Backwards and Onward

Happy 2012 blog fans and welcome, as the last pine needles embed themselves in the carpet, to a rather random review of the visual arts year in Wales.

And it was a good one, with lots of highlights:

There have been some mighty fine shows on offer this year and I’ve been lucky to see a lot of them. In no particular order of favouriteness here are some of the ones that tooted my horn:

Project Object at Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen had everything going for it. I love it when artists are let loose on collections, or people are invited to talk about or curate objects that mean something special to them. This show came in four equally good parts and gave me the chance to come as close as I’m likely to get to the Aurora Borealis and slip a poodle into a public gallery. The Glynn Vivian unleashed David Cushway and some delighted individuals on their precious collection of ceramics. The resulting film,  Last Supper at The Glynn Vivian, shows how passionate folk become when asked to talk about the objects they love.

One would never have guessed that the Glynn Vivian team had been holding their collective breaths, waiting to get the green light for the new development project – the programme was as lively as ever. I’ve already written up my highlight here. The off site programme continues – follow it here.

Neil Mcnally was let loose on Newport Museum & Art gallery to curate a show – The Institute of Mental Health is Burning. Mcnally selected objects from NMAG’s fine collection, mixing it up with a host of artists. Those who went will have Goldie Lookin’ Chain’s Newport State of Mind (You’re Not From Newport) etched into their memory banks forever more. NMAG also brought us Dis-location by Andrew Cooper, an artist who never fails to engage my attention. Pete Telfer, God of Culture Colony, filmed Cooper talking about his work.

In mid Wales, Oriel Davies gave us two artists associated with the 2007 Wales at the Venice Biennale offering: Bedwyr Williams and Paul Granjon. Williams’ show, Nimrod, launched with one of his trademark darkly funny performances and the humour threaded through the exhibition, which coincided with the National Eisteddfod up the road in Wrexham – Williams took the Gold medal and went on to win the People’s Choice and Ifor Davies Award in an unprecedented hat trick.

Bedwyr Williams, Nimrod Oriel Davies

Granjon took over the gallery to create a workshop for unlikely gizmos with very willing volunteers for Oriel Factory. With a suite of his quirky drawings and a loop of films featuring some of his performances, inventions and songs to spur them on, the workshop elves came up with some highly inventive creations – none of which are likely to feature in the Innovations catalogue any day soon.

Across the Cambrian mountains, Aberystwyth Arts Centre has become an important venue for artists’ moving image with The Box seasons, but I’ve also enjoyed Visitor (still  on, if you’re quick) and Wild Thing.

Back in Cardiff Richard Higlett had his first solo show in Wales at g39’s temporary new home in The dairy, Pontcanna with Welcome to Your World. Higlett never fails to surprise and this show was no exception: a talking cat, the GPS (gallery of portable sound) car and a band (Bear- Man) playing from a hole in the gallery floor. Experimentica came back for its 11th outing at Chapter (where else could you find a man covered in mucus bouncing on a trampoline?) Chapter Gallery continued to surprise and delight with Pile and  The With Collective my personal faves.

Over in Penarth, Ffotogallery’s programme was as strong as ever, showcasing new and established talent and with complementary and engaging talks and the ever-popular Artists’ Book Fayre I’m so glad that this is my local. They’ll be bringing an international photography festival to Cardiff in 2013.

Artist-run spaces offered some really exciting shows and events this year: tactileBOSCH in Cardiff, continued to present rare opportunities to see performance, along with installations and painting shows that spilled out all over Cardiff for MOIST; Elysium ran another Bus Stop Cinema and disrupted the streets of Swansea; g39 hit Leipzig’s Spinnerei for the big Art Weekend; The Rhôd created a new series of site-responsive works in an old Mill in the hills of Carmarthenshire and created their own pavilion at the Venice Biennale (Rhodio). Swansea’s Supersaurus played host to shows by Gordon Dalton and Tom Goddard, while Supersuarus member Owen Griffiths dug up a football pitch to grow vegetables for Vetch Veg (sometimes you just couldn’t make this stuff up!)

Online artists’ film platform, Outcasting is heading for world domination. Not content with presenting international content, Outcasting’s evil genius, Michael Cousin, has joined forces with, er, me and St David’s Hall’s exhibitions officer, Ruth Cayford to form Fourth Wall. Pedwaredd Wall CIC, which will be filling Cardiff with artists’ moving image this autumn, thanks to festival funding from the Arts Council of Wales. Watch this space for more info and a call for artists to submit.

Goodbye and Hello

2011 was tinged with some sadness as Swansea lost two inspirational women: Swansea Metroplitan University lecturer Susan Griffiths and Mission Gallery Director Jane Phillips. Both died too young and leave a big hole in the visual arts community.

We also said goodbye to arts education as we know it with some major restructuring of fine art courses and a few closures. I’ve already written about this here so I won’t bang on but I’ll be watching as things unfold over the next few years.

James Boardman, Light Corridor, CSAD degree show 2011

And last, but not least, of the farewells goes to all of my former colleagues at the Arts Council of Wales, who find themselves staring at an uncertain future following the recent major restructuring (more on this as it unfolds).

