On Collecting – How to build a commercial arts sector for Wales

On Friday 04 December, at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff, a group of artists, curators, funders, arts administrators, art lovers and collectors gathered for On Collecting: Transactions in Contemporary Art. The event, pulled together by NMW and g39, with backing from The Contemporary Arts Society, was chaired by Gordon Dalton of Mermaid & Monster and was intended to explore the necessary conditions for stimulating the commercial arts economy in Wales and for looking at the current picture.

So far, so good and extremely timely. It has long been recognised that there is a hole in the arts ecology in Wales that can only be filled by proactive engagement with the international art market.

What followed, though fascinating in terms of what others have done elsewhere, left me with a Welsh arts equivalent of penis envy.

Sorcha Dallas, of the eponymous Glasgow gallery, provided the first pangs of this envy by stating that her enterprise had grown out of the buzz created by the reputation of Glasgow School of Art, who have been feeding a steady flow of new life blood into the local scene, with many graduates (Dallas included) choosing to stay in Glasgow, set things up and create a critical mass of interest and activity. On the day that the astonishing news that Cardiff School of Art and Design (CSAD) were going to axe the Sculpture department ( Media and Performance having fallen earlier this year), leaving Painting and Printmaking to make up the Fine Art course, these observations really hit home.

As Dallas continued to talk us through the evolution of her gallery and her commitment to representing Scottish artists on an international stage, I remembered a conversation with Amanda Catto, of what was the Scottish Arts council, now Creative Scotland. She had described to me SAC’s strategic decision to prime the pumps of the nascent commercial arts sector and offer support to attend art fairs and promote the work of Scottish artists to international collectors and institutions.

Dallas was clear that her initiative had grown out of a strong local arts scene, with Transmission in Glasgow, a place for artists to meet and discuss work as much as a platform for work (in Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre is a valid equivalent) at its heart. While she takes the work of the 13 artists she now represents to key art fairs: Art Basel, Frieze, Art Miami, New York, Cologne, Turin etc, to build up a collectors’ base for them, Dallas is equally committed to ensuring that the shop front gallery is part of the local community too, and works in partnership with public and private galleries, managing exhibitions, publications and residencies.

Karsten Schultz, who was next up with Ute Volz, had come to talk about a project that had grown out of Schultz’s collection of contemporary art – Halle 14 in Leipzig.  A former cotton spinning mill, theLiepzig Spinnerei had been abandoned for some time. It’s a massive site and, in 2001, Schultz, having seen its potential, pulled together a symposium of architects, artists and curators to talk about potential ways to develop the site into a creative force. Now Schultz hadn’t come from nowhere. He was an established collector, largely of German contemporary art, and had run out of space for his collection, especially the larger installations and sculptural works. He had already formed the Federkiel Foundation (I’m afraid that some of the translation is a bit bonkers on the english version of the site) and was proactively supporting emerging artists, alongside more established ones, with grants and other means of support.

Long story short. The Spinnerei is five floors of approximately 4,000m2 each (that’s 20,000m2!), housing exhibitions, a library and an art education programme, and has been slowly building relationships with the art school and other creative organisations and businesses. Ute Volz is the managing director of the centre. It has the capacity to support presentation, experimentation and production. Hold that thought (and see point 5 below for what might have been).

The final panel speaker was Ellen Mara de Wachter, exhibitions curator at the Zabludowicz Collection in North London. Founded in 1994 by Poju Zabludowicz and  his wife Anita , the Zabludowicz Collection brings art to new audiences and supports arts organisations and artists. (But follow the last link to find out where the money comes from). As she spoke I found myself nodding my head at the supportive approach to artists and to allowing projects to develop, while helping them to build their careers and profiles.

At the end of the session Nicholas Thornton, Head of Modern & Contemporary Art at NMW,  talked about recent contemporary acquistions and the support of the Derek Williams Trust in purchasing work by living artists in Wales (or, in the case of acqusitions from Artes Mundi, shown in Wales). But I’m afraid at this point my blood began to simmer.

I know that the National Museum is building a new 800m2 gallery space for contemporary art, due to open next July (2011), but am equally aware that they’ve been sitting on some significant works by Welsh artists (see opening image by Anthony Shapland – the last work to make me cry) for many years without proactively getting them out to other institutions or doing anything much to help raise the profile (and, let’s face it, the commercial standing) of those artists. I am also aware that they have made purchases from exhibitions, curated by publicly funded galleries in Wales but, rather than pay those galleries (who paid for production and promotion of the exhibitions), chose to negotiate with the artists direct, or with their London galleries (in the case of Bedwyr Williams’ Bard Attitude, made as a result of the Art Share Cymru partnership this was particularly galling).

There was no panel representation from the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, who are important collectors of Welsh art (although their policy of only showing their collection every five years is baffling), nor any input from other collectors or independent galleries in Wales.

So I left the day feeling frustrated and aware that there are still many dots to join up before Wales can have a viable commercial art market, or replicate any of the projects outlined by the guest speakers. Here’s the checklist for growing a successful commercial arts economy for Cardiff and Wales:

  1. Lively and engaged art school with an international reputation
  2. An arts council/government prepared to give fledgling commercial art galleries some pump priming funds
  3. Rich patrons
  4. Rich collectors
  5. A space with capacity for production and presentation, capable of having an international profile
  6. An arts ecology that is properly interrelated and each element equally respected
  7. A critically engaged and supportive press and media

While we’re waiting for those dots to emerge and be joined I’d recommend that everyone supports their local gallery and Welsh artists by buying art this Christmas. That’s my plan. And if you need some financial breathing space then check out the galleries with the Collectorplan logo.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd, in her Bird-in-the-House blog has given a really faithful description of the day, so please follow this link for a less ranty perspective. Meanwhile, having put the word penis in this blog, I’m looking forward to lots of interesting e-offers that will help me address my envy issues.


3 thoughts on “On Collecting – How to build a commercial arts sector for Wales

  1. What a shame I didn’t get invited to this event. Was it open to all? Anything like this in the future please count me in, not you Emma, anyone reading this. As an artist based in north Wales I’d have been really interested, as an employee of arts council England I’d have been interested and as someone concerned in the future arts ecology in Wales I’d have loved to be there.
    Thanks for the post Emma

  2. Re-Reading your post Emma I think you are absolutely right. The visual arts ecology outside London is particularly vulnerable at the moment. One of the key problems (Other than the obvious White elephant) is the blood-boilingly annoying lack of support from within the sector of one organisation to another or to individual artists. What we lack is supportive joined up thinking. With regards to the commercial sector there are interesting models all over. I was thinking of the excellent Ceri Hand Gallery in Liverpool or a really interesting project in Huddersfield being developed by Paul Bradley called worksetting. But we live in straitened times and although I would like to be able to operate as an artist in Wales, I can’t. I don’t feel I have a support mechanism. The real problem is whether that support mechanism can survive the next five years. there are plenty of artists who feel they haven’t been invited to the party but when the party is only a couple of dried up sandwiches and a jug of water you realise you need to spread your net wider. As you know I am a great supporter of our publicly funded spaces in Wales but how can they survive without sales… Particularly from within the sector itself. Cardiff sometimes feels a million miles away from the north. Anyone who is interested in engaging with me please do…you can find me on Facebook or my blog.
    Supportive of all you’ve written and just a little rambling and ranty,

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