The New Art Gallery Walsall: you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone

I worked at The New Art Gallery Walsall (NAGW) from May 2004 to June 2006. When I got the job, my role at the time was Administrator for the Education Department at the National Galleries of Scotland. Having had applications rejected for several other arts jobs, I’d been experiencing the creeping dread that I’d never break out of administration. But when Walsall said yes, and I reached the dizzying heights of ‘Education and Events Assistant Curator’, I was over the moon. I learned a phenomenal amount during my time there, and acquired a sufficient level of skill to successfully secure my next role, Education Officer at Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

NAGW has always been supportive of staff development and very committed to audience engagement. Those two years were the most amazing training ground, especially for a career in museum and gallery education. Many galleries claim to have ‘education at the heart of everything we do’, but this place really means it. Shockingly, the gallery is currently facing the very real threat of closure, a consequence of Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council having to plug an £85M hole in its budget over the next four years. The long, ugly fallout of the 2008 recession and subsequent government austerity measures are still scorching their way across the country. So with this in mind, I’d like to share a few of the many features that make NAGW a world-class institution and to illustrate the scale of what would be lost.

The Collection

NAGW is built around The Garman Ryan Collection, named after its founders, Kathleen Garman (1901-1979) and Sally Ryan (1916-1968). Garman was the second wife of sculptor, Jacob Epstein, and was a close friend of Ryan’s, who was also a sculptor and Epstein’s only pupil. Following Epstein’s death in 1959, Garman was looking for a permanent home for their shared collection. Raised in neighbouring Wednesbury, she was keen for the collection to be located in her native Black Country. It was gifted to Walsall in 1972 and exhibited in the central library building until the New Art Gallery opened in 2000, where it has been housed since.

Sheila McGregor, Deputy Director at the time of writing in 1999, described what makes the collection so special:

‘The appeal… lies in its idiosyncracy, its intriguing juxtapositions, the domestic scale of its contents and, above all, the almost palpable presence of the personalities whose lives influenced its creation. It is quite unlike any other public art collection in Great Britain… it is unusual  because it has no single thematic or art-historical focus… it embraces work from many different periods and cultures, giving equal weight to the famous and little known… this is a collection formed by two women working closely in partnership, at a time when collecting was still, predominantly, a male prerogative’. (p.17, The Garman Ryan Collection catalogue)

The Garman Ryan Collection is arranged by subject, so there are rooms depicting ‘Animals and Birds’, ‘Work and Leisure’, Still Lifes and Vessels’, etc. The Western canon (Turner, Constable, Monet, Van Gogh, Matisse, Blake, Modigliani, Burne-Jones et al.) is interspersed with beautiful, functional objects from all over the world. Some favourites include: a heddle pulley from an upright loom (Ivory Coast);  a comb decorated with an incised face that also doubles as a figure (New Guinea); a Hei-Tiki (Aotearoa/New Zealand); a head-shaped vessel (Peru, Moche); and a tortoise-shaped incense burner (China). The thematic hang is such a gift to museum educators and I must have led hundreds of tours during my time there. In one room alone, you can go from Robert Delaunay’s portrait of Stravinsky, to Epstein’s bust of Nobel Prize winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, to Degas’ portrait of his sister, to Freud’s portrait of Kitty Garman, Kathleen and Epstein’s older daughter and Freud’s first wife. Somehow, the collection manages to be both global and epic as well as personal and intimate at the same time.