Meanwhile some new faces appeared on the scene and began to make their mark:

Amanda Roderick took over as director at The Mission Gallery under very sad circumstance, but her work to date would, I’m sure, make Jane Phillips proud. Ben Borthwick got into his stride as Chief Executive of Artes Mundi, which is scheduled for this Autumn in Cardiff. Up in Llandudno we said goodbye and good luck to Martin Barlow, who left Mostyn after steering its development into one of the finest exhibitions spaces in Wales. He is  replaced as director by Alfredo Cramerotti, who took over as the first major retrospective of Blaenau Ffestiniog-based sculptor, David Nash – Red,Black,Other – launched to much excitement.

And finally, we said hello to #0 of tant magazine. They’re currently inviting submissions for #1 so please follow the link.

    David Fitzjohn, TactileBOSCH Citizen 2011     Jonathan Anderson, Dark Star - Mission Gallery

It’s been such a busy year and I’m sure I’ll have forgotten to mention a lot of the wonderful things that I have seen. Please feel free to add your own favourites in the comments section.

In the meantime I hope you have a very productive and creative 2012.

Writing The Future

Richard Higlett from Welcome to You World g39 @The DairyThe last month or so have been incredibly busy and it’s going to take me a while to catch up, but two things have happened in the last few days that raise a lot of questions and signal some potentially very positive things, so I’m going to try to weld them together.

The first happened last Saturday, when I went along to the New Critics Day at the Welsh College of Music and Drama. This was the culmination of a joint initiative put together by Literature Wales and National Theatre Wales to stimulate critical writing about theatre in Wales. The first cohort of mentored new critics came to share their experiences of covering NTW’s first year of productions with their mentors, The Guardian‘s Elisabeth Mahoney and Lyn Gardner (and you can read Gardner’s blog about the day here).

Now with the focus of the day on Welsh theatre and largely reviews, or the lack of them, in the (UK) national press, plus the inevitable kicking of The Western Mail‘s critical engagement, I wanted to consider how the what was said related to the visual arts. If Theatre thinks it’s got it bad, contemporary art in Wales and its communities can seem invisible.

One transferable thought came through, that without reviews and a wider critical dialogue around work, we lose opportunities on all fronts. Artists and curators don’t get the feedback they need to help them move on; potential audiences miss out on conversations that offer a way in to work that can often be challenging, daunting, perplexing but often inspiring (not a word I use often). Without the access to ideas, to critical conversations, how can audiences be expected to engage with contemporary practice? And if they can’t engage who will advocate for the arts in a climate where the chilly winds of the recession are whistling up everyone’s jumpers?

Hold that thought for a moment, as I go on to event number two. The launch of the rather sexily entitled strategic vision from  Stevens & Associates and Holder Mathias architects for Cardiff Council – Establishing Cardiff as Europe’s Largest Contemporary Art and Design Gallery: A Clever, Creative and Collaborative Cardiff Solution (yes, really).

I say strategic vision, but at this stage it’s more of an ambition as the meat isn’t on the bones of how it will be delivered yet. However the aim is  to get Cardiff on the European contemporary art and design map in five years, using existing organisations and resources to create a critical mass and profile for the plethora of activity in the Capital City.

This, I’m reasonably convinced, comes out of a pragmatic response to the Arts Council of Wales and National Museum of Wales’ joint study into the Future Display of Art in Wales, by consultants DCA  and the subsequent report, by ABL Consulting (who seem to have vanished, along with all traces of their report), that looked specifically at a National Centre for Contemporary Arts (non-collections based) for the Arts Council of Wales. That report concluded that a) such a centre should be in Cardiff and b) that it would cost around £40m, which put the wind up everyone in 2008, with then Heritage Minister, Alun Ffred Jones parking it as something to be considered in the future.

In the interim the National Museum has been able to deliver their stunning new galleries for Modern and Contemporary art, creating a new focus and context for contemporary art in Cardiff, but with no municipal art gallery to match the ambitions of The Depot project (part of the close, but not close enough bid for Capital of Culture 2008 bid) there is no real focal point (Chapter Arts Centre aside) for the fizz of activity in Cardiff.

So, it was a rallying day, with lots of feedback and suggestions from those present, including a heartening number of artists and curators, in stark contrast to the launch of @Creative Cardiff, but no real clear way forward.

Now it seems to me that this could go several ways – it could end up being a joint marketing exercise (although we were assured that this wouldn’t be the case) or it could signal real investment in the visual & applied arts and design in Cardiff from Cardiff Council, focussing on supporting activity rather than infrastructure (those with long memories are still smarting from the collapse of the Centre for Visual Arts). Where this investment will come from remains to be seen, but it’s obvious that Cllr Rodney Berman, Leader of Cardiff County Council is quite passionately and emphatically behind this.

So back to the first event – I promised they linked up somewhere – the problem with arts activity in Cardiff isn’t its paucity, it’s the lack of critical coverage to draw attention to it, to address the sometimes variable quality of what’s produced and to boost Cardiff up the search rankings for cultural tourists.

