Bread Tomorrow & David Garner

On Saturday April  20 2013 the last temporary exhibition opened at Newport Museum & Art Gallery.  This is the text of an address given by writer and critic Hugh Adams at the opening of the exhibition Shift by David Garner, reproduced here in its entirety with Hugh’s kind permission:

At the outset let me state my belief, best expressed by the American critic and artist Richard Nonas, that qualifying the word Art through prefacing it with such terms as Community, Outsider, Public etc., serves only to diminish it. Particularly in the present context I would say Political as an adjective is equally damaging, applied to the word Art and to the word artist. It is too easy to characterise, and in actuality marginalise, the artist with the description “political”. David Garner is not a political artist, describing him as such is to diminish him. He may well be political but because he is a humanist and a radical being, rather than on the narrow basis of adherence to a particular political philosophy.

Victorian temporary exhibitions were “packed with working class visitors, whereas today they are the preserve of the upper and middle classes, DCMS surveys show that only 7.4% of visitors are working class.” However, in the 19th Century, exhibition galleries had to have evening openings to accommodate large numbers of what press reports called the “lower orders”. A startling statistic is that “…in 1872 nearly one million East Enders visited the Bethnal Green Museum in the first six months of opening” and such numbers were common in the new museums and galleries, built like their new churches, to keep the working classes from insurrection against their appalling working and living conditions.

Despite considerable rhetoric to the contrary and undeniably, some good practice, art has increasingly become the preserve of the upper and middle classes, with payment for entry to temporary exhibitions becoming common. Museum entry charges have always been a political touchstone issue and charging is an issue postponed by this pathetic doctrinaire government until it has undermined more ‘important’ targets first – all things perceived by it as socialistic: health care, education, welfare and education.

Historically, Newport has been among the exceptions to this post-war hijacking of art from the working classes. Its collections are comprehensive and express working-class culture and interests, alongside ascendancy ones. Its temporary exhibitions programmes have been excellent in their diversity, free to all and have not only acted as important stimuli and support for education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels in the South Wales communities but frequently offered considerable, in many cases, the only, opportunity to Welsh artists to develop and show their work.

An art exhibition in a gallery is a highly complex entity. The latter’s roles and responsibilities are often imperfectly understood, not least by politicians. It is not just bunging things up on walls, that really is the tip of a large iceberg, but intensive research, curatorship, networks of relationships, insurance, advice to artists, liaison with schools etc. Testimony to this is the exhibition catalogue for the imminent “Summer Show” (another ‘last exhibition’, this time at the soon to close Howard Gardens Gallery of Cardiff Metropolitan University). Its director, Richard Cox, who has personally and professionally, himself given huge support to art and artists in Newport, pays tribute to the work of Newport Art Gallery over many years.“Anyone familiar with it”, he writes, “would acknowledge and remember the excellent work carried out by Roger Cucksey, Sandra Jackaman, Robin Hawkins and Shaun Featherstone and their support staff, this deserves to be recognised and applauded. We cannot afford to lose such important resources and Newport will be a less interesting city as a direct result of these cutbacks”.

Researching for my books “Imaging Wales” and “Re: imaging Wales”, I consulted the welcoming, generous and efficient Sandra Jackaman and her archives here and so had access to anecdotal and documentary information which in my assessment was not replicable elsewhere in Wales, or indeed elsewhere, at the time. What happens to all that now?

And talking of assessments: I have spent a large part of my career undertaking ‘feasibility studies’ for developing cultural enterprises, such things as public art programmes and frequently galleries. So far I have heard nothing regarding the ending of the temporary exhibitions programme here, or the plan to relocate temporary art exhibitions to Riverside Arts Centre which even approaches either plausibility or sense, cultural or economic. As it is the building is totally unsuitable for any worthwhile form of art exhibition, or indeed museum display. What I have heard mooted so far seems to smack of manna mañana: bread tomorrow. It will be local authority drift, in the hope the protagonists will tire, or forget. Otherwise, why didn’t the council at least set up a group of appropriate professionals to work with it to examine sustainable alternatives first, instead of this dull uncreative abolition by fiat?

