Bread Tomorrow & David Garner

On Saturday April  20 2013 the last temporary exhibition opened at Newport Museum & Art Gallery.  This is the text of an address given by writer and critic Hugh Adams at the opening of the exhibition Shift by David Garner, reproduced here in its entirety with Hugh’s kind permission:

At the outset let me state my belief, best expressed by the American critic and artist Richard Nonas, that qualifying the word Art through prefacing it with such terms as Community, Outsider, Public etc., serves only to diminish it. Particularly in the present context I would say Political as an adjective is equally damaging, applied to the word Art and to the word artist. It is too easy to characterise, and in actuality marginalise, the artist with the description “political”. David Garner is not a political artist, describing him as such is to diminish him. He may well be political but because he is a humanist and a radical being, rather than on the narrow basis of adherence to a particular political philosophy.

Victorian temporary exhibitions were “packed with working class visitors, whereas today they are the preserve of the upper and middle classes, DCMS surveys show that only 7.4% of visitors are working class.” However, in the 19th Century, exhibition galleries had to have evening openings to accommodate large numbers of what press reports called the “lower orders”. A startling statistic is that “…in 1872 nearly one million East Enders visited the Bethnal Green Museum in the first six months of opening” and such numbers were common in the new museums and galleries, built like their new churches, to keep the working classes from insurrection against their appalling working and living conditions.

Despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary and undeniably, some good practice, art has increasingly become the preserve of the upper and middle classes, with payment for entry to temporary exhibitions becoming common. Museum entry charges have always been a political touchstone issue and charging is an issue postponed by this pathetic doctrinaire government until it has undermined more ‘important’ targets first – all things perceived by it as socialistic: health care, education, welfare and education.

Historically, Newport has been among the exceptions to this post-war hijacking of art from the working classes. Its collections are comprehensive and express working-class culture and interests, alongside ascendancy ones. Its temporary exhibitions programmes have been excellent in their diversity, free to all and have not only acted as important stimuli and support for education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels in the South Wales communities but frequently offered considerable, in many cases, the only, opportunity to Welsh artists to develop and show their work.

An art exhibition in a gallery is a highly complex entity. The latter’s roles and responsibilities are often imperfectly understood, not least by politicians. It is not just bunging things up on walls, that really is the tip of a large iceberg, but intensive research, curatorship, networks of relationships, insurance, advice to artists, liaison with schools etc. Testimony to this is the exhibition catalogue for the imminent “Summer Show” (another ‘last exhibition’, this time at the soon to close Howard Gardens Gallery of Cardiff Metropolitan University). Its director, Richard Cox, who has personally and professionally, himself given huge support to art and artists in Newport, pays tribute to the work of Newport Art Gallery over many years.“Anyone familiar with it”, he writes, “would acknowledge and remember the excellent work carried out by Roger Cucksey, Sandra Jackaman, Robin Hawkins and Shaun Featherstone and their support staff, this deserves to be recognised and applauded. We cannot afford to lose such important resources and Newport will be a less interesting city as a direct result of these cutbacks”.

Researching for my books “Imaging Wales” and “Re: imaging Wales”, I consulted the welcoming, generous and efficient Sandra Jackaman and her archives here and so had access to anecdotal and documentary information which in my assessment was not replicable elsewhere in Wales, or indeed elsewhere, at the time. What happens to all that now?

And talking of assessments: I have spent a large part of my career undertaking ‘feasibility studies’ for developing cultural enterprises, such things as public art programmes and frequently galleries. So far I have heard nothing regarding the ending of the temporary exhibitions programme here, or the plan to relocate temporary art exhibitions to Riverside Arts Centre which even approaches either plausibility or sense, cultural or economic. As it is the building is totally unsuitable for any worthwhile form of art exhibition, or indeed museum display. What I have heard mooted so far seems to smack of manna mañana: bread tomorrow. It will be local authority drift, in the hope the protagonists will tire, or forget. Otherwise, why didn’t the council at least set up a group of appropriate professionals to work with it to examine sustainable alternatives first, instead of this dull uncreative abolition by fiat?