Supporting new critical writing is all very well, but it needs a platform. Who will be covering this year’s Experimentica, Made in Roath and tactileBOSCH’s colonisation of Cardiff under the MOIST umbrella, which links the two festivals and more besides? Where are the reviews for the current shows at Chapter and g39 (image above from Richard Higlett’s Welcome To Your World at g39’s temporary home in Pontcanna)? It’s clear that the Western Mail just doesn’t have the staffing capacity or the resources to cover these things, except as listings, so a concerted effort will be needed to create outlets for critical conversations.

We’ve got Pitch* on Radio Cardiff, we’ve got blown ** magazine  and Culture Colony is proving to be an important online forum across art forms in Wales (I’m not ashamed of plugging three projects close to my heart) and more magazines launching soon, but we need to be getting this stuff into the Nationals, onto the telly and generally out there if the Cardiff initiative is to succeed. And if it does it’ll have a very positive impact on the rest of Wales.

Anyway, watch this space for new developments, and if anyone has the answers, on a postcard (or more digitally, in the comment box) please.

* Read Elisabeth Mahoney’s review of Pitch for The Guardian here
** And Peter Finch’s blog take on blown here

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.


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.


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

From Mill Lane to Cotton Mill – g39 in Leipzig

g39 Portmanteau entrance, Halle 14  Leipzig 2011
I’m just back from my first gig as an embedded journalist – not, I hasten to add, a flak-jacket, helmeted journo reporting from a war zone, but still in the front line of international cultural relations. Cardiff’s g39 were making their presence felt as international guest curators at Halle 14 in the giant ex-cotton mill in Leipzig for the big art weekend Zeit Fuer Kunst. For some reason Ute Volz, manager of  Halle 14 (the title grossly belies what she actually does, but it’s the closest translation I can come up with)  thought it would be a good idea if I came along too.

It all started when the Contemporary Art Society sent g39’s co-director, Chris Brown, on a research visit to Leipzig last autumn (2010). From there he invited Ute Volz and Karsten Schultz of Halle 14 to speak at the On Collecting symposium at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff at the end of last year (some of you might remember me writing about it here). After the formal presentations things became more relaxed as we shared some of Cardiff’s less salubrious watering holes with Volz and ended up pledging to visit Leipzig as soon as possible.

Well these things get said in the afterglow of a lively seminar. So imagine my surprise when an invitation to come for the big event on April 30/ May 01. Halle 14, along with all the other creative enterprises and galleries that make up the Spinnerei, takes the interesting approach of each inviting an international partner to exhibit in their space for the big art weekend and this year g39 was it.

As the logistics of shipping big and complex artworks across Europe would have wiped out a big chunk of this small-but-perfectly-formed gallery’s budget, g39 decided that works should fit into a suitcase, or small crate, and the show Portmanteau began to form. Chris Brown, with curator Michael Cousin selected a show reel of  12 existing moving image works and some works by artists who’d already shown in the gallery. Then they went on to commission three new works by Dawn Woolley, David Cushway and Sam Aldridge – two performance/installations and some very mobile sculptures.

Now this isn’t going to be a formal review of the show – that’s going on Culture Colony (and when it’s up I’ll put in the link), but I hope it’ll provide a glimpse into how this kind of international enterprise works.

Arriving a few days after Brown, Cousin and some of the exhibiting artists (I draw a veil over my accidental diversion on a high-speed train to Hannover), things had already begun to take shape. Helen Sear’s beautiful wall print of a photoshop-manipulated image of stuffed birds in a glass vitrine, first seen at g39 in 2009, had been hung on a wall in a space already twice the size of g39’s diminutive exhibition area; Richard Bevan‘s black vinyl triangles – a deceptively simple rendering of information based on significant times and places in g39’s history – stuck to the wall, facing  Candice Jacobs‘ gold vinyl “Thank You!”, a starkly decontextualised pleasantry glinting in the sun. Anthony Shapland’s film poster (text deleted), hung next to the film projection area, linking it to the film work he was showing – an introduction to a longer project about the life of Raymond C.Cook. In fact several of the exhibiting artists also had moving image work – g39 having been an early pioneering promoter of this kind of work in Wales.

Helen Sear, Display 2008 at Halle 14, LeipzigCandice Jacobs, Thank You, from Too Much 2010, Halle 14, LeipzigRichard Bevan, Untitled, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011Dawn Woolley, Foolish Passion, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

Away from the yellowing beams of the same sunshine that poured into the vast third floor of Halle 14, Lesley Guy‘s painstaking pen work on images from  a series of a hundred obituaries pages formed a ghostly phalanx around the space that Dawn Woolley was filling with her photographic installation, which would provide a setting for a gruelling performance that she did not once but twice. Halle 14 had provided technical support through the wonderful Denis, who managed to source all sorts of extras to make sure that the show and the performances were presented to g39’s exacting high standards.

