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

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.