The Starry Messenger – Bedwyr Williams at the Venice Biennale

Wylo - Bedwyr Williams 2013

Wales is back out in Venice for its sixth Venice Biennale and this time Bedwyr Williams has been selected to represent Wales at the Ludoteca in Castello. His solo show The Starry Messenger has just opened and is already stirring up a whole heap of media interest.

But what’s it like?

It’s like this: I am four or five years old, in the grip of a stomach bug that imprisons me in the tiny bathroom of my early childhood flat. There’s nothing to do but sit this one out and stare at the floor – old lino, printed to look like really bad terrazzo flooring. My eyes try to make sense of the odd shapes and blobs on the floor. The more I stare at them, the more the blobs seem to rise up to meet me and I experience a sinking feeling, like a pebble falling slowly into an abyss or an alternate universe. Gastro enteritis can do that to you. So can Bedwyr Williams and that memory floats to the surface of my mind as I get to grips with his obsession with terrazzo, linked to his love of amateur astronomy.

Let me walk you through The Starry Messenger.

Step off  the dog shit festooned Venetian streets, out of the sun, or the sudden soaking shower that releases the smell of said shit and the perfume of the ubiquitous Tracheleospermum Jasminoides in equal measure. Inside the Ludoteca it is cool and dark. A mesh curtain printed to look like terrazzo is see-through enough to reveal what looks like a stargazer’s observatory beyond it. Through the curtain to peer at this large white erection (how did that get through the door then?) and there’s a sound of manly despair, endless looped sobbing. The door is ajar. The roof open, pointing at the heavens depicted on the ceiling and studded with tiny metal stars.

Wylo, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)Keep up now, we’re going into the next room to one of those ponds that feature in posh lifstyle magzines. Not an infinity pool but one that should be full of koi carp so expensive they make insurers nervous and owners take out contract killings on neighbouring cats. No fish in here though. Instead giant blocks of what look like granite but can’t be because they’re floating on the surface to a soundtrack of things breaking up or breaking down. It’s dark with blue lights to help make out the contours of these drifting chunks.

The Depth, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)On down a dark corridor studded with tiny orange lights –  like cosmic emergency lighting on a budget airline – and into a space where giant dark geometric forms loom all around and overhead, picked out by lights that pulse and change colour. We are small as molecules in terrazzo – if these are the quartz or granite chips then we are flecks of cement or sand.

Obelix, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)So, feeling cut down to size, we stumble out into a brightly lit room, dominated by an immense glass-topped coffee table that we stare at from underneath. Its surface is strewn with seemingly randomly selected objects – if you tear up the Ikea and Argos catalogues and place anything that comes out as a whole image around the floor, this is sort of the effect, but there’s obviously a rationale between the choice of these objects that we’re peering up at, a cosmos of consumables with a white coat hanger gently swaying in the breeze of an office fan. If it weren’t for the steady flow of visitors we could lie on the floor and try and make sense of them.

The Northern Hemisphere, 2013 - Bedwyr Williams (image Anna Arca)Onwards to the room where threads are woven together, but not necessarily into a garment you can immediately wear (think of those skirts that seem to have extra pouches, flaps and hanging straps). Sit with me on the bleachers, put on the radio headphones and here is Williams taking us on one of his surreal journeys. So we imagine we’re a chunk of something, probably a bit of rock and, to become part of the terrazzo, we’ll have to live with the idea of being ground down to a polished surface, the backs of our heads buffed away to a big wound (but don’t worry, Williams assures us it’ll scab over and we seem to be able to deal with this sacrifice).

The Starry Messenger, 2013 (Film Still) - Bedwyr Williams (image Emma Geliot)Williams appears with a mosaic head, his outline instantly recognisable as his famous performance hat has been given the mosaic treatment too. (Dazed Digital gives you a two minute clip here so you get the idea)

For me to replicate the narrative would be ridiculous, it is convincing in the moment, but the imagery is fantastic and takes in everything from bondage to dentists.

Out of the dark and into the light again. Allow a few minutes for the ears to adjust to the chirruping sound that fills the little transitional courtyard. Are they crickets? Cicadas? Grasshoppers? Whatever they are one of them has just farted.

Exit through the broom cupboard, curated (for want of a better word) by Williams so that objects are arranged in a way that implies a relationship between things. Disturbing sounds of dentistry fill this claustrophobic space. I am happy to leave with my jaw aching.