David Cushway, Plate Spinner, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011Sam Aldridge, 2 x Safety Helmets, 9 x Safety Cones, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

As Cousin tweaked the projector for the 12 moving image works and David Cushway set out his plates and poles for his plate-spinning performances, I helped Sam Aldridge assemble his nine cardboard traffic cones. These would be placed in the gallery with instructions in Google-translate German to move them around, wearing hard hats he’d made a couple of years ago.

Dawn Woolley - Foolish Passion, performance, Halle 14 Leipzig 2011

By the end of Friday everything was under control and we could go into VIP mode with the option of Porsches to ferry us about (I opted for Volz’s Peugeot, I’m not really a Porsche kinda gal) to the various events associated with the big art weekend: the Blixa Bargeld/Carsten Nicolai (the latter also showing in the Spinnerei)  concert was a definite highlight for me, as was the enervating trip to Bimbotown, possibly the maddest nightclub ever. I was eaten by a sofa – ’nuff said.

Over the weekend I had a chance to look at what the other galleries  and organisations were offering. The g39 floor was host to Basel Art Academy’s student show – demonstrating what can be achieved with proper resourcing and support – and to put the Welsh offer in context. I know I’m biased but I think we kept our end up, and the 5-7,000 people (the g39 attendance clicker was still in Cardiff) who visited Portmanteau seemed to agree.

The love and respect between g39 and Halle 14 just seemed to grow and grow – possibly because there were no tantrums, no hissy fits and everything was possible and effortlessly dealt with.  At the end of the weekend Halle 14 announced that g39 were to become permanent international partners. And nothing could be more perfect.

My profound thanks go to Halle 14, g39 and all the exhibiting artists for making me so welcome and so proud to see contemporary art from Wales make such a big impression in an international context.


Opportunity Alert: Halle 14 is just launching a new residency programme with a May 20 deadline. If you’re an artist who is interested in living and working in Leipzig for three months and can respond to the theme “What Happened to God?” then follow the link asap.


Portmanteau featured:

Sam Aldridge, Richard Bevan, David Cushway, Lesley Guy,  Candice Jacobs, Helen Sear, Anthony Shapland, Dawn Woolley (installed works/performances)
Pascal Michel Dubois, Maia Conran,  David Cushway, Candice Jacobs,  Tamara Krikorian, Jennie Savage & James Tyson, Helen Sear, Anthony Shapland, Lisa Stansbie, Dawn Woolley (moving Image)

I’ll be the Judge of That – the Art Competition Minefield

The Table of Fraught Deliberation

A fortnight ago I spent two days closeted in a room with four colleagues, passing judgement on some 400 artworks, trundling before my eyes in the hands of a human conveyor belt. It was the eleventh Welsh Artist of the Year (WAotY) submission.

Now I’ve fought shy of this kind of judgement since I nearly presided over a village Easter egg decoration competition. Luckily then my Health Visitor warned me off and told me of a midwife who’d been drummed out of Dodge by angry villagers after a Bonny Baby competition. Why didn’t I remember that when the very persuasive Ruth Cayford of Saint Davids Hall asked me to be a judge? Luckily I had back up in the shape of Walter Keeler, Christopher Brown and Owen Griffiths and Ruth feeding us biscuits (the closest I’m ever going to get to a rock rider was asking for lemon puffs).

The sugar rushes were definitely necessary as the human conveyor belt ferried the 2D submissions past our eyes and we finally grasped the enormity of the task ahead. There are always so many things to take on board – the space, the audience, the balance of the overall exhibition – but the overwhelming feeling was that all of the judges wanted to ensure that the selected artists would be well represented by their work, and sometimes that involved some tough decisions – all consensual I might add.  But before you get over excited, I’m not going to emit any behind-the-scenes leakages, though I hope, by the power of the blog, to point up some things to think about when attaching cash money to a submission and sending it in, hoping it’ll be picked for exhibition or even to win.

As the submissions rolled past, what left me a bit perplexed was the very variable quality of works submitted, even given that there’s a built in duality to the competition as it’s open to amateur and professional artists. There were a few terrible framing and mounting choices, some effectively killing off the content; photographs that were cockled, badly cropped or that had slipped on the their mounts; works that I was familiar with in the context of the body of work they come from that looked odd as sole images.

The 3D works were also a bit of a challenge: some came with such complex installation instructions that it was clear that the entrants hadn’t considered the space in which they might be shown, others were impossibly fragile. And again the out-of-context nature of single works often fought against their ambition.

Meanwhile the new media category pointed up the problems of showing film or sonic work, originally intended to be embedded in a wider body of work and shown/experienced in a white box gallery space.

So here are my pointers, for what they may be worth, and I hope that with some time elapsed since the arrival of the rejection letters, this advice will help future applicants to sharpen up their submissions and win, win WIN!