My whole life has been spent in cultural and educational bureaucracies and I’ve learned that “initiatives” and orthodoxies, however discredited, can be relied upon to come around again. Hence it was with a sense of déjà vu that I read a recent speech given at the Royal Society of Arts by the former creative director of “Big Brother”, the new chair of Arts Council England.  He warned against arts cuts (well, he would wouldn’t he?) saying that the new Heseltine plan for regional growth should “centre on culture” and that those seeking cash to “unlock the potential of their region” should “put the arts at the centre of their bid”. He goes on the say “There is no city in Britain that does not understand the importance of the arts and culture, both as central to the life of the city and to the local economy”. Well, I know of one exception, with local councillors apparently unaware of arts-based regeneration plans and the successes of such places as Liverpool and Gateshead in this respect. Interestingly, in Newport there seems on their part a lack of awareness of its successes in the recent past in this respect (despite abundant visual evidence around them in public art of the first quality). They clearly do not understand the arguments, if they have even addressed them, and go in for the easy option, taking refuge in “social priorities arguments”, as tired as they are mistaken.

The “City of Newport”? Well you can change the road signs and rename ‘Newport Town’ ‘Newport City’, just as you can ‘Newport Athletic’ ‘Newport Spurs’ but you do nothing to improve its performance if that’s all you do.

A city, in order to have plausibility and be worthy of the name, needs at least aspire to certain things in terms of institutions, infrastructure and even the quality of debate maintaining within it. Here in Newport, even ground gained in the past through cultural enterprise is being given up. Acquiring plausibility goes far beyond the pomposity of renaming and re-badging. How do you attract new industry by offering potential employees a dead, cultureless centre; what do you put to tempt them in the corporate brochures and the city’s marketing publications?

And there has been another wound to the city’s plausibility. University College Newport, a renowned world-wide as an educator in the visual arts, particularly photography, has had its very identity as in and of Newport compromised (Where is the University of South Wales?). And how will it convince potential students that Newport is a vivacious place to study, when the nearest decent exhibition venues no nearer than Bristol and Cardiff and Cwmbran? “Destination Newport”? Well, for golf, or snooker, maybe!

In thinking of David Garner and his current exhibition Shift, these things are associated in my mind, for they are all complementary problems and intrinsic to his present and historical cultural and social concern. He encompasses the big picture, as well as the minutiae, as now do I. Does the fact that £10million, according to – I’m confident understated – figures, is spent by the state on a funeral, I’m not going into whose and that £10million is to be spent on some kind of glass canopy for that bastion of proletarian entertainment, the South Bank Centre, have anything to do with the situation in Newport? What’s not to be angry about in the blitzing, both clandestine and overt, of public social and cultural institutions?

The arts and culture ought not to be regarded as competing priorities with social services and healthcare (it is interesting that it is a healthcare union which has sponsored this exhibition) but organically linked. The investment bankers, the arms dealers and the posh convicted criminals, quite a few of whom were on the guest list for the above-mentioned funeral, I noticed, are all for public spending when it comes to subsidising the Royal Opera House, or improvements to regional airports, where they can land in executive jets but not so keen on publicly funded hospitals, unless they have an accident, or a child born with a condition for which the private sector is not resourced, in which case they are temporary socialists.

This is why David’s work is so important – marginalisation of the left, trade union membership, of whatever hue and indeed dissident opinion in general, continues apace. In fact, anyone who brings attention to absurd policies, protests at injustices, or expresses a radical opinion, is demonized, labelled strident and even in the case of the obsequies mentioned, vulgar, tasteless and untimely. Why are all these things linked?

There are now people in the Newport communities who cannot afford to eat properly; many cannot even afford to get to the city centre. Yet this is a part of the world where the working class has produced artists, musicians, great scientists, distinguished linguists, philosophers and writers with international reputations. Public education and self-education have been central to all that and free cultural provision was another main engineer of it. I am talking capitalism and investment here, investment in all our assets, all our children and all our people. Why are we filling our universities with moneyed mediocrities and effectively excluding thousands of able people who can’t pay? And so to Aberfan: “A for is for Aberfan”, where many of the working class children man slaughtered through metropolitan cynicism and neglect, would have gone on to universities and occupations of value to their communities, in a way that is becoming increasingly difficult today.

