One Day I Will Be…

Awaiting image credit

Last month this year’s batch of new fine art graduates left their institutions for the last time, ready to start their lives as professional artists, or not. I wrote the following text as an accompanying essay for the UWIC Fine Art Degree show and thought that it might have something to say to other graduates, so I’ve updated the useful links and will happily add more if anyone wants to send me some.

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At this time of year the art school trees are thick with pupating artists, preparing to fall off their twigs onto the hard ground of the outside world. Some will land gently, with just enough bounce to propel them up into the air again, stretch their new wings and take off. Others will fall harder, languish in the long grass for a while, then begin a cautious climb upwards, wings slowly unfurling. A very few will never recover from the drop and remain locked in their chrysalis. Such is the way of nature. So it is with the life of an artist.

Before the fall though, anything is possible and art colleges hum with unleashed potential – the excitement and trepidation are palpable. The run up to the degree shows is the beginning of the end of one stage and the start of something new.

Graduating from Art College is a peculiar process. One day you’re a student, the next day you’re a … a what? An artist? Not necessarily. In some ways the journey to becoming a professional artist can only begin after the art college training has finished. It’s just one of those things. How can you decide what kind of artist to be in the cocoon of college? OK, so you’ve followed your specialism, but how does that translate out there? Perhaps you’re not even meant to be an artist at all.

I decided to conduct a not-very-scientific bit of research into the career destinations of past CSAD Fine Art graduates through the power of Facebook. Friends and friends-of-friends circulated my request for information and back came the responses, thick and fast, with respondents spanning several decades and many cohorts of Howard Gardens graduates.

So here, for your edification, is a sample of what happens to those pupae when they hit the ground.

Out of what we’ll call Cardiff Art School, as it’s changed its name several times over the years, have come artists, naturally, and/or:

Arts administrators, scenic artists, film editors, sound technicians, project managers, journalists, magazine editors, press officers, gallery interns, gallery managers, gallery technicians, gallery directors, gallery invigilators, gallery educators, clothes designers, bronze founders, community artists, artists-in-residence, artists working in the public realm, art therapists, teachers, lecturers, film directors, workshop leaders, course leaders, social agitators, social workers, transport co-ordinators, play workers, studio managers, festival coordinators, shop keepers, film animators, museum workers, theatre managers, cultural entrepreneurs, creative producers, TV camera operatives, commercial photographers, rock musicians, artists’ mentors, shelf stackers, art handlers, research fellows, civil servants, arts development officers, arts consultants, strategists, pundits,  pet portrait artists, environmental/animal rights campaigners…and a few who are still working out what they want to be.

Howard Gardens alumni have gone on to become: The Pioneers, ArtStation, tactileBosch, Open Empty Spaces, Milkwood Gallery, Cinetig, Fox Studios, Clock Performance, Underworld, The Threatmantics, The Wave Pictures, The Victorian English Gentlemens Club, Islet, Radioactive Sparrow, The Sound of Aircraft Attacking Britain (S.A.A.B.), British Racing Green and Mermaid & Monster but this is a tiny and certainly not definitive list. Some of these have just set up, some older ones are still going, while others had their shining moment and have faded away.

And that’s just from a non-scientific trawl and doesn’t include the MA graduates or the artists from other courses at Howard Gardens. Nor does it encompass the myriad initiatives started by the Fine Art teaching staff that are fed and energised by successive generations of new graduates.

The creative impetus, which starts in the college studios and workshops, spills out across the city, the country and the globe. Cardiff Fine Art graduates are exceptionally good at using what’s available, working their networks and creating links with each other and with artists and arts institutions across the world. That this is often unremarked seems a shame, that it isn’t captured and waved in the faces of the politicians, the cultural strategists and the money-brokers is more worrying.

But the point is graduating is just the start, and not everyone can go on to be a professional artist (do the maths – it’s unsustainable). But a Fine Arts training can set you up for all manner of things. It’s trite to talk about transferable skills I know, but the ability to problem-solve creatively is incredibly valuable across a multitude of careers.