  • Consider the context of the exhibition and the constraints of the space where the work will be shown – will it work? Will people be able to see it and understand it (especially if it’s one of a series)?
  • Take a long cool look at your submission: Does it do you justice? Is this the work you would like to represent your practice?
  • Ask a critical friend to have a look and give you honest feedback – what are you not seeing because you’re so familiar with the work? Are there flaws that could be dealt with or other works that would be more appropriate?
  • Consider the ultimate presentation: Are your installation requirements easily achievable? Are mountings/frames/plinths working with or against the work?
  • Does your technology work? Test CDs and DVDs on different computers and platforms and make sure that they open on everything.
  • For moving image work: Is it as crisp and tightly edited as it can be? Do sound and image quality match up?

Of course rejection is tough and we’ve all been there. My toppest of top tips is to go outside, kick something that won’t bleed, then ask for feedback and take it on board for next time. There are so many opportunities for you to send your work out into the world, with a cheque attached, that it’s worth taking a bit of time in considering which of the many open competitions and exhibitions would be the best investment for you.

And if these top tips are preaching to the converted, but you’d still like to get cross about something, have a look at what Maya Ramsay about has to say about pay-as-you-show opportunities in the latest Axis rant  The Art Lottery.

The Welsh Artist of the Year winners will be announced on Sunday05  June

Update: And the winner is… Paul Emmanuel

Congratulations to Paul and to all the category winners, the runner up, Pamela Rawnsley, and all the honourable mentions.

Other open submission shows to check out:

Mostyn Open 2011 21 May – 09 July

National Eisteddfod of Wales, Wrexham 30 July – 06 August

Cardiff without artists?

Just a quick update on my last blog as there’s a lot of rumour and speculation flying around about the future of the Fine Art Course and the Sculpture Pathway in particular.

Here’s the latest press statement from UWIC:

UWIC is committed to ensuring that current students on CSAD programmes have every opportunity to continue their studies unaffected by the changes in the School.  To that end, measures will be put in place to ensure the delivery of the established curriculum to its conclusion in 2013 and that this will be of a high order, as is to be expected.

UWIC is currently engaged in a consultation process on academic staff appointments and no further comment will be made on this.

It is however important to say that suggestions that ‘75% of the staff in fine art have been sacked’ and that ‘88% of the cuts’ are falling on Fine Art are gross exaggerations, unnecessarily alarmist and extremely unhelpful manipulations of the facts.

This was in response to the posting on facebook, which has since been taken down after pressure was exerted.  Now I’ve been working with figures for many years and been in similar situations where I’ve been surrounded by people facing redundancies and an uncertain future and know that percentages and statistics can, as the old adage goes, be tortured until they tell you what you want to hear.

There are lots of sneaky things that can be done under what is euphemistically termed as “slotting in” or “redeployment”.

If the current exercise involves shunting existing staff to other departments within CSAD, but outside Fine Art, or the counting members of staff as one, even if they have .5  (ie half time status) then maybe the figures won’t look so bad – on paper.

I should, at this point, make it really clear that I have not gone after any members of staff for information, as I am keenly aware that their position is extremely vulnerable during the negotiation period. These observations are informed by too many years of experience.

Instead I’d like us all to be very clear about what is being lost if CSAD neuters its respected fine art department and what the closure of the Fine Art & Photography BA in Newport actually means:

While the sciences and design departments are very happy to track their students and report back on successes, there’s been very little done, in recent times, to actually find out what impact fine art graduates have on the cities and towns where they choose to study but, after over 25 years around this stuff, I can tell you that they:  Set up studio spaces, reinvigorating unloved buildings,  helping to create a new buzz around run-down areas; work in galleries; work in education at all levels; make scenery and props for the performing arts companies in Wales; take part in regeneration projects; work in communities; create festivals and one-off events that raise the profile and tourism offer of their area; promote Wales, through their hyper-active networking and exhibiting –  especially on the international stage – as a vibrant place, forward thinking and a good place to live and work.

I give you: g39, WARP, ARC, tactileBosch, Oriel Canfas, Bay Art, Trace Collective (and until recently Trace Gallery),  Milkwood, Kings Rd Studios, Fireworks Studios, Fox Studios and, amongst many others, Chapter Arts Centre, set up by a group of artists 40 years ago.

Message received, I’m sure, by faithful blog friends. But let’s get that message out to those who can make a change. So far the Welsh Assembly Government have let the universities sort things out as they struggle to comply with the new regional plans for HE and with the student and funding caps imposed on them. Instead of some rational thinking there’s been a lemming-like dive over a cliff. Let’s also be clear, in England the (Westminster) Government has been less arts-friendly and a great swathe of institutions dedicated to the arts and humanities are facing 100% cuts (not a slip of the finger, really, 100%), so there’ll be hordes of students who could have been attracted to more enlightened Wales … but there are now very few places for them to go to, and those institutions still standing can only offer a limited number of places. And let’s remember that Wales sees its future in the Creative Industries.

If you’re as exercised by this as I am then this is where you should email or write:

UWIC Board of Governers:
Mr. Richard Walters
Clerk to the Board of Governors
Chair: Mr John Wynn Owen
PO Box 377, Western Avenue,
Cardiff CF5 2SG
Telephone: 029 2041 6072?