Much of David Garner’s work in “Shift” reminds us of the extent to which we in Britain are reverting to becoming an early 19th Century society, just as he reminds us in his other work of the medievalism of modern war-lords and the victims of attitudes still medieval. When Christ said “Feed My sheep”, he wasn’t thinking about just loaves and fishes, but ideas. We need intellectual stimulation to go with the bread. We need galleries and exhibitions as fundamental to education and to equipping our children to be critical, to challenge orthodoxies, to see “Big Brother” for what it is and ensure that all people get both bread and intellectual stimulation.

It was with pleasure that accepted the invitation to open this exhibition by David Garner, a great artist of integrity. That pleasure does little to temper my sadness at what is to happen when it closes and that such things are happening in a place which seems to have lost sight of its radical history is dismaying and frankly disgusting.”

© Hugh Adams Bristol 2013


We Protest

It was freezing as a crowd gathered outside Newport Museum & Art Gallery to protest against the ending of the temporary exhibitions programme yesterday (21.02.2013).Image

A lively group ranging from babies to some of the artists who have shown in the gallery over the years and on to anarchists, art lovers, curious passers-by, even film crews and journalists swelled the protest to around a hundred, while across Wales others showed their support by waving their own placards, sending messages and, of course, signing the petition (currently running at over 1300). Oh, and there were giant puppets too,

Newport giant puppets EG 2013

Placards were waved, whistles blown and tooters tooted in front of the building that sports a huge poster proudly stating that Newport Is Open For Business…

Newport Open For Business poster & protestors…but the real picture in John Frost Square says something else.

Newport Empty shops 01 EG 2013It’s full of empty shops, cleared to make way for a new development that was put on hold, leaving the are in front of the gallery as a retail wasteland. And Newport has suffered more than most as the recession bites deep and the High Street chains pull out of the main shopping drags. Despite an initiative to revive the empty retail units with U.R.B.A.N.’s  lively programme of exhibitions and events was only ever going to be a sticking plaster on a city that’s lost its cultural compass.

Despite having the University of Wales presence throughout the city, which of course includes the European Centre for Photographic Research (and the final year of the Fine Art course) there seems to be no effort to retain graduates, although last year’s first graduate showcase, Fresh Paint, as part of the now  threatened temporary exhibitions programme (TEP) had begun to address a real need. But that will go when the TEP goes and the decision will be made next week, marking the end of forty years of changing exhibitions designed to entertain, bemuse, educate, delight or even enrage local residents and visitors. And if the rumours are to be believed (they were repeated so many times to me that I’m feeling convinced), then the whole building will close next year: permanent collection; museum. library and visitor information point.

Where once Newport seemed to have art and culture at the heart of its regeneration, with an on-going commitment to commissioning public art, now all of that seems to be going backwards. Even the famous and much-loved Chartist mural is doomed to demolition to make way for the new shopping development.

If the protests (more are planned), the petition, the lobbying, the Facebook and twitter campaigns and even straightforward pleading fails to persuade Newport Council to change its mind, then the future – for a city that needs all the unique selling points it can muster to lure in visitors from an M4 that can whisk them to neighbouring Bristol or Cardiff and the cultural vibe that makes shopping and wandering around, spending money, seem so much more attractive – seems bleak indeed.

When I spoke to Fine Art and Photography students at a careers fair at the university last month, they were asked how many were planning on staying in Newport post-graduation. An alarmingly few hands went up – less than a fistful of fingers. Why would they stay when there are few studio spaces (none run or supported by the council), no professional exhibition spaces, no opportunities to make public art and only  temprorary projects that seem to exist on a political whim?

