Chop, Chop, Chop – more arts cuts

andrew-cooper-dis-location-at-newport-museum-art-gallery-2011

This has been a disturbing week for the visual arts in Wales and the wider museums sector: We heard that National Museums  Wales will be shedding around 35 jobs and that after six years Mermaid & Monster will stop their work of promoting artists at art fairs.

The M&M website has already vanished but you can read the statement here  or send messages of support here. However there was something else that almost slipped under my radar. In his email to tell me about the end of M&M, Gordon Dalton told me what the future holds for M&M, “There’ll be a couple of M&M shows this year, but we had been working on our largest show to date at Newport Museum – which has now been cancelled due to closure – this has left a big gap in our work.”

Did you spot that bombshell? If the rumour mill is to be believed (and I have several very reliable sources for this information), the temporary exhibitions programme (TEP) seems to be succumbing to the swingeing cuts that local authorities are making to save money. Try as I might (and this blog follows many hours of scouring through council minutes on the Newport Council website) I can find no publicly available resolution to axe this really important programme, previously featured in my other blog posts (Andrew Cooper here and Simon Fenoulhet here), but The South Wales Argus picked it up before Christmas in this story.

Simon Fenoulhet 1

Since the Arts Council of Wales Investment Review, 2010, whose outcome was announced just before the depth and severity of the economic crisis had really been computed, local authorities have come under increasing pressure to trim what they might term “non essential” services, i.e. those that they have no statutory obligation to deliver and the arts were always going to be an easy target. The recent furore around the 100% arts funding cuts in Newcastle  might make the cutting of the programme at NMAG look modest in comparison, but then in Newport there’s little else to cut, no other public galleries in a city sandwiched between Cardiff and Bristol that should/could be attracting audiences from both catchments to help revive its failing fortunes in the wake of the withdrawal of some of the major High St chains and the downsizing (though thankfully not now the closure) of the Passport Office in Newport. As the new city centre development gets back on track after a long hiatus, the museum and art gallery will be right next to a big part of the development.

But contemporary gallery programmes are not just about leisure/pleasure. Along with creating destinations for cultural tourists (who spend lots of money as a result of their visits – see here if you like statistics), they are also a way of engaging communities with ideas and with the notion of continuing their education and thinking beyond the classroom, and this is how entrepreneurship can be encouraged, along with the first steps into further education opportunities. So losing jobs at the National Museum or at Newport Museum & Art Gallery seems to be counter-productive as Wales struggles to roll with the financial punches.And, of course, gallery visitors, interested in contemporary art, are also interested in contemporary theatre, so what impact would the closure of the NM&AG temporary exhibitions programme have on audiences for The Riverfront, which also has a series of gallery spaces (albeit more community focussed than NM&AG’s)?

Later today Rosemary Butler AM, Assembly Member for Newport West since 1999 and Presiding Officer of the National Assembly will be opening 56:56 an exhibition that celebrates 56 years of 56 Group Wales. It opens at 11.30am and all are welcome to get along to show support. As far as I can gather, this will be the penultimate show in the Temporary Exhibitions Programme, which has been running for over 40 years. I sincerely hope that she will lend her support to the programme in any public consultation that must surely follow a decision to close the TEP.

Fresh Paint 2

If lost, we will also be saying goodbye to an important new strand of work to create a showcase for recent graduates – Fresh Paint in 2012, brought together emerging artists from art schools across South Wales. Visual Arts Officer, Shaun Featherstone, planned  to expand the reach across Wales and over the border. This is particularly sad as NM&AG was really beginning to connect with the Fine Art Course at University of Wales, Newport.

But of course, the Fine Art course is coming to an end and I’ll be giving what I can only imagine will be last talk to Fine Art Students at UWN as part of Creative Futures 2013. What can I tell them? That the opportunities for them to continue their practice in Newport and contribute to it’s creative and economic future have now shrunk further? When I look at the buzz created by artists in Cardiff and Swansea, supported by the hubs of the council funded galleries I can see that there is so much that Newport could be achieving, so much new additional funding that can be drawn into the city, stimulating activity for the benefit of the wider community.

The Radical Xmas Card show 2

I hope the rumours are wrong – please use the comments posts to let me know if you can confirm or deny them or to add your voice. Local Authority budgets for the next year will be set soon so if action is needed it will have to be quick. I’ll be following up on this as the picture becomes clearer.

Update #1 there’s now an online petition to save the exhibition programme at NMAG you can sign it here

Update #2 NMAG has approximately 28,000 visitors per year, or 90 per day. If they each spend a modest £2.50 (and most cultural tourism multipliers are many times higher) that’s £70,000 that goes into the local community, not to mention rail and bus fares.

Before the Arts Council of Wales’ Investment Review, NMAG had an ACW revenue grant of £42,374. The programme costs Newport £40,000 to run, including salaries, on-costs and the programme budget, the latter is supplemented by a current Arts Council of Wales Lottery grant of £13,314. This would have delivered fourteen exhibitions, but the programme will be curtailed if the cuts are approved. The TEP also enables exhibiting artists to apply for funding to create new works for their exhibition at NMAG (and many of the exhibitions are of new work not seen anywhere else), supporting the wider arts economy in Wales and helping to retain talent.

If you want to register your concern about the proposed cut to the Temporary Exhibitions Programme at NMAG you can write to the Leader of Newport Council, Councillor Bob Bright (contact details here) and if you live in Newport you can contact the Councillor for your ward here and/or take part in the public consultation about budget cuts here, but be quick, all responses must be in by Feb 13 in advance of the council meeting on Feb 26. NB there is no reference in the consultation documents to the closure of NMAG’s TEP nor of other culture cuts so it’s difficult to see how the public are supposed to make an informed decision.