My whole life has been spent in cultural and educational bureaucracies and I’ve learned that “initiatives” and orthodoxies, however discredited, can be relied upon to come around again. Hence it was with a sense of déjà vu that I read a recent speech given at the Royal Society of Arts by the former creative director of “Big Brother”, the new chair of Arts Council England.  He warned against arts cuts (well, he would wouldn’t he?) saying that the new Heseltine plan for regional growth should “centre on culture” and that those seeking cash to “unlock the potential of their region” should “put the arts at the centre of their bid”. He goes on the say “There is no city in Britain that does not understand the importance of the arts and culture, both as central to the life of the city and to the local economy”. Well, I know of one exception, with local councillors apparently unaware of arts-based regeneration plans and the successes of such places as Liverpool and Gateshead in this respect. Interestingly, in Newport there seems on their part a lack of awareness of its successes in the recent past in this respect (despite abundant visual evidence around them in public art of the first quality). They clearly do not understand the arguments, if they have even addressed them, and go in for the easy option, taking refuge in “social priorities arguments”, as tired as they are mistaken.

The “City of Newport”? Well you can change the road signs and rename ‘Newport Town’ ‘Newport City’, just as you can ‘Newport Athletic’ ‘Newport Spurs’ but you do nothing to improve its performance if that’s all you do.

A city, in order to have plausibility and be worthy of the name, needs at least aspire to certain things in terms of institutions, infrastructure and even the quality of debate maintaining within it. Here in Newport, even ground gained in the past through cultural enterprise is being given up. Acquiring plausibility goes far beyond the pomposity of renaming and re-badging. How do you attract new industry by offering potential employees a dead, cultureless centre; what do you put to tempt them in the corporate brochures and the city’s marketing publications?

And there has been another wound to the city’s plausibility. University College Newport, a renowned world-wide as an educator in the visual arts, particularly photography, has had its very identity as in and of Newport compromised (Where is the University of South Wales?). And how will it convince potential students that Newport is a vivacious place to study, when the nearest decent exhibition venues no nearer than Bristol and Cardiff and Cwmbran? “Destination Newport”? Well, for golf, or snooker, maybe!

In thinking of David Garner and his current exhibition Shift, these things are associated in my mind, for they are all complementary problems and intrinsic to his present and historical cultural and social concern. He encompasses the big picture, as well as the minutiae, as now do I. Does the fact that £10million, according to – I’m confident understated – figures, is spent by the state on a funeral, I’m not going into whose and that £10million is to be spent on some kind of glass canopy for that bastion of proletarian entertainment, the South Bank Centre, have anything to do with the situation in Newport? What’s not to be angry about in the blitzing, both clandestine and overt, of public social and cultural institutions?

The arts and culture ought not to be regarded as competing priorities with social services and healthcare (it is interesting that it is a healthcare union which has sponsored this exhibition) but organically linked. The investment bankers, the arms dealers and the posh convicted criminals, quite a few of whom were on the guest list for the above-mentioned funeral, I noticed, are all for public spending when it comes to subsidising the Royal Opera House, or improvements to regional airports, where they can land in executive jets but not so keen on publicly funded hospitals, unless they have an accident, or a child born with a condition for which the private sector is not resourced, in which case they are temporary socialists.

This is why David’s work is so important – marginalisation of the left, trade union membership, of whatever hue and indeed dissident opinion in general, continues apace. In fact, anyone who brings attention to absurd policies, protests at injustices, or expresses a radical opinion, is demonized, labelled strident and even in the case of the obsequies mentioned, vulgar, tasteless and untimely. Why are all these things linked?

There are now people in the Newport communities who cannot afford to eat properly; many cannot even afford to get to the city centre. Yet this is a part of the world where the working class has produced artists, musicians, great scientists, distinguished linguists, philosophers and writers with international reputations. Public education and self-education have been central to all that and free cultural provision was another main engineer of it. I am talking capitalism and investment here, investment in all our assets, all our children and all our people. Why are we filling our universities with moneyed mediocrities and effectively excluding thousands of able people who can’t pay? And so to Aberfan: “A for is for Aberfan”, where many of the working class children man slaughtered through metropolitan cynicism and neglect, would have gone on to universities and occupations of value to their communities, in a way that is becoming increasingly difficult today.

Much of David Garner’s work in “Shift” reminds us of the extent to which we in Britain are reverting to becoming an early 19th Century society, just as he reminds us in his other work of the medievalism of modern war-lords and the victims of attitudes still medieval. When Christ said “Feed My sheep”, he wasn’t thinking about just loaves and fishes, but ideas. We need intellectual stimulation to go with the bread. We need galleries and exhibitions as fundamental to education and to equipping our children to be critical, to challenge orthodoxies, to see “Big Brother” for what it is and ensure that all people get both bread and intellectual stimulation.

It was with pleasure that accepted the invitation to open this exhibition by David Garner, a great artist of integrity. That pleasure does little to temper my sadness at what is to happen when it closes and that such things are happening in a place which seems to have lost sight of its radical history is dismaying and frankly disgusting.”

© Hugh Adams Bristol 2013

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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

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.

 

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.

