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

Engaging

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.