And it’s natural to pick up the degree and wait for the future, and wait, and wait. I did – one nice write up in a glossy mag and I thought I’d just have to sit by the phone and choose the opportunities that would surely come my way. But they didn’t and they don’t without a bit of proactive engagement and some derring-do.

While the Cardiff Art scene is quite different from the day when I left Howard Gardens in the mid-80s, it’s still the same in many ways: no commercial sector to speak of and a dearth of critical attention from the national or even the local media. However it’s still characterised by the collegiate nature of the arts community. Alright, there are little gangs that cluster around certain institutions, but there are performance, exhibiting and studio collectives; project clusters; communities of interest that pool their resources.

Survival strategies vary from individual to individual. Some chose jobs that will pay the bills but demand little of their creative juices. Others attempt to combine both, although those who go into teaching often find themselves drained by the increasing layers of measurement and evaluation. The only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is the wait-by-the-phone one.

Cardiff graduates are lucky to have the excellent mentoring services of WARP  Welsh Artists’ Resource Programme) and the test beds for emerging artists at g39, Milkwood, Oriel Canfas and tactileBosh, while ARC (Artists’ Resource Cardiff) offers networking and a promotional platform and Ffotogallery’s Forum provides an opportunity for much needed discussion and debate while, online, Culture Colony is linking up the creative communities of Wales with its Beyond TV initiative. Chapter Arts Centre is a major employer of artists, and the bar is where some of the most interesting creative collaborations are concocted. The Arts Council of Wales has, in the past decade, refocused its attention on supporting creative individuals and now offers grants and other support at significant levels.

There are new things popping up on the horizon every month and opportunities there for the taking for the enterprising new artist – empty shops, green spaces, festivals, international projects, local projects, group exhibitions, performance platforms.

Soon this year’s grubs will be fluttering into our lives, adding the annual blast of colour to the arts scene.  And I can’t wait.

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Some useful sites for networking and/or kick-starting a career as an artist in Cardiff and beyond:Welsh Artists Resource Programme (Warp); g39; Milkwood Gallery; Oriel Canfas Gallery; tactileBosch; Artists Resource Cardiff (ARC); Ffotogallery Forum; Culture Colony; Chapter Arts Centre; The Arts Council of Wales ; Engage Cymru; Bloc; Art Tawe; Elysium Art Space; National Federation of Artists’ Studio Providers; Axis; A-N; AiR

Image: Rose Attewell, from Addiction Library. CSAD Degree show 2011

Liverpool and Swansea: Objective eyes and passionate responses

It’s often the case that an outside eye can pick up on the things that are under our noses and, equally true, that to come back you have to leave first.

From the Liverpool Biennial to Swansea and the Swansea Valley, artists have been responding to space and place this month. Sometimes they have the insider’s knowledge, but the objective eye of a visiting artist can illuminate the familair with a different light.  And so it was with the Liverpool Biennial.

This year’s curatorial theme, Touched, was as open ended as these city-wide events need to be, but invited artists to respond to the theme – to touch or be touched by the life of the city.

With one day to soak up the Biennial I had to skip the conference and concentrate on getting around as much art as I could in a very short time – all the hotels being full of footie fans and Lib Dems. There was a lot to pack in with the John Moores Painting Prize, at the Walker Art Gallery; the Bloomberg sponsored New Contemporaries at the A Foundation and a host of exhibitions, installations and site-specific works across the city.

But my first  stop was the Cathedral (The Gilbert Scott Gothic  Anglican monster, not the new, metropolitan one).  Here was one of the gems of the Biennial – Danica Dakić’s Grand Organ, 2010 – which was one of a number of works that referenced an aspect of the cityreflecting the curatorial theme of Touched. (Creative Times reflects on this very well here). Meanwhile, the subterranean life of the city was captured by Rosa Barba in Free Post Mersey Tunnels, 2010, at 52 Renshaw St. Barba, a Berlin-based artist, managed to bring the buried sounds below Liverpool to the surface in a way that snagged my, by now jaded, attention. By the same token Spanish artist Cristina Lucas encouraged former trades union members to hurl stones through the windows of the derelict, but evocatively named, Europleasures building to make her film Touch and Go (see picture at top for the results).