Nearly done now. Out to the last part – a pile of neatly stacked little leaflets featuring a narrative that takes in perfume. I don’t know this as I pick one up, but my nose catches a whiff of expensive scent (Tom Ford I am reliably informed). The devil is in these details.

Behind the scenes of this show – one of the hot picks of the Biennale – is a vast team of curators (the show is co-curated by Oriel Davies and MOSTYN); technicians; fixers, committee members; administrators; invigilators; manufacturers, animators; art transporters; press and pr people with the Arts Council of Wales’ Louise Wright acting as Commissioner and Williams getting extra support from his gallery, Ceri Hand.This is no tuppeny ha’penny operation. The party is full of fancy folk, chatting over gin or Penderyn Whisky and the sausage rolls that made the Wales party famous years ago. Williams gives us another performance and we are moles again, as we were a few months ago when this project was launched in London and St Fagans. You’ll get the idea here.

Bedwyr Williams performing at the Wales party, Venice 2013 (image Emma Geliot)

You can also see more pictures of the show here courtesy of the BBC.

Or, if you can’t make it to Italy, wait for the show to tour Wales once the Venice Biennale shuts up shop again in November (if you don’t live in Wales, here’s a reason to visit).

I’m off to polish my head.

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Creative Wales

Simon Fenoulhet - Lucent Lines 2010

The Arts Council of Wales recently announced the latest batch of Creative Wales recipients, including two Creative Wales Ambassadors. The cat, which has been wrestling in its sack for several months since the decisions were made, was finally let out of the bag at the awards event hosted by Galeri, Caernarfon (the first North Wales ceremony).

Now this is a scheme that is very dear to my heart, established not long after I started working for the Arts Council of Wales in 2002. Unlike other schemes this one allows artists to step away from their day-to-day commitments and focus on a period of experimentation, research, trial and error. It is important because it recognises that there might be some failures which, we all know, are never truly failures but rather prompts to reflect, digest and move forward.

It is, however, a tricky beast. I have watched artists’ brains on the verge of explosion as the research period leads them off in many directions at once. On the plus side this creates fodder for the years to come, but focusing down to the most fruitful areas for creative pursuit can be difficult – seeing the wood for the trees from the middle of a forest in a storm – can be hard. This is where a critical friend or a professional mentor can help to shape the work at hand.

When I was trying to prepare artists for what might lie ahead I found it easier to draw as I went along, which resulted in a series of strange beasties that I called The Art Centipede (the illustration below is a mock up I did for g39’s closing show are we not drawn onward to new era and seems to have fewer legs than I usually managed). It’s not easy to explain the creative process as it’s so particular to each individual artist, but I had noticed a pattern forming at certain points in the Creative Wales process.

It should also be said that the post CW period can be very tough. Going back to the daily grind, but this time with a mind stuffed full of potential projects and fizzing to start realising them. That’s why it’s so important to keep talking to potential galleries or supporters while the project is ongoing to stimulate a bit of interest for the next stage.

I’m glad to see so many visual  artists make the cut again (three major and three lesser awards plus an arguable seventh in Simon Whitehead) – this scheme is almost tailor made for individuals used to working alone, albeit with an inclination to collaboration, and applied artists and writers often do well here too. Luckily ACW have laughed in the face of the winds of recession and upped the kitty by £50,000, recognising that investment in creative individuals to think and dream will bear fruit for everyone further down the line.

On the visual arts front there’s a picture forming – winners have had support earlier on in their careers by the galleries and organisations who make it their business to give emerging artists space to develop. g39, for example, can boast a relationship with five awardees and another is on his way to an exhibition in their new space. They are: S Mark Gubb, Simon Fenoulhet, Miranda Whall, Simon Whitehead and Craig Wood, alongside future g39 exhibitor Paul Emmanuel (winner of last year’s Welsh Artist of the Year). They were too modest to mention that the g39 staff can claim a total of four CW awards between them: Anthony Shapland, Michael Cousin (also a CW Ambassador) and Sean Edwards (who runs the Welsh Artists’ Resource Programme Warp).

So early support is obviously vital, but there’s still no commercial infrastructure to represent artists in Wales, apart from the sterling efforts of agencies such as Mermaid and Monster. Those few who do have commercial representation often have to look outside Wales for this. Artists who have come out of the Creative Wales process often pick up big solo shows: Sue Williams* went on to be one of only two Welsh artists included in the Artes Mundi Prize exhibition. Tim Davies, one of the very first AM artists (2004) got his CW award and went on to represent Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art in 2011 and is now on the board of Artes Mundi. Both Simon Fenoulhet (after his first CW award) and Andrew Cooper have had big solo shows at the ever-supportive Newport Museum & Art Gallery (which I’ve already covered in previous blogs – Andrew Cooper here and Simon Fenoulhet here), but what next? It seems a lot of artists are running to stand still in Wales.

