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