We Protest

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).Image

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,

Newport giant puppets EG 2013

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…

Newport Open For Business poster & protestors…but the real picture in John Frost Square says something else.

Newport Empty shops 01 EG 2013It’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.

Newport Open For Business

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Art Education – what’s happening with that then?

Before Christmas I found myself frothing at the mouth, in a most unlady-like fashion, at the announcement from Cardiff School of Art & Design that the sculpture pathway in the BA (Hons) Fine Art course is to be closed to future students.

The spittle has dried a little now, but not the dismay. And I have to wave my hands in the air and say that, back in the mists of time, when students got grants and housing benefit and could sign on in the holidays, and there were only 40 students in my year’s intake…blah, blah, blah and other old-farty remarks, I was a graduate of the Fine Art course at Howard Gardens. And I went through as a student who spent a happy few years causing havoc in a well-equipped, well-taught and well-resourced sculpture department, learning how to weld, carve, turn, draw, automate and do strange things with tissue paper and glue. All while Margaret Thatcher was ripping the guts out of the mining communities in Wales, Apartheid was still in force and the US still had nuclear weapons on Greenham Common.

Back in the day, Cardiff Art College (no-one in their right mind referred to it as “South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education, Faculty of Art & Design, Howard Gardens Campus), had a strong reputation that extended into Europe. And this reputation was built on the strengths of the multi-disciplinary approach to teaching Fine Art. Although I was based in the sculpture department I was taught by painters, printmakers, performance artists and film-makers. Of course it’s only now, some twenty five years after the event, that I can appreciate how rich that education was and how it informed my practice then – showing me that an idea didn’t have to be squeezed into a particular fine art discipline but had many possibilities.

Ok, so I realised fairly soon after graduating that – although I could make things out of other things, and make them stand up and not crush passing children –  I had so few self-promotional skills (a singular failing of the course at the time) that penury and starvation were staring me in the face and moved seamlessly into arts administration. But as I age I become increasingly grateful that I was lucky enough to be an art student then and not now.

So the sculpture pathway has gone at CSAD, following hard on the heels of the demise of the MAP (media and performance) pathway, leaving just printmaking and painting. And while CSAD management make reassuring noises about creating a new Artist Maker type of student, and that sculpture will still be possible through Textiles and Ceramics (TWO DIFFERENT COURSES EVERYBODY!), it seems that future students will be pursuing a discipline in the same way as a science student who has been told that they can’t access a laboratory, or have any test tubes or Hadron Colliders, or whatever it is they need to learn.

Nevermind, wannabe artists who want to study in South East Wales (because it’s a great place to be a student), there’s always the Fine Art Course at University of  Wales, Newport. Oh, hang on, they’ve just announced that they’re closing the Fine Art Course effective from this year. I can’t find a link to this news, but the course has vanished from the UWN web site so here’s a poignant little video to show you what’s gone.

What can it all mean? Well here’s a clue as Higher Education Institutions in Wales start talking mergers and not duplicating courses to fit in with the Welsh Assembly’s desire to reduce the number of smaller Higher Education Institutions in Wales. Although this is not a desire to reduce the number of students, who will presumably continue to be jammed onto courses taught by increasingly demoralised and anxious staff, just the number of vice chancellors.

On paper this makes sense – I remember when there was just the University of Wales and a few independent universities and colleges. However the reality is that in this administrative exercise the baby is not only being thrown out with the bath water, it’s been chased down the sewage pipes and bludgeoned until it’s definitely deceased. The arts education offering in Wales has produced a number of centres of excellence – I can’t envisage the Documentary Photography MA at Newport without the steady feed of students that have come through the Fine Art Photography route to constantly challenge documentary practice or inform the European Centre for Photographic Research – Performance at Cardiff (where else?), not forgetting the special top trumps features at Swansea, Carmarthen, Treforest, Wrexham and Bangor. But, and here’s the real rub, these organistions are the single most significant employer of artists – there are no other routes to an income that can be derived from artistic practice. So few artists in Wales make their living through sales of work or their own artistic projects that they would fail to register on any economic scale.

And yet, and yet, these are the artists who have the breathing space to develop their practice and ensure that art from Wales is seen on an international stage; who have the opportunities to create networks for other artists and who will be nurturing the next generation of artists. These teaching jobs ensure that artists can survive and practice in Wales to the benefit of all. My breath is bated for the next installment and my beady eyes will be looking North and West as these merger talks develop.

I just hope that the impact of these closures and dumbing down don’t result in a crater in Welsh life that can only be equated with the decimation of the mining communities in the mid-eighties.