Andrew Cooper - Dis-Location at Newport Museum & Art Gallery, 2011

And faced with the inevitable criticism about spending money on artists when the economy goes to hell in a handcart, it’s worth remembering that the spend on arts in Wales can, if equated to the expenditure being spread over a year, amount to a morning (with time off for tea and recession-friendly, poor-quality biscuits) of the Welsh Government’s budget. And behind all of this is the still very serious question of how artists’ awards are treated by HMRC. While the big boys of the creative industries get new tax breaks in the latest budget, the approach to these awards is patchy across tax offices. Some will be taxed on it, others not and I was once told, by a helpful HMRC officer, not to ask the question as it would result in everyone being taxed. Yet the creative and cultural industries still come in as the sixth biggest earner for Wales (way ahead of sport btw), and those big commercial enterprises feed off the original ideas of our artists. So go figure.

Culture Colony were in Caernarfon for a series of conversations around Creative Wales, with past and present recipients teasing out what it is. You can watch them here

*As an aside, but to illustrate the press reaction to artists here’s a little anecdote for those of you who have bravely read to the end of this: A Sunday Times journalist, casting around for a new story after the expenses’ scandal had stalled, cornered me for a quote about Sue Williams’ perfectly serious exploration of sexuality through body casting. I had no notion that the whole thing would turn into what I now, still shuddering, refer to as ‘Buttock Gate’ (I’m not linking to this or it’ll all rear up again, do your own googling). The story went viral and it’s deeply disturbing to see yourself (mis)quoted in many languages, while the illustrative pictures accompanying the story go from the artist in her studio to a random nymphette in a pair of lacy pants. Journalists eh!

Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.

Writing The Future

Richard Higlett from Welcome to You World g39 @The DairyThe last month or so have been incredibly busy and it’s going to take me a while to catch up, but two things have happened in the last few days that raise a lot of questions and signal some potentially very positive things, so I’m going to try to weld them together.

The first happened last Saturday, when I went along to the New Critics Day at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. This was the culmination of a joint initiative put together by Literature Wales and National Theatre Wales to stimulate critical writing about theatre in Wales. The first cohort of mentored new critics came to share their experiences of covering NTW’s first year of productions with their mentors, The Guardian‘s Elisabeth Mahoney and Lyn Gardner (and you can read Gardner’s blog about the day here).

Now with the focus of the day on Welsh theatre and largely reviews, or the lack of them, in the (UK) national press, plus the inevitable kicking of The Western Mail‘s critical engagement, I wanted to consider how the what was said related to the visual arts. If Theatre thinks it’s got it bad, contemporary art in Wales and its communities can seem invisible.

One transferable thought came through, that without reviews and a wider critical dialogue around work, we lose opportunities on all fronts. Artists and curators don’t get the feedback they need to help them move on; potential audiences miss out on conversations that offer a way in to work that can often be challenging, daunting, perplexing but often inspiring (not a word I use often). Without the access to ideas, to critical conversations, how can audiences be expected to engage with contemporary practice? And if they can’t engage who will advocate for the arts in a climate where the chilly winds of the recession are whistling up everyone’s jumpers?

Hold that thought for a moment, as I go on to event number two. The launch of the rather sexily entitled strategic vision from  Stevens & Associates and Holder Mathias architects for Cardiff Council – Establishing Cardiff as Europe’s Largest Contemporary Art and Design Gallery: A Clever, Creative and Collaborative Cardiff Solution (yes, really).

I say strategic vision, but at this stage it’s more of an ambition as the meat isn’t on the bones of how it will be delivered yet. However the aim is  to get Cardiff on the European contemporary art and design map in five years, using existing organisations and resources to create a critical mass and profile for the plethora of activity in the Capital City.

This, I’m reasonably convinced, comes out of a pragmatic response to the Arts Council of Wales and National Museum of Wales’ joint study into the Future Display of Art in Wales, by consultants DCA  and the subsequent report, by ABL Consulting (who seem to have vanished, along with all traces of their report), that looked specifically at a National Centre for Contemporary Arts (non-collections based) for the Arts Council of Wales. That report concluded that a) such a centre should be in Cardiff and b) that it would cost around £40m, which put the wind up everyone in 2008, with then Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones parking it as something to be considered in the future.