The Exhibitions

The third floor of NAGW is used for temporary exhibitions and it is stunning, all high ceilings and beautiful proportions – a classic white-walled cathedral for art. I enjoyed working with so many great exhibitions there, but two in particular stand out: Hew Locke’s solo show in 2005; and the touring exhibition, Kerry James Marshall, Along the Way, in 2006. Both artists create large scale works that are bold, bright and visually arresting, while also packing a political punch that explores race, discrimination, power structures, and, in the case of Locke, post-colonialism. To support Locke’s show, NAGW published the first monograph of his then 25-year career. His close friend, architect David Adjaye, came up to host a Q&A with the artist. Marshall is a major figure in the US art scene, and he is represented in public collections across the country. Incredibly, Along the Way was his first solo show in the UK. And it came to Walsall. As green as I was to the art world, even I understood that these exhibitions were a really big deal.

jungle-queen-ii
Jungle Queen II, 2003, by Hew Locke (*)
1_2016_kerryjm_thelostboys
The Lost Boys, 1993, by Kerry James Marshall (**)

Deb Robinson, Senior Exhibitions Curator, is the powerhouse responsible for the exhibition programme at NAGW and has a fantastic eye for talent. She spotted a young Conrad Shawcross for a solo show in 2005 and I went back specifically to see her Joana Vasconcelos show in 2007. Vasconcelos is an amazing Portuguese artist who creates enormous sacred hearts out of plastic cutlery, chandeliers out of tampons, and covers life-sized ceramic figurines with crochet. Her work is addictive and joyous, and Deb had been following her career for some time. You could never accuse a NAGW exhibition of lacking ambition. Bob and Roberta Smith, who was artist-in-residence from 2009-2011 and made work inspired by the Epstein Archive, has been a vocal and staunch supporter of the campaign to save the gallery.

The Building

Caruso St John is now a well-established and internationally renowned architecture practice; it was the NAGW commission that put them on the map. Formed in 1990, they worked on the gallery from 1995-2000, and many other successful commissions have followed: ‘Since then the practice has completed many gallery projects, including Tate Britain Millbank, Nottingham Contemporary, Newport Street Gallery, and Gagosian Galleries at King’s Cross and Grosvenor Hill’.  

The gallery was a catalyst for extensive further investment in Walsall – property developers flocked to create apartments near it, the canal towpath has been tidied up, and a huge shopping complex sprung up over the road. NAGW was one of several large millennial arts projects that were designed to re-generate smaller towns across the country. While there are still serious socio-economic challenges to address, Walsall has definitely reaped massive returns on the initial investment (the gallery cost £21M to build and has long been the jewel in the Heritage Lottery Fund crown).

The building itself is welcoming and beautiful. The spaces are so well designed, and you can feel the attention to detail and quality of craftsmanship that went into its creation. And the icing on the cake? Walsall-boy-done-good and Slade frontman, Noddy Holder, is the voice in the elevators, telling you which floor you’re on in his distinctive Black Country accent.

Respect for audiences

The high quality of its learning programmes also contribute to NAGW’s national reputation, and I can see why – the whole team ‘gets it’. Jo Digger, Collections Curator for many years and now retired, has always championed and respected audiences of all ages. In the 1990s, Jo curated a show called START at Walsall Art Gallery (as it was then known) for a target audience of three to five-year-olds. Painting were hung inches from the floor and the emphasis was on interaction and enjoyment. This groundbreaking show led to the creation of the Discovery Gallery at NAGW, the first space you see as you come through the door. ‘Disco’, as it was affectionately known, was designed specifically to introduce children and families to contemporary art practice. Renamed The Family Gallery, it includes works by Laura Ford, Yinka Shonabare, the Singh Twins, Damien Hirst, and many others. Audiences are intrinsic to the thinking at NAGW, not a footnote or an afterthought.

Conclusion

There is currently a high-profile press campaign fighting to save the gallery. A letter from leading directors and artists across the country was recently published in the Guardian, and the paper has run several articles on Walsall’s financial dilemma. It is also worth remembering that it isn’t just the gallery at risk; the Council is looking to close 15 of its 16 libraries as well. Unfortunately, this is not a unique problem, as Lancaster, Derby, and now Birmingham councils are all trying to balance the books at the price of arts and heritage provision. And I don’t envy their bind either; regional councils are being choked by the most horrendous budgetary strangle-holds. So what’s the path ahead? I have no idea, but at the same time, I know that ripping out infrastructure, heritage and employment opportunities for communities might plug a short-term funding gap, but it will have greater long-term consequences.