There’s a lot more to say about the Biennial, but this is a blog about contemporary art from/in Wales and, while Liverpool is the unofficial capital of North Wales, I was visiting to refresh my perspective on what’s going on in Wales.

So, armed with my slowly processing responses to Liverpool, I went to Swansea, to the National Waterfront Museum to see how John Cale’s offering for the 2009 Venice Biennale, Dyddiau Du/Dark Days translated to the place that had provided the impetus for it.

When I saw the work in Venice I was carrying the anxiety and baggage of an ex-officio member of the committee charged with delivering a Welsh presence in Venice. I was all too aware that there had been mutterings and rumblings about the selection of Cale, better known as a musician and one who had left wales for New York many years ago, carrying with him a bundle of ambivalence towards his native land. In Venice I looked for the flaws, listened out for negative reactions and generally hopped around like a scalded cat. Ah but this time was very different…

Granted, there have been a few editorial tweakings to the five films and and the music/sound that either accompanies them or, as with the sustained drone, stands alone. But this time I could relax into it (I wasn’t the only one – I saw some involuntary swayings to the sound works) and try to unravel my response to his responses to his fraught relationship with Wales. It doesn’t all work, but when it does it provokes a response that starts in the gut. There’s a Welsh word, hiraeth, that imperfectly translates as homesickness, but it’s one of those words, like the German Schadenfreude (the malicious joy in the misfortune of others), that’s not so easily defined or summed up – longing for the past; for a place that may not have ever existed; a kind of nostalgia that isn’t necessarily sentimental. Cale, in reconnecting with the place he thought he’d left behind, summoned up for me the essence of hiraeth. See for yourself, the show runs until November 7, but will be touring Wales, ending up in the new galleries at the National Museum in Cardiff next year.

While the artists I’ve mentioned have responded to the places they’ve made work about from either an outsider’s perspective – as with the Liverpool projects – or across a distancing gulf of time, in Cale’s case,  artists have also been reflecting on turf that is more familiar to them:

Kathryn Ashill is currently showing the fruits of her residency at Craig y Nos castle, near Pontardawe, at Pontardawe Art Centre’s Oriel Lliw. The place is full of childhood memories for Ashill and she wove those memories into the works she produced: hanging from rhodedendron trees; kissing the ornamental goat heads at the entrance to the park a fond farewell. The show runs until October 29.

Back in Swansea, Locws projects launched last week. Like Liverpool, albeit with more modest financial resources, Locws International offers a major biennial response to a variety of sites across Swansea. While international artists are invited to participate, those from Swansea and wider Wales also have the opportunity to work in contexts that are outside of the gallery confines. In the down year (the next Locws is 2011), smaller projects keep the appetite whetted and the public engaged. These projects can be seen until October 30. I haven’t yet to see this year’s Locws offering, nor Kath Ashill’s show (though I have the book!), but on past performance for both I’d give a hearty “recommended” and will report back when I’ve visited.

The Culture Colonists

Now I’m guessing that Anna Wintour didn’t start her career by flogging copies of American Vogue from a cardboard box but, as deputy Editor of blown magazine, I set off for Aberystwyth with said cardboard box,  some pretty pictures and assorted stationary and passengers. The rain lashed down as I did various pick-ups from Splott, Riverside and Carmarthen, looping around Wales before finally reaching my bed for the night.

In the run-up to pulling together an issue for production it takes something pretty special to drag me away from my obsessive war against missing or misplaced apostrophes, but then I was heading for an event that I couldn’t miss: the launch of Culture Colony.

Now if you’ve had your head in a bucket or don’t live in Wales you may not know about this creative community, the love child of the remarkable Pete Telfer or, to be more technical, an on-line community for creative people and organisations in Wales.