In the interim the National Museum has been able to deliver their stunning new galleries for Modern and Contemporary art, creating a new focus and context for contemporary art in Cardiff, but with no municipal art gallery to match the ambitions of The Depot project (part of the close, but not close enough bid for Capital of Culture 2008 bid) there is no real focal point (Chapter Arts Centre aside) for the fizz of activity in Cardiff.

So, it was a rallying day, with lots of feedback and suggestions from those present, including a heartening number of artists and curators, in stark contrast to the launch of @Creative Cardiff, but no real clear way forward.

Now it seems to me that this could go several ways – it could end up being a joint marketing exercise (although we were assured that this wouldn’t be the case) or it could signal real investment in the visual & applied arts and design in Cardiff from Cardiff Council, focussing on supporting activity rather than infrastructure (those with long memories are still smarting from the collapse of the Centre for Visual Arts). Where this investment will come from remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that Cllr Rodney Berman, Leader of Cardiff County Council is quite passionately and emphatically behind this.

So back to the first event – I promised they linked up somewhere – the problem with arts activity in Cardiff isn’t its paucity, it’s the lack of critical coverage to draw attention to it, to address the sometimes variable quality of what’s produced and to boost Cardiff up the search rankings for cultural tourists.

Supporting new critical writing is all very well, but it needs a platform. Who will be covering this year’s Experimentica, Made in Roath and tactileBOSCH’s colonisation of Cardiff under the MOIST umbrella, which links the two festivals and more besides? Where are the reviews for the current shows at Chapter and g39 (image above from Richard Higlett’s Welcome To Your World at g39’s temporary home in Pontcanna)? It’s clear that the Western Mail just doesn’t have the staffing capacity or the resources to cover these things, except as listings, so a concerted effort will be needed to create outlets for critical conversations.

We’ve got Pitch* on Radio Cardiff, we’ve got blown ** magazine  and Culture Colony is proving to be an important online forum across art forms in Wales (I’m not ashamed of plugging three projects close to my heart) and more magazines launching soon, but we need to be getting this stuff into the Nationals, onto the telly and generally out there if the Cardiff initiative is to succeed. And if it does it’ll have a very positive impact on the rest of Wales.

Anyway, watch this space for new developments, and if anyone has the answers, on a postcard (or more digitally, in the comment box) please.


* Read Elisabeth Mahoney’s review of Pitch for The Guardian here
** And Peter Finch’s blog take on blown here

Love Art : Art Hate


It’s been a period of enormous activity, set against a background of anxiety about cuts in the arts and a swelling campaign to exert pressure on the Government (in Westminster – everything is disturbingly quiet in Wales).

In the middle of all of this I found myself heading to the one part of London that I thought I’d avoid forever – Cork St. I’ve probably spent too much time away from the commercial art world, but have developed a bit of an allergy to the comodification of art (I lasted an hour at Frieze Art Fair last year). So why go to the dark heart of art commerce?

Artist Billy Childish, aided and abetted by two of his galleries, (L-13 and David Lilford Fine Art) had managed to secure a gallery space for a week to host his latest Art Hate outing, following Art Hate Basildon (or Baseldon) in June.

If you don’t know about Art Hate then you can catch up here, or go for a more traditional approach here. Now I don’t hate art and nor does Childish, he’s still producing paintings along with the sold-by-the inch Art Hate merchandise. But it’s the stuff that goes with the territory that he challenges – the arbiters of good taste in our national institutions, the passing off of less-than-great work for all manner of reasons and, I suspect, the complicated dances with commercial galleries and the repositories of a narrow view of national cultural values that artists have to engage with. And, to be fair, he’s also established the Anti-Art hate movement too.

In any event I enjoyed the context of the night, in the middle of the most established purveyors of art, and the bar (fizzy stuff, wine and Malibu) certainly helped to create a convivial mood of art-hating. The original plan had been to erect the metal sign (see pic) that reads Art Will Make Us Free across the entrance to Cork St and to block off the end of the street  (the eagle-eyed will have spotted the echoes of the Nazi Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance to Auschwitz). Unfortunately the Council and the Police had other ideas.

As the long knives come out for the public sector, I suspect there’ll be more artist-led activity that, unfettered by the constraints of funding and the strings-attached institutional agendas, will create its own momentum and context. But I also hope that those institutions that create the right framework for artists to make responsive work don’t fall victim to an ethos of playing it safe and keeping the metaphorical heads below the parapet to avoid the swinging axe.

