As one door closes and Cardiff’s g39 pack up their Mill Lane store to move to pastures new, after a day-long party on 02 July, so another one opens a week later. The new National Museum of Art opened for visitors on Saturday 09 July and Cardiff now has something very special in its midst.
Spool back to the mid 1980s, to the Welsh Office building a stone’s throw from the Museum. A motley bunch of angry artists, members of the Association of Artists and Designers in Wales (AADW), wearing assorted outfits and costumes, is attempting to storm the political outpost of the Westminster empire. They are angry because they have just learned that the Government is about to introduce admission charges to the National Museum and they will be cut off from a resource that they need, albeit one that doesn’t reflect their own practice that much.
I was there, as Max Boyce would say, as we managed to get ourselves trapped between the outer and inner doors, to the amusement of the security guards, who weren’t quite sure what to make of a crowd of frankly scruffy looking types, some dressed as skeletons. Of course the outcome is history and it wasn’t until 2001 that the Welsh Government, as one of their earlier acts, decreed that all Assembly sponsored Museums should be free for everyone.
That same year (2001) David Pratley & Associates conducted a Review of Galleries in Wales, which caused a lot of excitement amongst the visual arts community in Wales, and some conflicting ideas of what was needed. The findings were used to inform the next study, The Display of Art in Wales, by DCA. This scoping study pulled together the ambitions of the National Museum to increase its capacity to show its collection of modern and contemporary art and the Arts Council of Wales strategic objective to create a non-collections based National Centre for Contemporary Art in Wales. That report, in 2006, laid the foundations for the new galleries created in the West Wing of the National Museum, Cardiff.
So much for the history lesson, but it’s important to recognise that within a decade of David Pratley’s review, a new, beautiful space for modern and contemporary art was built and opened. In the scheme of things that’s pretty speedy.
Earlier this year I was lucky enough to get a sneaky peek at the newly finished, empty galleries. Without the art it was possible to see the fine attention to detail (as you’d expect when working within a listed building) and, most significantly, the space afforded to a chunk of art history (some still in the making), which gives it an importance and status that has been severely lacking in the past.
Filled with an extraordinary and really well curated selection of works, spanning the breadth of visual art practice from the 20th and 21st centuries, the galleries really hum with ideas in the first exhibition I Cannot Escape This Place. You can see Pete Telfer’s images, which include Wales’ tallest and smallest contemporary artists here (though you’ll need to register/log in to Culture Colony first, but it’s free and worth doing). Outside the new galleries, John Cale’s 2009 Venice offering, Dyddiau Du/ Dark days and Carwyn Evans‘ installation Unlliw in the Landscape Gallery (see top picture) add another contemporary dimension to the museum’s offer.
Here’s the low down:
- Wales’s National Museum of Art cost £6.5 million, most of it raised from private sources and the Welsh Assembly Government.
- The National Museum of Art covers 4,000 square metres of space at National Museum Cardiff.
- The National Museum of Art will be one of the largest art venues outside London.
- The contemporary art galleries – the West Wing – are nearly 800 square metres, making the largest space for contemporary art in Wales.
- The redeveloped galleries offer 40% more space for the national contemporary collection.
- The first display in the West Wing – I cannot escape this place – includes works by 44 artists including Josef Herman, Bedwyr Williams, Francis Bacon and Richard Long.
The general consensus has been very positive – artists and curators gave it the thumbs up. There will be a few voices of dissent. Some still feel that there should be a gallery dedicated solely to Welsh Art. But we’re not a hermetically sealed nation and it’s really important for artists and the wider public to see Welsh art in a national and international context, as well as within an historical one. School parties visiting the Museum will have the chance to relate modern and contemporary works to the historical collection and respond to them, Artes Mundi aside, these opportunities have been few and far between.
And while this is a milestone for the Museum and the arts in Wales, let’s not forget that it’s one of two. With the best will in the world the Museum’s new galleries will not be the hotbed for ideas and the push/pull of production and presentation that a non-collections based contemporary art centre could be.
Back when Cardiff was bidding to be Capital of Culture in 2008, there were plans afoot to convert an old bus depot into just that kind of space, but the plans died with Cardiff’s failed bid and the Welsh Government probably feels it’s off the hook in terms of the visual arts for the time being. The Arts Council of Wales seems to accept that investment into contemporary art will probably continue to be focused on the existing gallery network. However all of those key galleries would benefit from a national status centre because it would help to develop new audiences for them, offer professional development opportunities and add to the vibrant but often under-valued art community in Wales.
Let’s just hold that thought shall we?