 

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Glimpse – Brendan Stuart Burns

Like Dorcas Lane, from Lark Rise to Candleford, I have one weakness: gardening, making jam, art (goes without saying) and books.

A foolhardy old friend suggested I get rid of all the books in my home and get a e-reader (no product placement here). But that misses the point. I have books so old that when I open them they smell of the time when I read them, their pages orange with age. And I know the end pieces, the little illustrations, even the acknowledgements, off by heart. It’s all about the paper stock, the scent of ink, the font choice, the heft.

So when I was given Brendan Stuart Burns book Glimpse to review I was excited before I’d even seen it. It is gloriously lavish: juicy thick paper stock, sympathetic design, colour reproduction and the attention to detail that includes an embossed slip cover evoking the indentations left on the sand by a departing tide. Burns and designer Andy Dark have pulled out all the stops to make a bibliophile’s bosom heave with joy.

Glimpse

Glimpse is many things, but it is not a catalogue (though it’ll be launched at St David’s Hall on May 11 at the private view of his exhibition). Nor is it one of the plethora of self-published artists’ books, made for the hazy purpose of marketing, despite the fact that it has been privately financed by an enthusiastic patron.

Oh no, this book is an extraordinary exposition of an artist’s practice, made up of material from Burn’s obviously fruitful year-long residency at Oriel Parc in St Davids, Pembrokeshire.

A bit of background:
Oriel Parc is part of the Pembrokeshire National Park’s visitor centre in Wales’ tiniest city, St Davids. When the Collection of Graham Sutherland works were taken from Picton Castle, in the south of the county, and stored in the National Museum Cardiff, the Friends of Graham Sutherland lobbied hard for a new home in Pembrokeshire for Sutherland’s works made in response to the coastline. Eventually Oriel y Parc (gallery of the park, literally) was built, with the notion of showing works from NMW’s extensive collections of Sutherland works and emphemera, but giving those works a context with displays about the coastline and, most importantly, inviting artists to make their own responses to this ancient and beautiful landscape that flaunts its geology, marine biology and ancient legends in the exceptional western light.

The light and landscape have drawn artists to Pembrokeshire for centuries and the population is still dense with artists today. Burns has been visiting for over 20 years, making field drawings, taking photographs and then producing his beautiful jewel-like works, thick with paint and encaustic, back in his studio in Cardiff. He was a natural choice to be the first artist in residence at Oriel y Parc.

I lived in Pembrokeshire for 16 years and every time I saw a Burns’ canvas I thought “yes, that’s it, that’s what it’s like”, even though we’re not talking about representational work here, it isn’t abstract either, but what I suppose you could call representational abstraction.

I know no other artist who quite captures the gelatinous light of a Pembrokeshire beach at low tide as Burns does, and his canvases prompt comparisons with those outrageous Victorian aspic confections (“if it tastes good, let’s suspend it in jelly”). There is an innate understanding of form and mass in the drawn and painted references to geological and found forms and an absolute understanding of colour in the palette that conjures up mineral deposits, lichens and the marine flora and fauna spewed up by the tides that lash the coast. It is no surprise that writers, such as Professor Tony Curtis (who has written far more eloquently than I could in the book), are moved to poetry in response to Burns’ work.

Art historians and critics Mel Gooding and Dr Anne Price Owen also write enthusiastically and well about Burns, providing a critical context for his practice. Curator Sally Moss, the real driving force behind the residency, offers a more modest written contribution, which belies her sheer derring-do in getting the residency established in the first place and her insight into Burn’s work and how it might sit alongside the Sutherland oeuvre.

The book is full of images of the work, the printing and reproduction quality so high you can almost smell the paint and wax, fear that the charcoal will come off on your fingers.

But there are also the photographic studies, map references and, perhaps most importantly for other artists wrestling with a body of work, the journals.

Burns’ year-long journey to the work seen in the forthcoming show is minutely detailed in an honest and engaging way. Concerns about paintings that weren’t working jostle with the adaptation to a new working environment – one that was open to the public every Thursday – and the thought processes, the drawings, artistic frustrations, breakthrough moments.

Here is everything you need to know about the difference between looking and seeing.

As the residency draws to a close, there’s a building sense of urgency to get works finished, to explore and record as much as possible and the impending feeling of loss that comes with imminent departure. He has bonded with his studio, found its hot spots for working, adjusted to the rhythms of working 9-5 when the centre is open. He has also negotiated his way through the not always complementary agendas of the two organisations behind the residency – Pembrokeshire National Coastal Park and National Museum Wales, although he is discretion itself about this.

I had meant to skim through the book, when I met Burns during the hang at St David’s Hall, but found myself rooted to the spot, reading on and on, while the hanging team bustled about to get the work on the walls. As I got to the last few journal entries – reflective, poignant – I remembered the time when I had been an artist in residence myself, far from home, and that intense relationship with the work that builds up when there are none of the familiar distractions. And how very hard it is to leave when there is still much to be said and done. And yes, a little tear did form.

This is a special book that shouldn’t just be left on a coffee table (though at £75 you’ll want to show if off), but read and absorbed by artists of all disciplines, art lovers and anyone who wants to understand the creative process. It is also a beautiful object in its own right and I’ll be buying one and finding book-friends on my shelves for it to sit next to.

Glimpse will be on sale for the special exhibition price of £50 during the show at St Davids Hall. You can also buy it here for £75 See more about the production of Glimpse on Brendan Stuart Burns Website where there are also more images of the work in the exhibition. I would also highly recommend Tim Collier’s blog about the book.

Glimpse, the exhibition, runs at St Davids Hall until 13 June 2012.

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