Who was changed and who was dead: The Arts Council of Wales Investment Review

So, today’s the day the Arts Council of Wales announced its most radical review and reorganisation of the portfolio of funded clients to date. There’s little detail in the report Renewal and Transformation, just the bald facts of who’s in and who’s out.

For those who are out this is going to be a tough time – there’ll be a year’s funding grace while they scrabble around to find alternative sources of funding (from where?), or start to wind things up. For those left within the portfolio it’s an equally worrying time. Some have hung on by the seat of their financial pants while the review took its course and they’ll have to hang on even longer before any new funding comes their way.

I’m not going to talk about the other art forms because there have been too many apples and pears comparisons already and my interest remains with the visual arts in Wales.

In the cut the visual arts did reasonably ok, with smaller galleries such as Swansea’s Mission, Oriel Myrddin in Carmarthen and g39 keeping their toeholds on funding. But there were some surprise cuts – Oriel Wrecsam and Newport Museum and Art Gallery (both local authority-run venues) are out, leaving Oriel Davies in Newtown as the only funded gallery in the East of Wales. And Safle comes to end, just three years after it was set up to develop public art in Wales.

It’s no secret that I had enormous reservations about the merger of Cywaith Cymru . Artworks Wales and Cbat (I’m being restrained here – you have to imagine me running around the old Arts Council offices in Museum Place, frothing at the mouth and shouting “Don’t do it! Don’t do it!”). Not because of the work of either of the organisations, which came from quite different perspectives, but because the thinking at the time was “Why are we funding two public arts organisations, let’s merge them and just have one?”, which was rather like merging Tesco and your local corner shop and expecting to get the best of both worlds. In the event the tortuous process of establishing a new organisation managed to throw the baby out with the bath water.

There is no pleasure in saying “I told you so”, because I know what has been lost can never be recaptured.

Safle was the biggest visual arts casualty in terms of funding, but there’s another smaller one, the only organisation that was purely about representing artists and giving them a platform and profile that offered them genuine opportunities to develop their practice on an increasingly broad stage. Axis.

Axis, an online resource for artists, curators, critical writers and all those other people who need to know what’s current, who’s interesting, had already fallen foul the Scottish Arts Council’s funding review, leaving only England and Wales to subsidise selected artists from those nations. It’s hard to see how Axis’ very modest funding (circa £20k) will be used to better effect anywhere else and it also begs the question “Where are the artists in all of this?”

If this document is a statement of bold intent (albeit driven by financial necessity to cut cloth that’s already reduced to an elbow patch on the jumper of public funding), it falls short of recognising that the arts are not the result of strategic planning, of mergers, consortia or of willing things into existence. The arts, at their best, are driven by artistic vision and the creative impulse. galleries, theatres, concert halls and creative hubs are nothing but empty buildings without creative individuals.

I’ve worked in and around public funding for the arts for the best part of twenty years and have watched the arts funders (and I include local authorities and the various government bodies responsible for culture) as they struggled to justify the arts; wiggled after one social or economic agenda or another. The advent of  National Lottery, at one time a huge financial player in shaping the arts in the UK and certainly in Wales, drove a programme that, to begin with, proactively excluded creative individuals and sought to justify this poor-tax-by-stealth by refocussing attention away from creativity towards audience expectations and demand. That audiences in Wales had low expectations of the arts was hardly surprising, given the economic climate at the time of its inception.

Lottery funding has been used to bring the arts to some of the most socially deprived corners of Wales, but the delivery seemed to be the end in itself. No matter that, without investment in creative individuals, some, in fact much, of what was delivered through Lottery funding was of such poor quality that it served no purpose except to tick boxes.

So what is left in the Arts Council’s portfolio doesn’t offer me much hope for a creative future for Wales. There’s a lot of funding things because they’re the last men standing – there has been little or no scope for new things to come through, to follow a creative development arc and then fade away to make room for something else. There’s a following through on capital investment (although in the case of some of the galleries how this will be delivered remains to be seen), complex funding with other parties that can’t be unpicked and a focus on the big things.

In the introduction to the section on visual and applied arts I note that part of my original commentary has been bowdlerised (or even disembowelled).  When I was drafting the strategy for the visual arts for ACW, prior to my departure last September) I tried to tease out the visual arts ecology. Yes the big international projects, such as Artes Mundi and Wales at the Venice Biennale of Art, and the flagship galleries are important, but without investment in artists and artist-generated activity they are trees without roots. Nor can those big organisations be expected to take responsibility for developing the careers of artists in Wales, although many have taken on that role to the best of their ability within extremely constrained resources.

