education for Leicestershire, he had accumulated a major collection of works for schools in the county. Mason was determined that NCDAD should go out with a bang, and Strand gives a graphic account of the Council's last supper at the Cafe Royal. But there was to be a more lasting echo of the Council. Determined to pass on its ethos to the CNAA, Mason convinced nervous assessors at the Department of Education and Science of the propriety of a project to assemble and bestow an art collection: he selected paintings, sculptures and prints to create a visible symbol of the achievements and vigorous independence of the art schools. They would, he believed, 'immediately demonstrate the impact of the art design sector upon what had hitherto been a strongly technologically oriented body.' The old art schools had developed a strong tradition, an ethos, and it was that ethos that the collection was to embody.
Mason threw himself into his task, entreating and cajoling artists and dealers as he acquired more than double the number of works that his budget might otherwise have allowed.
The most significant influences were probably those of Kenneth Martin and Victor Pasmore, whose students occupy influential positions within the art colleges and faculties today. The deeply-rooted tradition which generations of artists passed on through the art schools is made up of ideas born of practice and recorded in visual form. Thus, the CNAA Collection might be seen as an embodiment of the principle that, in the art and design field, practice is an essential prerequisite to theory.
The art works present a challenge. Firstly, to the viewer, they present a snapshot of the uncompromising strands of artistic thinking of the period 1969 to 1974. Secondly, the CNAA has faced the problem of making the best use - within its main spaces, meeting rooms and offices - of as many as possible of the works. Many are dauntingly big; some are fragile and others suffer visibly from any exploratory touch. But the biggest problems are technical. The works come from a period in which large areas of single, clear colours terminated in straight edges and in which newer materials such as acrylics, nitro-cellulose and aluminium were extensively used.
Fine prints by major artists now change hands for five-figure sums. But in the early 1970's prints sometimes cost little more than a good frame, with the result that only the simplest frames were supplied. CNAA has completed the considerable task of removing works on paper from the frames of that period, to replace them on the basis of modern practice, using acid-free boards and slips. (It is interesting to note that the successor to NCDAD - CNAA's Registry for Art, Design and Performing Arts - began in the late 1980's to receive proposals for courses in conservation, a growing field of practice.)
In 1992 the government dissolved the CNAA, but the Chief Executive, Dr. Malcolm Frazer, who had taken a personal interest in ensuring the survival of the collection, oversaw the establishment of a CNAA Art Collection Trust. At the time of the establishment of the National Fine Art Education Digital Collection the Chairman of the Trust is Sir Michael Bichard, KCB, the Trust Secretary is Lady Nixon and the Curator is Stroud Cornock.
In 2005, the majority of the collection was moved to the offices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council in Bristol.