We are not the owners of cultural heritage, we are its temporary stewards and guardians, and future generations who live and work in Walsall deserve a gallery of this calibre. We will be leaving behind a disgraceful legacy if we allow a project that was a decade in the making and the recipient of millions of pounds of State support to disappear after a cruelly short 16 years. The Guardian has reported that The decision about the fate of New Art Gallery will be made by the council on 23 February.’

 

After that rather downbeat note, on the upswing I’d like to wish you a Happy Christmas and a restful holiday. I will be spending the next couple of weeks chipping away at my Churchill report and I plan to be back with more bloggage from 9 January.

(*) Source: https://jameswoodward.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/jungle-queen-ii-by-hew-locke/

(**) Source: http://www.artnews.com/2016/03/02/the-painter-of-modern-life-kerry-james-marshall-aims-to-get-more-images-of-black-figures-into-museums/2/

Risky Business

Risk is a word that gets bandied around a lot when talking about organisational change and/or innovation. He who dares wins, and all that. Management Consultant, Peter Drucker, summed it up nicely when he wrote that to do something new, you have to stop doing something old. This naturally brings Tarzan to mind, swinging from vine to vine across the jungle. To grab the next vine he has to let go of the current one; there will be a brief moment when he is holding onto neither and it could end badly. In that moment, there is very little security and quite a bit of faith required that it will all turn out okay. Human nature being what it is, we want the new vine and strive for it, but at the same time, we don’t want to risk losing what we currently have. This is often expressed as, ‘I want things to be different, as long as I don’t have to change anything’. If Tarzan did this and doggedly stuck to one vine, his swinging momentum would gradually slow, each arc slightly smaller than the last, until eventually he’d just be a clingy bloke in a loincloth, stranded high above the ground. No-one wants that. Ironically, avoiding change is often riskier than chancing the unknown.

It’s also worth putting risk into perspective, as it means very different things in different fields. For many people in the world, getting basic needs met, such as finding food and shelter, is risky. In healthcare, the ability to assess risk can save or lose lives. In museums, the risk can range from a programme failing to find an audience, to damaging the brand and losing funding. When I was working in a previous role, and the office was getting stressy, a wonderful ex-colleague used to say, ‘Well, at least you’re not up a tree giving birth in a flood’. Can’t argue with that, and it always served to take the heat out of the moment. Our fears around risk must sound totally disproportionate to those outside the museum sector, which is worth remembering when we’re all disappearing into our own navels. Perceived risk is not the same thing as actual risk. Do the risks that we take in programming involve real jeopardy or are we just over-thinking it and getting in our own way?

 

To ensure consistency when I was collecting information during my research trip to the US, I worked with ImaginationLancaster to develop a set of interview questions and accompanying templates. One of these templates was a project-mapping matrix, where interviewees (museum educators/learning staff) identified two ‘tried and tested’ examples of programming and two ‘innovative’ examples of programming, and then plotted them on a graph. I left the X axis blank so that the interviewee could place their four projects along a spectrum that was of particular relevance to them. For the Y axis, however, I had a scale from low risk to high risk and asked each interviewee to define what that meant to them in relation to their programmes. The following factors were quoted as being high risk:

  • targeting new and unestablished audiences;
  • investing time and money in new approaches;
  • new partnerships with artists and practitioners;
  • doing something that hasn’t been done before;
  • being unable to predict the results and outcomes;
  • injury to a person or damage to an artwork;
  • reputational damage to the organisation, threatening funding;
  • challenging perceptions and being of public value.