Next week I’m off to Abertillery to join in the Arts Council of Wales’ Open Space session. In it we’re invited to consider the question:” What kind of creative Wales would you like to see by 2020 and how do we get there?” It’s an eight hour session, but the short answer would be: “I’d like to see a Wales where art is valued by everyone, especially politicians”. And if the politicians in Newport don’t get their cultural act together soon, we’ll be looking at a artistic void on the map of Wales, which no amount of swanky new shops will fill.

Newport Open For Business

Chop, Chop, Chop – more arts cuts


This has been a disturbing week for the visual arts in Wales and the wider museums sector: We heard that National Museums  Wales will be shedding around 35 jobs and that after six years Mermaid & Monster will stop their work of promoting artists at art fairs.

The M&M website has already vanished but you can read the statement here  or send messages of support here. However there was something else that almost slipped under my radar. In his email to tell me about the end of M&M, Gordon Dalton told me what the future holds for M&M, “There’ll be a couple of M&M shows this year, but we had been working on our largest show to date at Newport Museum – which has now been cancelled due to closure – this has left a big gap in our work.”

Did you spot that bombshell? If the rumour mill is to be believed (and I have several very reliable sources for this information), the temporary exhibitions programme (TEP) seems to be succumbing to the swingeing cuts that local authorities are making to save money. Try as I might (and this blog follows many hours of scouring through council minutes on the Newport Council website) I can find no publicly available resolution to axe this really important programme, previously featured in my other blog posts (Andrew Cooper here and Simon Fenoulhet here), but The South Wales Argus picked it up before Christmas in this story.

Simon Fenoulhet 1

Since the Arts Council of Wales Investment Review, 2010, whose outcome was announced just before the depth and severity of the economic crisis had really been computed, local authorities have come under increasing pressure to trim what they might term “non essential” services, i.e. those that they have no statutory obligation to deliver and the arts were always going to be an easy target. The recent furore around the 100% arts funding cuts in Newcastle  might make the cutting of the programme at NMAG look modest in comparison, but then in Newport there’s little else to cut, no other public galleries in a city sandwiched between Cardiff and Bristol that should/could be attracting audiences from both catchments to help revive its failing fortunes in the wake of the withdrawal of some of the major High St chains and the downsizing (though thankfully not now the closure) of the Passport Office in Newport. As the new city centre development gets back on track after a long hiatus, the museum and art gallery will be right next to a big part of the development.

But contemporary gallery programmes are not just about leisure/pleasure. Along with creating destinations for cultural tourists (who spend lots of money as a result of their visits – see here if you like statistics), they are also a way of engaging communities with ideas and with the notion of continuing their education and thinking beyond the classroom, and this is how entrepreneurship can be encouraged, along with the first steps into further education opportunities. So losing jobs at the National Museum or at Newport Museum & Art Gallery seems to be counter-productive as Wales struggles to roll with the financial punches.And, of course, gallery visitors, interested in contemporary art, are also interested in contemporary theatre, so what impact would the closure of the NM&AG temporary exhibitions programme have on audiences for The Riverfront, which also has a series of gallery spaces (albeit more community focussed than NM&AG’s)?

Later today Rosemary Butler AM, Assembly Member for Newport West since 1999 and Presiding Officer of the National Assembly will be opening 56:56 an exhibition that celebrates 56 years of 56 Group Wales. It opens at 11.30am and all are welcome to get along to show support. As far as I can gather, this will be the penultimate show in the Temporary Exhibitions Programme, which has been running for over 40 years. I sincerely hope that she will lend her support to the programme in any public consultation that must surely follow a decision to close the TEP.

Fresh Paint 2

If lost, we will also be saying goodbye to an important new strand of work to create a showcase for recent graduates – Fresh Paint in 2012, brought together emerging artists from art schools across South Wales. Visual Arts Officer, Shaun Featherstone, planned  to expand the reach across Wales and over the border. This is particularly sad as NM&AG was really beginning to connect with the Fine Art Course at University of Wales, Newport.