And the Education Minister for Wales:

Leighton Andrews
Minister for Education Welsh Assembly Government
Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and Skills
3rd Floor, Pillar MO1/02
Welsh Assembly Government
Cathays Park
Cardiff, CF10 3NQ

We have a brief  window (just over a week) to make our voices heard. After that we’ll have to consider a future where there are no up-and-coming artists in our capital city and don’t forget Newport, already battered by the recession and about to lose the Passport Office.

And if you need some grist to add to the mill of your protest, have a look at and quote the Visual Arts Blueprint, produced by C&C Skills, published only two years ago.

NB: There’s no picture with this post – there’s a message in there somewhere.

On Collecting – How to build a commercial arts sector for Wales

On Friday 04 December, at the National Museum Wales, Cardiff, a group of artists, curators, funders, arts administrators, art lovers and collectors gathered for On Collecting: Transactions in Contemporary Art. The event, pulled together by NMW and g39, with backing from The Contemporary Arts Society, was chaired by Gordon Dalton of Mermaid & Monster and was intended to explore the necessary conditions for stimulating the commercial arts economy in Wales and for looking at the current picture.

So far, so good and extremely timely. It has long been recognised that there is a hole in the arts ecology in Wales that can only be filled by proactive engagement with the international art market.

What followed, though fascinating in terms of what others have done elsewhere, left me with a Welsh arts equivalent of penis envy.

Sorcha Dallas, of the eponymous Glasgow gallery, provided the first pangs of this envy by stating that her enterprise had grown out of the buzz created by the reputation of Glasgow School of Art, who have been feeding a steady flow of new life blood into the local scene, with many graduates (Dallas included) choosing to stay in Glasgow, set things up and create a critical mass of interest and activity. On the day that the astonishing news that Cardiff School of Art and Design (CSAD) were going to axe the Sculpture department ( Media and Performance having fallen earlier this year), leaving Painting and Printmaking to make up the Fine Art course, these observations really hit home.

As Dallas continued to talk us through the evolution of her gallery and her commitment to representing Scottish artists on an international stage, I remembered a conversation with Amanda Catto, of what was the Scottish Arts council, now Creative Scotland. She had described to me SAC’s strategic decision to prime the pumps of the nascent commercial arts sector and offer support to attend art fairs and promote the work of Scottish artists to international collectors and institutions.

Dallas was clear that her initiative had grown out of a strong local arts scene, with Transmission in Glasgow, a place for artists to meet and discuss work as much as a platform for work (in Cardiff Chapter Arts Centre is a valid equivalent) at its heart. While she takes the work of the 13 artists she now represents to key art fairs: Art Basel, Frieze, Art Miami, New York, Cologne, Turin etc, to build up a collectors’ base for them, Dallas is equally committed to ensuring that the shop front gallery is part of the local community too, and works in partnership with public and private galleries, managing exhibitions, publications and residencies.

Karsten Schultz, who was next up with Ute Volz, had come to talk about a project that had grown out of Schultz’s collection of contemporary art – Halle 14 in Leipzig.  A former cotton spinning mill, theLiepzig Spinnerei had been abandoned for some time. It’s a massive site and, in 2001, Schultz, having seen its potential, pulled together a symposium of architects, artists and curators to talk about potential ways to develop the site into a creative force. Now Schultz hadn’t come from nowhere. He was an established collector, largely of German contemporary art, and had run out of space for his collection, especially the larger installations and sculptural works. He had already formed the Federkiel Foundation (I’m afraid that some of the translation is a bit bonkers on the english version of the site) and was proactively supporting emerging artists, alongside more established ones, with grants and other means of support.

Long story short. The Spinnerei is five floors of approximately 4,000m2 each (that’s 20,000m2!), housing exhibitions, a library and an art education programme, and has been slowly building relationships with the art school and other creative organisations and businesses. Ute Volz is the managing director of the centre. It has the capacity to support presentation, experimentation and production. Hold that thought (and see point 5 below for what might have been).

The final panel speaker was Ellen Mara de Wachter, exhibitions curator at the Zabludowicz Collection in North London. Founded in 1994 by Poju Zabludowicz and  his wife Anita , the Zabludowicz Collection brings art to new audiences and supports arts organisations and artists. (But follow the last link to find out where the money comes from). As she spoke I found myself nodding my head at the supportive approach to artists and to allowing projects to develop, while helping them to build their careers and profiles.

At the end of the session Nicholas Thornton, Head of Modern & Contemporary Art at NMW,  talked about recent contemporary acquistions and the support of the Derek Williams Trust in purchasing work by living artists in Wales (or, in the case of acqusitions from Artes Mundi, shown in Wales). But I’m afraid at this point my blood began to simmer.

I know that the National Museum is building a new 800m2 gallery space for contemporary art, due to open next July (2011), but am equally aware that they’ve been sitting on some significant works by Welsh artists (see opening image by Anthony Shapland – the last work to make me cry) for many years without proactively getting them out to other institutions or doing anything much to help raise the profile (and, let’s face it, the commercial standing) of those artists. I am also aware that they have made purchases from exhibitions, curated by publicly funded galleries in Wales but, rather than pay those galleries (who paid for production and promotion of the exhibitions), chose to negotiate with the artists direct, or with their London galleries (in the case of Bedwyr Williams’ Bard Attitude, made as a result of the Art Share Cymru partnership this was particularly galling).

