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).
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,
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…
It’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.