But of course, the Fine Art course is coming to an end and I’ll be giving what I can only imagine will be last talk to Fine Art Students at UWN as part of Creative Futures 2013. What can I tell them? That the opportunities for them to continue their practice in Newport and contribute to it’s creative and economic future have now shrunk further? When I look at the buzz created by artists in Cardiff and Swansea, supported by the hubs of the council funded galleries I can see that there is so much that Newport could be achieving, so much new additional funding that can be drawn into the city, stimulating activity for the benefit of the wider community.

The Radical Xmas Card show 2

I hope the rumours are wrong – please use the comments posts to let me know if you can confirm or deny them or to add your voice. Local Authority budgets for the next year will be set soon so if action is needed it will have to be quick. I’ll be following up on this as the picture becomes clearer.

Update #1 there’s now an online petition to save the exhibition programme at NMAG you can sign it here

Update #2 NMAG has approximately 28,000 visitors per year, or 90 per day. If they each spend a modest £2.50 (and most cultural tourism multipliers are many times higher) that’s £70,000 that goes into the local community, not to mention rail and bus fares.

Before the Arts Council of Wales’ Investment Review, NMAG had an ACW revenue grant of £42,374. The programme costs Newport £40,000 to run, including salaries, on-costs and the programme budget, the latter is supplemented by a current Arts Council of Wales Lottery grant of £13,314. This would have delivered fourteen exhibitions, but the programme will be curtailed if the cuts are approved. The TEP also enables exhibiting artists to apply for funding to create new works for their exhibition at NMAG (and many of the exhibitions are of new work not seen anywhere else), supporting the wider arts economy in Wales and helping to retain talent.

If you want to register your concern about the proposed cut to the Temporary Exhibitions Programme at NMAG you can write to the Leader of Newport Council, Councillor Bob Bright (contact details here) and if you live in Newport you can contact the Councillor for your ward here and/or take part in the public consultation about budget cuts here, but be quick, all responses must be in by Feb 13 in advance of the council meeting on Feb 26. NB there is no reference in the consultation documents to the closure of NMAG’s TEP nor of other culture cuts so it’s difficult to see how the public are supposed to make an informed decision.



As the Engage (National Association for Gallery Education) goes into the second day of its annual conference in Cardiff – Landing Place – it seems like a good time to look at how art reaches audiences and how they react.

I have to confess that I’ve been a bit too awash with various projects to make it to the conference, but did get to the pre-conference social at Ffotogallery’s Turner House Gallery two days ago to meet up with a very lively group of gallery educators who make up the coal face of visual arts mediation and interpretation across the UK.

Before everyone got even more lively on the mulled cider on offer they were treated to a quick overview of what the education team at Ffotogallery have been doing. And here I have to declare a big fat interest. Last year I asked them if they’d be interested in working with me on an outreach project as part of a public art programme I’m managing in my home town of Penarth. A social housing project called the Billy Banks has passed its sell-by date and is being re-developed into the new Penarth Heights. I’ve been anxious to fold in the people who used to live there, to capture the history of what was a bold experiment in social housing back in the 70s, and to link the project to the wider town. Before the bulldozers had razed the last traces of the old site to the ground, Ffotogallery sent six artists in to six local schools, taking them on site visits and getting them to make their own very individual responses to the change. You can see the results here.To say they exceeded my wildest expectations is an understatement, underlined by the massive grins on the faces of the pupils who came to the launch event at the end of last month.

For some of those young people this was their first contact with an artist. And here’s the thing. Most artists don’t make their primary living form making and selling their work. It’s through education – teaching, artist-in-residence projects and activities that may seem at a tangent to their artistic practice, that many earn their daily crust. And for artists like Matt Wright, Faye Chamberlain, Chiara Tocci, Michael Iwanowski, Ewan Jones Morris and Nat Higgins this is an opportunity to work directly with a new audience. For the schools, of course, it’s a rare opportunity to work with new media and processes, as well as giving pupils and teachers an insight into how how artists work and adding a new dimension to curricular work they may already be working with. I just hope that this is the kind of work that registers with the Welsh Government’s New joint review to look at broadening access to the arts in education.