There was no panel representation from the Contemporary Art Society for Wales, who are important collectors of Welsh art (although their policy of only showing their collection every five years is baffling), nor any input from other collectors or independent galleries in Wales.

So I left the day feeling frustrated and aware that there are still many dots to join up before Wales can have a viable commercial art market, or replicate any of the projects outlined by the guest speakers. Here’s the checklist for growing a successful commercial arts economy for Cardiff and Wales:

  1. Lively and engaged art school with an international reputation
  2. An arts council/government prepared to give fledgling commercial art galleries some pump priming funds
  3. Rich patrons
  4. Rich collectors
  5. A space with capacity for production and presentation, capable of having an international profile
  6. An arts ecology that is properly interrelated and each element equally respected
  7. A critically engaged and supportive press and media

While we’re waiting for those dots to emerge and be joined I’d recommend that everyone supports their local gallery and Welsh artists by buying art this Christmas. That’s my plan. And if you need some financial breathing space then check out the galleries with the Collectorplan logo.

Kathryn Campbell Dodd, in her Bird-in-the-House blog has given a really faithful description of the day, so please follow this link for a less ranty perspective. Meanwhile, having put the word penis in this blog, I’m looking forward to lots of interesting e-offers that will help me address my envy issues.

Love Art : Art Hate

It’s been a period of enormous activity, set against a background of anxiety about cuts in the arts and a swelling campaign to exert pressure on the Government (in Westminster – everything is disturbingly quiet in Wales).

In the middle of all of this I found myself heading to the one part of London that I thought I’d avoid forever – Cork St. I’ve probably spent too much time away from the commercial art world, but have developed a bit of an allergy to the comodification of art (I lasted an hour at Frieze Art Fair last year). So why go to the dark heart of art commerce?

Artist Billy Childish, aided and abetted by two of his galleries, (L-13 and David Lilford Fine Art) had managed to secure a gallery space for a week to host his latest Art Hate outing, following Art Hate Basildon (or Baseldon) in June.

If you don’t know about Art Hate then you can catch up here, or go for a more traditional approach here. Now I don’t hate art and nor does Childish, he’s still producing paintings along with the sold-by-the inch Art Hate merchandise. But it’s the stuff that goes with the territory that he challenges – the arbiters of good taste in our national institutions, the passing off of less-than-great work for all manner of reasons and, I suspect, the complicated dances with commercial galleries and the repositories of a narrow view of national cultural values that artists have to engage with. And, to be fair, he’s also established the Anti-Art hate movement too.

In any event I enjoyed the context of the night, in the middle of the most established purveyors of art, and the bar (fizzy stuff, wine and Malibu) certainly helped to create a convivial mood of art-hating. The original plan had been to erect the metal sign (see pic) that reads Art Will Make Us Free across the entrance to Cork St and to block off the end of the street  (the eagle-eyed will have spotted the echoes of the Nazi Arbeit Macht Frei sign over the entrance to Auschwitz). Unfortunately the Council and the Police had other ideas.

As the long knives come out for the public sector, I suspect there’ll be more artist-led activity that, unfettered by the constraints of funding and the strings-attached institutional agendas, will create its own momentum and context. But I also hope that those institutions that create the right framework for artists to make responsive work don’t fall victim to an ethos of playing it safe and keeping the metaphorical heads below the parapet to avoid the swinging axe.

Certainly the public funding of the arts looks grim and, for individual practitioners, it’s going to be tough times ahead. But, without wishing to sound too Polyanna-ish about it, the dwindling of resources has never seemed to faze artists, who are so used to working on next-to-nothing. In Wales pretty much all of the funding for artist’s projects and professional development has come via the lottery pot. With pressure mounting on that pot to soak up the activity that has been cut from the Arts Council’s portfolio of revenue funded clients, there’ll be a temptation to turn away would-be applicants and to turn down those who don’t fill in the forms to the letter. For many artists and artists’ groups the form-filling will prove to be too much of an obstacle and they’ll give up, which would be a real shame. I really hope that the future of funding the arts in Wales doesn’t rest on the administrative prowess of applicants, but you can see that this form of self-elimination will provide an element of relief to those trying to cut a cake that’s too small.