Certainly the public funding of the arts looks grim and, for individual practitioners, it’s going to be tough times ahead. But, without wishing to sound too Polyanna-ish about it, the dwindling of resources has never seemed to faze artists, who are so used to working on next-to-nothing. In Wales pretty much all of the funding for artist’s projects and professional development has come via the lottery pot. With pressure mounting on that pot to soak up the activity that has been cut from the Arts Council’s portfolio of revenue funded clients, there’ll be a temptation to turn away would-be applicants and to turn down those who don’t fill in the forms to the letter. For many artists and artists’ groups the form-filling will prove to be too much of an obstacle and they’ll give up, which would be a real shame. I really hope that the future of funding the arts in Wales doesn’t rest on the administrative prowess of applicants, but you can see that this form of self-elimination will provide an element of relief to those trying to cut a cake that’s too small.

On the other hand, squashing projects into someone else’s priorities or agendas is never easy either and going it alone, or inventing new models, offers a level of relief from those pressures. If you want to voice your ideas or concerns, then the Arts Council of Wales annual conference is where you should be. Amongst other speakers Sean Edwards from g39 will be leading a breakout session on how to manage in times of austerity (although at £45 I’m not sure how many artists will be able to afford to go…)

Meanwhile here are my tips for things to see:

Tim Davies – Between a Rock and a Hard Place at Mostyn gallery, Llandudno (to  Saturday  Nov 06)

Condition Report Ffotogallery bring new Czech photographic art to Turner House (to Dec 11)

Bound Within a Hidden Space – Gemma Copp’s solo show at Elysium gallery (to Nov 20)

Pascal-Michel DuboisShow One of Each at g39 (to Nov 27)

And coming up:

Lucent Lines – Simon Fenoulhet’s adventures in light at Oriel Davies (from Nov 13) (featured in previous blog What You see)

Smile – Mission Gallery, Swansea (from Nov 13)

And finally, if you want to find out more about why I’m blogging and my other writing activities, I’ve been asked to give a talk at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery at 1pm this friday (Nov 05). I’ll be plugging the immenent blown issue 2 and thinking out loud about the attitude of the Welsh and national media to contemporary art from/of/in Wales. Come and throw me questions or throw non-staining vegetables (it’s in the Atrium with lots of art around).

Who was changed and who was dead: The Arts Council of Wales Investment Review

So, today’s the day the Arts Council of Wales announced its most radical review and reorganisation of the portfolio of funded clients to date. There’s little detail in the report Renewal and Transformation, just the bald facts of who’s in and who’s out.

For those who are out this is going to be a tough time – there’ll be a year’s funding grace while they scrabble around to find alternative sources of funding (from where?), or start to wind things up. For those left within the portfolio it’s an equally worrying time. Some have hung on by the seat of their financial pants while the review took its course and they’ll have to hang on even longer before any new funding comes their way.

I’m not going to talk about the other art forms because there have been too many apples and pears comparisons already and my interest remains with the visual arts in Wales.

In the cut the visual arts did reasonably ok, with smaller galleries such as Swansea’s Mission, Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen and g39 keeping their toeholds on funding. But there were some surprise cuts – Oriel Wrecsam and Newport Museum and Art Gallery (both local authority-run venues) are out, leaving Oriel Davies in Newtown as the only funded gallery in the East of Wales. And Safle comes to end, just three years after it was set up to develop public art in Wales.

It’s no secret that I had enormous reservations about the merger of Cywaith Cymru . Artworks Wales and Cbat (I’m being restrained here – you have to imagine me running around the old Arts Council offices in Museum Place, frothing at the mouth and shouting “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”). Not because of the work of either of the organisations, which came from quite different perspectives, but because the thinking at the time was “Why are we funding two public arts organisations, let’s merge them and just have one?”, which was rather like merging Tesco and your local corner shop and expecting to get the best of both worlds. In the event the tortuous process of establishing a new organisation managed to throw the baby out with the bath water.

There is no pleasure in saying “I told you so”, because I know what has been lost can never be recaptured.

Safle was the biggest visual arts casualty in terms of funding, but there’s another smaller one, the only organisation that was purely about representing artists and giving them a platform and profile that offered them genuine opportunities to develop their practice on an increasingly broad stage. Axis.