David Garner Future Tense But of course gallery education isn’t just for the children. Last week I took myself northwards to Aberystwyth Arts Centre for a talk by artist David Garner. His current show Future Tense is dense with meanings, as is much of his work. For this body of work he has thrown all of his thinking about the impact of globalisation into the creative furnace to produce a series of works which, in the pared back shell of the gallery, set up conversations with each other and send out narrative threads across the space.

Looking at them without recourse to the information sheet and before the scheduled gallery talk, they spark off a range of thoughts and responses, informed by my own baggage of experience. And then I start to consider them as distinct objects. All are made with an exceptional attention to detail so that I found myself looking for the joins, the interventions with the found objects that transform them to something else – a shift in scale in a child’s school desk,; the dark and exotic woods of what looks, at first glimpse, like a normal wooden pallet but has tiny dowel pegs where the roughly banged in pegs would be; the retro paint on the base of a giant spike at human height. piercing hundreds of time cards (the punched out chips in a glass jar nearby).

David Garner Future Tense detail from Lost Symbols in a Global CurrentWhen Garner starts to tell the gathered audience (I think there were about 30 of us but we were walking and talking so head-counting was tricky – it was a good turnout anyway), he starts to feed us details, thought processes, material information that adds another layer. There are some things intended by the artist that will never be obvious to the gallery viewer but, half an hour over time, we leave with a sense of having taken something new on board and that an exchange has occurred.

Back to Cardiff and even further back in time. As part of the current Artes Mundi prize offering at National Museum Cardiff shortlisted artist Apolonija Šušteršič managed to do what no-one else has managed in over 25 years. As part of her presentation for Artes Mundi she created a new project and an archive around the development of Cardiff Bay and the barrage that changed the view of what was once Cardiff’s Docks forever. As part of this project she filmed the pro and anti-barrage protagonists and, for Talk Show, she invited both sides to look back at the changes to Cardiff Bay. This was to be the first time that both sides had ever been able to share a platform, filmed live and unedited for an hour, the ensuing debate  showed that feelings around the development that displaced people and birds (Šušteršič remained neutral, although she has her own views on economically driven development, I am less so) are still raw.

Apolonija Sustersic Talk Show 19.10.2012

So within the context of a gallery exhibition, the outsider’s eye, in the form of the artist’s camera, brought a new perspective to an understanding of how places get made and un-made. And the events around art practice, when artists are allowed the opportunity to add another dimension to work that is already interesting, leave everybody better off.

The Space Invaders

Disruption 2 David Marchant, Swansea 2012

As I write this I can almost hear the rumbling of activity waiting to happen in various parts of Wales over the next few months. Art is about to burst out of the galleries and meet new audiences for three festivals in Swansea, Cardiff and Conwy.

Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Shelters Museum Green, Locws 2012
David Marchant Cowin’ Lush, Wind Street, Locws 2012  Jock Mooney - Swansea Kebab, Castle Square, Locws 2012

David Blandy -  The Devil Meets Dylan Thomas, Oxford Street, Locws 2012
First out of the traps is Locws International brings back Art Across The City, opening tonight (28 Sept) and runs to 11 November; Cardiff Contemporary (the web site is nearly ready to go live but here’s the Facebook page to give you a flavour) kicks off on 01 October and blinc returns to Conwy for its second year with I Love Conwy, Conwy Loves Me for the weekend of 27 & 28 October.

Lisa Stansbie Diaphone O4W

Installations, interventions, interactions all over the place. From giant lasers to an armoured vehicle projecting images; from caravans to on the buses; on walls, in empty shops, in the sky, underfoot:  film, video games, neons, sonic art, public art, public talks, public walks, pop-up galleries, performances, screenings, new commissions, older work re-presented. It’s going to be lively.

Just listing all the artists and venues would result in a novel-length blog, so please have a look at the sites as they come up.

But the bottom line is that much of this activity is artist-led and represents collaboration and a desire to engage new audiences.

Seeing art in a gallery can be a really stimulating experience, and I’ve seen some humdingers over the years, but it requires a proactive attitude and there are still many folk who think that they don’t belong in art galleries or museums. Once art takes to the streets or to the places where people can’t help but come across it, something else happens.

