For years Britain has lagged behind Europe in arts funding outside the capital, but is now forging ahead with shows by the world’s biggest artists in the UK’s smallest galleries. But will it stay that way? Nancy Durrant, arts commissioning editor at The Times, finds out.
As visual arts editor at a national newspaper, one of the pet peeves I’ve heard from readers over the years is that sometimes, reading it, they’d be forgiven for thinking that there was no art going on anywhere in Britain except in London. And that possibly only at Tate. This is, of course, entirely wrong. This may be a small island, but Britain punches well above its weight in artistic matters, everywhere.
Only this month, a new, David Chipperfield-designed art gallery opened in the seemingly unlikely location of Margate. At £17.5 million, Turner Contemporary, named for the 19th century artist who produced more than 100 paintings in the town and described the skies above it as “the loveliest in all Europe”, is a powerful statement in a time of swingeing budget cuts. Next month, another Chipperfield gallery, the Hepworth Wakefield, opens in Yorkshire, with a collection that includes a generous gift of 44 working models from the family of local girl Barbara Hepworth. At 5,232 sq m and costing a whopping £35 million, it will be the biggest purpose-built art gallery to open in Britain for half a century.
But you can’t just plonk an arts centre or gallery in a town or city and expect it to work. The Public in West Bromwich opened nearly £15 million over budget in 2007, two years late, having already gone into administration and been bailed out before it even opened its doors to a thoroughly uninterested small-p public. It is widely regarded as a total disaster. So what works? Stefan van Raay, director of Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, believes very strongly that it’s about understanding where you are.
“To remain relevant, and successful, we have to be very careful to ground ourselves in the local area. One of our most successful recent exhibitions was Surreal Friends. The show brought together works by three leading surrealists: the British painter Leonora Carrington, the Spanish painter Remedios Varo and the Hungarian photographer Kati Horna who all met and become friends in Mexico during World War Two. We chose to display their work alongside a complementary exhibition that drew on the rich tradition of surrealism in Sussex. As a result the exhibition held a very strong local connection as well as ties to broader, international subjects,” he says. The gallery is currently showing an exhibition of furniture and textiles by the iconic British designers Robin and Lucienne Day. They were household names, but they also lived and died in Chichester. “You cannot operate without a strong link to where you are – or else you risk becoming a giant with clay feet, a house built on sand.”
Maria Balshaw, the director of Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery (she has recently also taken the helm at the Manchester City Art Gallery) agrees: “It’s about the connections between art and context – the environment that the art and the gallery space finds itself in. So the Hepworth is absolutely right for Wakefield. Turner Contemporary isn’t saying, ‘we’re just like a London gallery’, they’re saying ‘we’re exactly what you should have in Margate’, and that uniquely Margate-ness about it is what will pull people from London, or Glasgow or Birmingham,” she says. “What Kate Brindley [former director of the Arnolfini in Bristol and now head of the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art] did with Banksy in Bristol is a really good example of something [that] only really made sense there. And that of course made a huge splash.” Banksy v Bristol Museum, a secret exhibition of work by the elusive local street artist that went up in one night and ran for three months, attracted more than 300,000 visitors from as far afield as Russia, Japan and Australia. That’s double the Hepworth Wakefield’s visitor target for its entire first year.
It’s an example of exactly what a public gallery should do – engage with its locality. Its role, says London commercial gallery-owner Sadie Coles, is “to engage the local audience with their programme, which should have a high standard of curatorial scholarship and relevance. Culture should aim high, not dumb down, and should inspire involvement.”
In these terms, Balshaw thinks that far from being a hindrance, being outside London is an advantage. “You can look at it two ways,” she says. “You can say, ‘we’re not in the capital and therefore it’s more difficult to get major artists to come or audiences from outside our own city to come to the gallery, oh dear isn’t it terrible.’ Or you can say, ‘the pressure of tourist visits and the mass saturation of the cultural scene in London gives a pressure to conform, whether that’s conforming to a blockbuster exhibition that will draw in hundreds of thousands of people, and that becomes by default the measure of success, or whether it’s the conformity that comes out of everybody jostling for place so much that it’s really difficult to set your stall out in a way that marks you out as unique and innovative.” The Whitworth’s extraordinary collaboration in 2009 with the performance artist Marina Abramovic for the Manchester International Festival is a perfect example of an exciting, international-standard show that it would be impossible to stage at any public gallery in London. The entire gallery was emptied of its collection and given over to Abramovic and her own selection of artists to take audiences on a performative journey that lasted four hours. You even signed a ‘contract’ to say that you’d stick it out for the duration. It was, by all accounts, amazing. And even more amazingly, it was wildly popular.
“We were able to have an artist of the very highest standing and who has offers from across the world, who wanted to come because we were prepared to do something that would have been frankly too difficult and too inconvenient for any gallery in the capital to do,” says Balshaw. “We’re working on a scale which allows us to move that quickly and take on that sort of project, so it didn’t feel that risky for us, but when I talk to colleagues they say, ‘I can’t believe you did that’. It would cause chaos anywhere else.”