Axis, an online resource for artists, curators, critical writers and all those other people who need to know what’s current, who’s interesting, had already fallen foul the Scottish Arts Council’s funding review, leaving only England and Wales to subsidise selected artists from those nations. It’s hard to see how Axis’ very modest funding (circa £20k) will be used to better effect anywhere else and it also begs the question “Where are the artists in all of this?”

If this document is a statement of bold intent (albeit driven by financial necessity to cut cloth that’s already reduced to an elbow patch on the jumper of public funding), it falls short of recognising that the arts are not the result of strategic planning, of mergers, consortia or of willing things into existence. The arts, at their best, are driven by artistic vision and the creative impulse. galleries, theatres, concert halls and creative hubs are nothing but empty buildings without creative individuals.

I’ve worked in and around public funding for the arts for the best part of twenty years and have watched the arts funders (and I include local authorities and the various government bodies responsible for culture) as they struggled to justify the arts; wiggled after one social or economic agenda or another. The advent of  National Lottery, at one time a huge financial player in shaping the arts in the UK and certainly in Wales, drove a programme that, to begin with, proactively excluded creative individuals and sought to justify this poor-tax-by-stealth by refocussing attention away from creativity towards audience expectations and demand. That audiences in Wales had low expectations of the arts was hardly surprising, given the economic climate at the time of its inception.

Lottery funding has been used to bring the arts to some of the most socially deprived corners of Wales, but the delivery seemed to be the end in itself. No matter that, without investment in creative individuals, some, in fact much, of what was delivered through Lottery funding was of such poor quality that it served no purpose except to tick boxes.

So what is left in the Arts Council’s portfolio doesn’t offer me much hope for a creative future for Wales. There’s a lot of funding things because they’re the last men standing – there has been little or no scope for new things to come through, to follow a creative development arc and then fade away to make room for something else. There’s a following through on capital investment (although in the case of some of the galleries how this will be delivered remains to be seen), complex funding with other parties that can’t be unpicked and a focus on the big things.

In the introduction to the section on visual and applied arts I note that part of my original commentary has been bowdlerised (or even disembowelled).  When I was drafting the strategy for the visual arts for ACW, prior to my departure last September) I tried to tease out the visual arts ecology. Yes the big international projects, such as Artes Mundi and Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art, and the flagship galleries are important, but without investment in artists and artist-generated activity they are trees without roots. Nor can those big organisations be expected to take responsibility for developing the careers of artists in Wales, although many have taken on that role to the best of their ability within extremely constrained resources.

While Wales is looking to Scotland for the new model for presenting Wales at the Venice Biennale, perhaps we should also be looking to Scotland’s support for individual practitioners. With the demise of Safle goes the Stiwdio Safle programme, originally conceived as a way of facilitating creative engagment between communities and artists, when it was the Artists in Residence Programme. This was a substantial investment, levering in further non-arts funding, that enabled artists to work in Wales and develop a practice that doesn’t fit within the confines of the gallery (although, of course, many galleries have run residency projects very successfully as a means of extending their reach and engagement with communities). The Arts Council says they will take this “in house”. Knowing the limited capacity of ACW, who will be facing their own staff cuts soon, it is likely that this will be divested to other organisations, losing any strategic overview or over-arching partnerships with the local authorities and other public bodies who were so crucial to the programme’s success).

The decision not to include Engage, the National Association for Gallery Education, in the reformed portfolio, seems an oversight. The work of this organisation in training gallery professionals to create access to what the report describes as “baffling and confusing” art, has been delivered on an ad hoc, project-by-project basis in Wales. Gallery education is the route through to new ideas and, in the broader ecology of Welsh development, ideas equate to new ways of thinking: from reconsidering approaches to life and death to the overlooked minutiae of daily existence and, of course, to new ways of working with technology. In there somewhere are the seeds for the next generation of creative thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Lastly, as long-standing member of what is now the Women’s Arts Association, I can’t finish without saying that, if artists are submerged in this report, then women artists are at the bottom of the iceberg. WAA were steered away from their important work in levelling the playing field for women artists to become a deliverer of community arts projects to justify their existence. Finishing them off sends out the signal that gender equality is no longer an issue. I beg to differ.

I know that this has been a fraught and complex process for my former colleagues at ACW – rock and hard place – and I hope that they are given the resources to deliver on these beginnings and also a level of confidence from the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver on their true mission: to develop, advocate for and promote the arts in Wales for their own sake and on their own terms.

*Update* Here’s a-n’s take on the art landscape in Wales post review