Phone Box Disco, Disruption 2, July 2012Earlier this summer I went to Swansea for Eysium Gallery’s  second year of disrupting the city. Disruption 2   took to the unloved High Sreet to create an afternoon of in-your-face performance and unusual activity. It was my first time in a phone box disco, complete with red carpet and bouncer, the smile didn’t leave my face until I’d fallen asleep that night. Passers-by were bemused, entertained or enraged, but most entered the spirit of the day. A wobble in the daily life of the city that transformed the rat run between the station to the glossy shopping arcades.

Locws commissions artists to respond to sites across the city, often working with communities who haven’t encountered artists before, creating temporary interventions that change the way these places look and feel (I reviewed the last one in 2011 here.)

Up in Conwy, blinc does the same thing in a very concentrated weekend featuring thirty artists and using sites all over the town, including the castle at its heart, with a strong focus on digital work and some spectacular events. Curated by Craig Morrison and Joel Cockrill, this year’s festival is a tribute to mathematician Alan Turing.

Meanwhile, in the capital city, Cardiff Contemporary is a new umbrella for a whole host of visual art and design activity, some already established, like Artes Mundi, Chapter’s Experimentica  and Cardiff Design Festival (opens tonight) , to newer festivals like Made in Roath and the very brand new Outcasting : Fourth Wall  artists’ moving image festival (launching next week). But there’s lots more, including special events and activities and a phenomenal amount of cross-over and collaboration.

Janet Cardiff sound piece, Karlsaue Park, Kassel, Documenta 13 2012

Over the past few months I’ve seen how art presented in this way effects the public in Liverpool and Kassel , bringing new ideas and experiences to the widest possible audiences. From tonight, until the madness of the festive season really gets us all in its grip in December, there’s a chance to be part of something exciting in the North, South East and West of Wales.

Chris Squire, blincSo if you’re anywhere near Cardiff or Conwy or Swansea over the coming month, don’t miss out.

Studios – Where Art Happens

Elysium Studios 2012

Last week I was in Margate for the National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers‘s  (NFASP) AGM and a series of events designed to bring artists and studio providers together to share experience, intelligence and generally bond. The day was hosted by the exceptionally friendly Turner Contemporary, who kept the refreshments flowing as we yomped our way through a networking event for studios, artists and funders in the South East (England), pulled together by Dover Arts Development (DAD), and on to a series of workshops for NFASP members that covered such useful topics as Public Benefit – what it really means, especially in terms of the Charities Commission  and sustainable business models for studios, followed by an opportunity for members to go into regional huddles to talk to each other and do a spot of networking.

I wasn’t there as an artist or a studio provider, but to attempt to write it all up for NFASP, with whom I’ve been working for the past year. All of my notes (a big fat notebook full) will go somewhere else, but I left with my brain fizzing after meeting a whole host of people intent on doing things to make life better for artists and the communities in which they work.

So here I’m just going to ruminate about artists studios, at a time when artists are possibly even more beleaguered than ever as they face hikes in business rates; a falling off in funding – especially from cash-strapped local authorities; the depletion in the organisations set  up to support them – following the various Arts Councils’ funding reviews; the decimation of arts education institutions – one of the key employers of artists; the drop in funding for small projects and corporate sponsorship. OK I could go on.

Fortunately artists tend to be very resilient and, as often as not, will see opportunities where others see despair – the rise in the number of empty shops  and office spaces being used by artists to make/show work illustrates this, although these might not be sustainable in the longer term.

It’s hard to define a typical artists’ studio model. In Margate I met with people making work or project spaces in: former farm buildings; unloved industrial workshops; heritage sites; empty shops; at the end of the pier and even on a decommissioned light ship, moored in the Medway. Other artists’ groups have re-animated schools, old mills, fire stations, factories, office blocks and even troubled social housing projects heading for the inevitable boarding up and police attention. Of course many more work from home and the South East Open Studios Network was represented at the networking meeting.