Scale seems to be an advantage in other ways too. Looking at European cities known for their contemporary culture, more often than not they’re not the sprawling capitals but the medium-sized cities, like Antwerp or Ghent, Stockholm or Helsinki. Cities you can ‘get’ in a good weekend, says Balshaw. “Medium-sized-ness seems to facilitate a higher quality of culture, because people are very discerning and demanding about what they want to see.”
“We were far behind places like Germany and France in terms of governmental support of regional cultural institutions, but have gradually been catching up due to the infusion of Lottery Funding,” says Coles. Manchester, Nottingham (with Nottingham Contemporary), Oxford (Modern Art Oxford), Middlesbrough (mima), Gateshead (Baltic), Bristol (Arnolfini and Spike Island) and Liverpool (Tate Liverpool, FACT and Metal) are just a few of the British cities boasting excellent galleries with inclusive programmes for the community, but which are also very well respected nationally and internationally for the quality of their exhibition programmes.
But what about the smaller towns and cities? Even clearing out the galleries would be unlikely to tempt the likes of Marina Abramovic to, say, Stornaway or Llandudno. But a recent, ingenious initiative has begun reaching those parts of Britain other exhibitions cannot. ARTIST ROOMS is a huge collection of international contemporary art that was bequeathed to the nation (in the joint trust of Tate and the National Gallery of Scotland) in 2008 by the art dealer Anthony d’Offay. Valued conservatively at the time at about £125 million, the collection is made up of entire rooms of work by some of the most highly regarded contemporary artists in the world, including Anselm Kiefer, Ed Ruscha, Diane Arbus, Agnes Martin and Damien Hirst. These rooms are constantly touring the nation, from the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness, Orkney (currently showing a dual exhibition of work by Cy Twombly and Alex Katz, both Tate Modern solo show recipients) to Southampton, where the John Hansard and Southampton City art galleries are currently hosting what is probably one of the most significant exhibitions of works by Andy Warhol ever to be shown in the UK outside of London.
“It’s incredibly important that people should engage with culture. The mission was to reach people in their regional museums who can’t go to London because they haven’t got the time, because they can’t afford the shocking rail fares, so they would have a show which was tailored to them, which was free and which had an educational programme with it,” explains D’Offay, who runs this cultural roadshow from his London office. “We did the most wonderful Andy Warhol show with Perth museum. Now Perth is not a large place. It has a beautifully preserved Victorian museum, it hasn’t had a makeover, it hasn’t been changed. The director stood up and I swear to you, she had tears in her eyes when she said, ‘I never thought in my lifetime I would have a show with Andy Warhol’. ” There is no other country in the world where this could happen. It is something to be immensely proud of.
Things are not all rosy, however. Recent government cuts are hitting the culture sector hard. “I’m not at all positive about the consequences of what we’re all going to have to go through,” says Balshaw. “Different city councils in different areas are taking wildly different approaches and to be quite blunt, it seems to me very party political. Some city councils are cutting culture so hard that it’s difficult to see how a whole host of organisations are going to survive. Birmingham is taking a particularly severe view. Most of the small organisations that the city council used to fund, even those with very serious national and international reputations, have been cut almost completely. It doesn’t do the local economy or tourism or community any favours if you start to diminish the capacity of your culture organisations to even survive.”
But there is still much to be happy about. As well as the public art institutions, the few very good commercial galleries outside London (Ceri Hand in Liverpool, Workplace in Gateshead, Ingleby in Edinburgh and the Glasgow trio of The Modern Institute, Sorcha Dallas and Mary Mary are notable examples) are thriving, though more thanks to their participation in international art fairs than to local collectors. Experimental spaces, like Eastside in Birmingham, Works Projects in Bristol, PopUp Initiative in Newcastle and Project Space Leeds, are appearing all over the place, and festival events such as the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, Manchester International Festival, biennials in Liverpool and Whitstable and the upcoming Folkestone Triennial are bringing top artists to audiences all over the country.
“Folkestone is set up saying, ‘we’ll work with the artists we want to work with and they will be of international calibre’,” says Balshaw. “It’s not, ‘oh, we’re in Folkestone, we’d better just have some local artists and a few second division players’. There’s a brilliant ambition. It’s not about large-scale, it’s about being really focused and absolutely appropriate for that place. I felt really strongly with our recent Mary Kelly show that there was not going to be any time when I said, ‘this should have been in London’, or, ‘this is like a show in London’. We’re connected to the world.”
Photographs, from top:
- Winston Roeth, Easy Lover, 2009 (detail). Tempera on 20 slate tiles. Photo: John McKenzie, courtesy of Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 1st April – 14th May 2011.
- Turner Contemporary, Margate. Photo: Richard Bryant.
- Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
- Jonathan Owen, Untitled, 2011, partially erased book page. Photo: John McKenzie, courtesy of Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 30th March – 14th May 2011.
- Jonathan Owen, Untitled, 2011, carved nutcracker with further carving. Photo: John McKenzie, courtesy of Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh, 30th March – 14th May 2011.