While Wales is looking to Scotland for the new model for presenting Wales at the Venice Biennale, perhaps we should also be looking to Scotland’s support for individual practitioners. With the demise of Safle goes the Stiwdio Safle programme, originally conceived as a way of facilitating creative engagment between communities and artists, when it was the Artists in Residence Programme. This was a substantial investment, levering in further non-arts funding, that enabled artists to work in Wales and develop a practice that doesn’t fit within the confines of the gallery (although, of course, many galleries have run residency projects very successfully as a means of extending their reach and engagement with communities). The Arts Council says they will take this “in house”. Knowing the limited capacity of ACW, who will be facing their own staff cuts soon, it is likely that this will be divested to other organisations, losing any strategic overview or over-arching partnerships with the local authorities and other public bodies who were so crucial to the programme’s success).

The decision not to include Engage, the National Association for Gallery Education, in the reformed portfolio, seems an oversight. The work of this organisation in training gallery professionals to create access to what the report describes as “baffling and confusing” art, has been delivered on an ad hoc, project-by-project basis in Wales. Gallery education is the route through to new ideas and, in the broader ecology of Welsh development, ideas equate to new ways of thinking: from reconsidering approaches to life and death to the overlooked minutiae of daily existence and, of course, to new ways of working with technology. In there somewhere are the seeds for the next generation of creative thinkers and entrepreneurs.

Lastly, as long-standing member of what is now the Women’s Arts Association, I can’t finish without saying that, if artists are submerged in this report, then women artists are at the bottom of the iceberg. WAA were steered away from their important work in levelling the playing field for women artists to become a deliverer of community arts projects to justify their existence. Finishing them off sends out the signal that gender equality is no longer an issue. I beg to differ.

I know that this has been a fraught and complex process for my former colleagues at ACW – rock and hard place – and I hope that they are given the resources to deliver on these beginnings and also a level of confidence from the Welsh Assembly Government to deliver on their true mission: to develop, advocate for and promote the arts in Wales for their own sake and on their own terms.

*Update* Here’s a-n’s take on the art landscape in Wales post review

What you see….

Newport Museum and Art Gallery has just been transformed into somewhere magical as it hosts Cardiff artist Simon Fenoulhet’s latest offering Lucent Lines,  which opened last Saturday (30 January) and runs until 3 April.

Fenoulhet is an artist that takes the most mundane and prosaic objects and Rumplestiltskins them into extraordinary objects and installations. In this show it’s neon bright plastic drinking straws, bootlaces and plastic piping, but this isn’t apparent at first.

And that’s what’s so good about this work, behind the beautiful and engaging works there are layers of thinking and, in the case of the curtain of illuminated straws, some mighty complicated technology. However, as Dr Kieran Lyons, Programme Leader for Fine Art at University of Wales, Newport said when he opened the show, “what you see is definitely not what you get”.

As you look at the three works they dance and sing with their inherent light, dazzling the eye so that it takes a while to realise that the pulsing, rippling neon curtain is, in fact, thousands of drinking straws, threaded onto electro-luminescent wire , programmed to switch on and off in response to a data feed from a pixel slice of a video (I told you it was complicated). My companion on the day went mad looking for the projector until I told her that the rippling was coming from inside.

The glowing red floor piece looks like an arrangement of fluorescent red lights, until you remember that they don’t come in red, take a closer look and realise that they’re just plastic pipes with red LED lights inside. The abstract charcoal drawing is, in fact, a series of black bootlaces, their fuzzy edges echoing the idiosyncrasies of the hand- drawn mark.

I’ve known Simon Fenoulhet for more years than either of us cares to remember and have always been a fan of his championing of the overlooked, the ordinary. When he first showed me his early experiments with electro-luminescent wire it was in his studio and was just a single strand, suspended from the ceiling. Then he turned the lights off, flicked a switch and started to describe what he wanted to do and I was hooked.

No description is going to do this show justice so I strongly recommend that you see for yourself. The majority of Fenoulhet’s work is made to commission and for a specific site, so when the show’s over, it’s packed away and only exists in the memories of those who saw it, although these works are probably more tourable than his last major show at the Glynn Vivian Art gallery in Swansea, but don’t wait for the tour go and see it…now!

And it’s worth seeing the newly titivated Museum and Art Gallery (NMAG) in John Frost Square. For a while it was stuck in the middle of a major development that stalled with the credit crunch, but things are moving again and looking up for the gallery. They’ve also re-hung some gems from their collection, but it’s the accommodation of some curatorially challenging installation work in a space designed for hanging pictures that’s really impressive. Congratulations are due to Sandra Jackaman, Shaun Featherstone and the team at NMAG and, of course, to Simon Fenoulhet.