On the other hand, squashing projects into someone else’s priorities or agendas is never easy either and going it alone, or inventing new models, offers a level of relief from those pressures. If you want to voice your ideas or concerns, then the Arts Council of Wales annual conference is where you should be. Amongst other speakers Sean Edwards from g39 will be leading a breakout session on how to manage in times of austerity (although at £45 I’m not sure how many artists will be able to afford to go…)

Meanwhile here are my tips for things to see:

Tim Davies – Between a Rock and a Hard Place at Mostyn gallery, Llandudno (to  Saturday  Nov 06)

Condition Report Ffotogallery bring new Czech photographic art to Turner House (to Dec 11)

Bound Within a Hidden Space – Gemma Copp’s solo show at Elysium gallery (to Nov 20)

Pascal-Michel DuboisShow One of Each at g39 (to Nov 27)

And coming up:

Lucent Lines – Simon Fenoulhet’s adventures in light at Oriel Davies (from Nov 13) (featured in previous blog What You see)

Smile – Mission Gallery, Swansea (from Nov 13)

And finally, if you want to find out more about why I’m blogging and my other writing activities, I’ve been asked to give a talk at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery at 1pm this friday (Nov 05). I’ll be plugging the immenent blown issue 2 and thinking out loud about the attitude of the Welsh and national media to contemporary art from/of/in Wales. Come and throw me questions or throw non-staining vegetables (it’s in the Atrium with lots of art around).

Artists’ groups – together we are beautiful

On 11 December Cardiff will be a-throng with artists from Bristol, Birmingham and, of course, Cardiff, cementing a three-way partnership that’s been blossoming for  years. Artists who work away from the perceived art centre of London, who work in ways that’s hard to comodify or Saatchify.

These visitors will, by and large, be part of the burgeoning artists-collectives networked across the UK.

Artists come together for all manner of reasons: to share studios, to exhibit together or simply to find a forum to discuss their work.

Wales with its dearth of dealers and commercial galleries (not to be confused with the galleries that sell work, who are not to be denigrated), seems well-placed to host this celebration of the off-centre, to focus on practice not prices.

Cardiff’s artists’ groups

And here in Cardiff we’ve got artists’ groups coming out of our ears. From the well-established: g39 is eleven years old; Trace: Installaction art space is nudging towards its first decade, albeit in a different form; Old Library Artists have been together since the early 1990s and Butetown artists have been around in one form or another since the 70s,  to newer initiatives like Open Empty Spaces. And then there’s tactileBosch, ten next year and not flagging yet.

tactileBosch, in an old Victorian laundry in Llandaf, has become a major player on the visual arts scene in Cardiff, but its reach is truly international.

It’s a proving ground for artists, whether they’re still in, or fresh out of, art college, or more established but wanting to try new things.

Everything is possible

Founded by Kim Fielding and Simon Mitchell (who went on to found  Volume Projects in London) nearly ten years ago, it’s been a seat-of-the-pants ride for this artists’ collective. They don’t get any sort of core funding from anywhere, business rates reductions from Cardiff Council are by negotiation and building repairs come courtesy of the Probation Service.

And yet, somehow, they punch far above their weight,  infinitely accommodating of proposals and ideas. Offering vital (if sometimes wet in winter) studio spaces, artists, such as recent graduate Sam Aldridge (left pic) get critical support and feedback as they develop their ideas.

Every year tactileBosch programmes those hard-to-deal with art projects: performance, complex installations, moving image, sound, alongside more traditional art forms. They’ve latterly added their painting strand: Wood, Canvas, Steel, that takes in print and drawing. I’d signpost you to their archive but they’re in the process of moving their website.

The images featured here reflect part one of an ambitious three part exhibition called Auxesis. Curated by resident tB artists Andrew Cooper, with Michael Murray, part one is the easiest to pin down, as it’s happened. It was largely installation/moving image based, although the opening night of any show will feature performance and music, that’s part of the ‘Bosch tradition.

Part two folded in nicely to Experimentica, reviewed in an earlier blog: tactileBosch goes Experimentical, featuring a raft of performances that complemented the Chapter Arts Centre programme. Part three opens on Saturday 23 January 2010.

tactileBosch is the first staging post for December Eleven. Which is where we came in.

Are friends collective?

Trying to define what makes an artists’ group or collective is as easy as wrestling with a barrel of eels: sometimes it’s about sharing spaces and resources, sometimes it’s about geography and most often it’s about tackling the imbalance between the number of artists out there and the scarcity of gallery slots available to show certain kinds of work.

I spoke to tactileBosch co-founder Kim Fielding, and he shared his memories of the early days of tB,  when he and Simon Mitchell  came up with the name and the tag line The fist in the velvet glove, and how things are shaping up now. tB is now truly a group effort.

Kim Fielding 2009, img EG

mind the gap

Kim refers to a problem across Wales and probably further afield: the cracks that newly graduated artists can slip down after leaving an art college, about the transitional period: “Coming out of college, there’s a gap. So mind the gap.”

But there are other cracks in the system too. In Wales there’s no discrete pot of funding for artist-led activity, unlike in Scotland. This means that these groups are up against priority-ticking projects bidding for lottery funds, most of which have headed over the Severn Bridge to a large sporting event planned for London in 2012.

Next week the Arts Council of Wales begins its most radical funding review ever. Simply put the funding from government is at a standstill and may well decline further. There’s not enough jam to go around the existing portfolio of clients so there are cuts to be made.

This process won’t have a significant impact until 2011. Let’s hope that the Arts Council creates some breathing space for the next generation of artists to truly flourish.