Telfer, a former cameraman for the BBC, notching up an impressive portfolio of films for such programmes as The Slate, before the Beeb dumbed down their arts content, felt it was high time to circumvent the Welsh media, who had so poorly served the arts in Wales and go, as Culture Colony’s  slogan has it: “Beyond TV”. And he has.

The site offers a non-hierarchical forum for creatives in Wales. There’s no advertising (but please subscribe to keep it going), no agendas, but high production values and a lot of film content from Telfer, who can often be found, camera clamped to his editorially incisive eye, documenting cultural activity around Wales. What’s not to love?

For the launch (it’s been going a while but the site’s just had a major re-vamp) there were no press/media, no politicians or arts administrators, just a bunch of people who believe in the power of the collective platform and of the third (fourth? fifth?) way.

I was torn between (wo)manning my stall and attending the really engaging discussions. So, in the morning I sneaked into the session to hear a really thought-provoking conversation about archiving the arts, chaired (but in an informal “let’s just have a nice chat” kind of way) by  artist Stephen West.  Dr Heike Roms talked us through her work to date on What’s Welsh for Performance, followed by Eluned Haf from Wales Arts International, talking  in Welsh at breakneck speed (props to the fantastic translator who was just a heartbeat behind her) about the need for critical debate in Wales and bigging up Culture Colony.  Richard Huw Morgan, a last minute sub, who talked about some of his previous projects, future plans (both solo and as part of good cop bad cop) and how Culture Colony has supported his latest project – the cross-over from the digital world into the world of actively supporting creativity.

Around Aberystwyth Arts Centre artists had been invited to make interventions. So we had Kathryn Dodd and Louise Bird’s White Shift – Short Shrift; Roger Loughor’s subversive road signs; Kim Fielding’s disturbing photographs and Michelle Collins’ invitation to curate her un-edited archive while wearing a badge that said ” Artist”, “Curator” or “Critic”, with sustenance provided by Pete’s mother’s cake and sundry biscuits. But I can’t pull up at this point without mentioning the rather wonderful Dartboard for Witches in  the gallery. This exhibition offers a refreshing new look at textiles in art and has been exceptionally well presented.

This was not an event, nor  is Culture Colony an organisation, that could be dreamt up in any strategy. It is driven by goodwill, vision, passion and the collegiate and collaborative nature of the arts community in Wales.

Plugging blown, as was my mission, I was suddenly conscious of the role that arts centres and organisations play in Wales. This role doesn’t fit neatly into any monitoring or assessment format but… Aberystwyth Arts Centre have put themselves squarely behind Culture Colony, who are now housed in the splendour of the Thomas Heatherwick studio spaces. I ruminated on this as blown has had so much encouragement and support from Chapter Arts Centre. The unsung part that arts organisations play in developing artists and the wider culture in Wales deserves a big shout out.

If you haven’t had a look at Culture Colony yet I urge you to do so and, if you can find the modest wherewithal to join, then get PayPal-ing forthwith.

And finally, my apologies to my loyal blog fans. I have been out and about, and can commend to you: To the Buddha Veils and Voids, at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, featuring Peter Finnemore and Jonathan Anderson (who has a show coming up at The Mission Gallery in Swansea very soon); Bystanding at g39.  I also revisited the wonderful new Mostyn Gallery and  We have the Mirrors, We Have the Plans, (sorry but you’ve missed it, but more great shows on the horizon), which was well worth a quieter visit, away from the private view hoopla; spent too little time at Re:Animate at Oriel Davies (this year’s curated Oriel Davies Open curated exhibition, featuring the full gamut of some of the most exciting moving image practice form across the UK) and did my annual pilgrimage to the  National Eisteddfod in Ebbw Vale, the gold medal for Fine Art this year going  to Simon Fenoulhet (hooray!)

More bloggery when blown issue 2 is safely at the printers (and there’ll probably be a shameless plug too).

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