They’re rural and urban, big set ups with hundreds of studios and small collectives of five, six or seven members. Between them they have a staggering array of partnerships and networks, community, curatorial, educational and professional development programmes and they reach out internationally through residencies, exhibitions and exchanges, while covering the full spectrum of artistic practice and experience. From recent graduates, just starting the climb up the emergence curve, to established artists looking for the camaraderie of a shared space and, more practically, access to shared resources. What they have in common is the affordability factor. This is only natural as NFASP’s membership criteria includes the following statement:

“Our role is to represent and support all those engaged in developing and managing affordable studios for visual artists and studio groups and organisations form our core membership.”

At first sight £10 – £15 per square foot per annum seems exceptional. Why should these individuals get preferential rates? Well, as Marcel Baettig of the Bow Arts Trust points out, the average use of a studio is one day per week as artists juggle jobs and other responsibilities. We do all know that the majority of artists don’t live by making diamond encrusted objects to flog through the big auction houses don’t we? The sad fact is that most artists can’t earn a living from the production of their art alone. So they teach, or undertake project work funded by others and to their agendas and ambitions, or non-arts related jobs to pay the bills.

Should we care? Hell yes! Over the past couple of decades we’ve seen the fruition of capital strategies that have created new places and spaces to see and enjoy the arts thanks to the National Lottery, Europe and some regeneration funding. These have also attracted a big chunk of the available money from the charitable and corporate sector – new buildings are sexy and easy to put a nice, publicly visible plaque in. However this investment seems out of kilter with that going to the primary source of content for those buildings – the artists.

And artists need time and space to make work. It can be a lonely business so they need networks and support structures around them. Sometimes this is as simple as peer feedback and critical advice, but it’s also important to keep abreast of developments in contemporary practice and clusters of artists offer an easy hit for international curators doing the rounds to scout for new talent.

But more importantly artists’ studios can make an enormous contribution to their communities. This can range for support for emerging artists, to running exhibition/project spaces, workshops and other events and, perhaps most importantly for potential funders and planners, can re-invigorate those run-down buildings and parts of town that are suffering from changes to the economy. In his workshop about business models for studios, Marcel Baettig showed how Bow Arts Trust invests rental income in new studio buildings and in community programmes that really engage local people and help to create an understanding of what artists do and what they can do. Many studios are also now actively engaged in working with art schools to help bring on the next generation of artists: Spike Island, Grand Union, Elysium, tactileBOSCH, A Space, ACME and ACAVA being prime examples.

To be sustainable studios need a critical mass and a reasonable amount of square footage (opinions vary between 1500 – 2500 square feet) to be economically viable. Sadly spaces on this scale are not always available – particularly away from the big urban conurbations. But the waiting lists attest to the continued need for affordable work spaces.

And some developers, not always famed for their altruistic outlooks, have already worked out that artists make good tenants and help to add to the offer of new buildings, incorporating live/work spaces for artists in developments. The same can be said for more enlightened local authorities, who have registered that clusters of artists’ spaces can help to regenerate run down areas where enterprise grants for businesses have failed.

Keeping all of this on the agendas of those who can make a difference is what NFASP is about, but it’s a constant challenge to advocate and respond to new legislation (where are the artists in the nascent National Planning Policy framework?) and to support artists who suddenly find themselves with leaky buildings, dodgy leases or astronomical hikes in business rates (most are at the mercy of the discretionary reductions of cash-strapped local authorities).

As NFASP moves into a new phase without regular funding from Arts Council England, they are busily setting up networks for studio groups across the UK. So far there’s been one in the North of England, last week’s South East Network and, on 30 March  there will be one in Swansea for South Wales. If you’d like to be there (you don’t have to be an NFASP member to come along and meet other like-minded souls) you can email me to get on the list. The details of the day are here. Or if you’d like to set up your own regional network email NFASP and let them know.

With many thanks to Crate and Limbo for inviting us to join them after a really lively day in Margate.

Aine Belton - Drawing Time & Clare Beattie - Heard, Crate 2012

And finally, a quick plug for Elysium who will be launching their new studio spaces on 16 March. Follow the link to find out more.