Low risk, not surprisingly, was felt to be the opposite; working in familiar territory and delivering programmes that have been done before with existing audiences. There was a very clear division between the known quantity (the current vine) being low risk and the unknown potential (the next vine) being high risk. However, more than one interviewee thought of low risk as boring and ‘safe’ programming; it might be keeping the donors happy, but it’s not doing anything to move the programme forward. Consequently, this felt like a high risk position to be in, because the programme would become increasingly redundant and irrelevant. One interviewee observed that the risk tends to lie in the implementation of the programme, not the ideas themselves. A new idea isn’t necessarily risky, but there will be challenges in delivering it successfully.

project-mapping-image

I was struck by the interviewees’ highly skillful ability to make informed guesses and calculate risk. The unknown is embraced on a daily basis, but not recklessly. Planning, research and experience give their experimental programmes the best chance of success AND they work in organisational cultures that accept the occasional failure as a vital aspect of innovation (which also lowers the risk). These Tarzans aren’t swinging through the jungle blind-folded, but are highly attuned to their environment.

In case you were wondering, the X axes included the following:

  • From low tech to high tech;
  • From closely related to unrelated to the exhibition programme;
  • From simple to complex in execution;
  • From information driven (educational) to socially driven;
  • From ‘museum world’ to ‘rest of the world’;
  • From creative to not creative;
  • From ‘on brand’ to ‘off brand’.

And finally, if you’d like to show your support for my blog in the UK Blog Awards, you have until the 19th December to cast your vote – please go to http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/kiwi-loose-museums  and thank you!

 

Header Image: http://classiccinemaimages.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/Johnny-Weissmuller-as-Tarzan-in-Tarzan-the-Ape-Man-1932.jpg 

Known Unknowns: Rumsfeld and the Johari Window

As a rule of thumb, I tend to steer clear of quoting US Republican warmongers, but I’ll make an exception for Donald Rumsfeld’s wonderful “known unknowns”, a slippery phrase introduced to the world during a news briefing back in 2002 when the then Secretary of Defence attempted to explain the lack of public evidence linking Baghdad with terrorist networks. “Known unknowns” comes to mind whenever I think about where ideas come from – I know they come from somewhere (and I’m pretty sure it isn’t an isolated cave in a forgotten corner of Iraq) but exactly where remains a mystery. To quote the late, great Leonard Cohen, “if I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often”.

Scientific research has made some interesting progress in understanding the neurological processes involved in ideas generation. Leo Widrich’s blogpost, Why We Have Our Best Ideas in the Shower: The Science of Creativity, offers a handy summary of some of the more recent thinking on the subject. He quotes a study by Allen Braun and Siyuan Liu, who tracked the brain activity of rappers free-styling. They found that  improvisation shows lower activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which controls ‘executive functions’, “allow[ing] more natural de-focussed attention and uncensored processes to occur”. At the same time, “the medial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible to [sic] learn association, context, events and emotional responses was extremely active”.

I love the idea of ‘de-focussed attention’, for me it perfectly captures the weirdly paradoxical nature of ideas generation. On the one hand, attention and effort are required, but on the other hand, the best ideas seem to sneak up from the sides when I’m not directly focussing on the issue, but playing around with unrelated topics, metaphors, or just thinking about something else. I’ve also encountered a few articles recently about how useful improvisation can be in ideas generation, which would be consistent with Braun and Liu’s findings (check out Art Museum Teaching and Can Scorpions Smoke in particular). I’ve always kept improvisation at arm’s length, but I know others who swear by it. My brain understands that it must be a great way of tapping into ‘uncensored processes’, however, the rest of me would rather hide under my desk than participate.

Thinking about the unknown source of ideas also brings to mind the Johari window, a tool developed in 1955 by American psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrison Ingham, to improve self-awareness and interpersonal relationships. It’s used frequently in both counselling and corporate team-development settings. The window consists of four regions displayed in a 2×2 grid:

  • Open: known to self and others – declarative, an understanding of the self that is shared.
  • Hidden: known to self and unknown to others – private thoughts that only serious amounts of wine can extract. This area decreases through disclosure.
  • Blind: unknown to self and known to others – the worse one! Aspects of our character or behaviour that are obvious to those around us while we remain ignorant. This area decreases through feedback.
  • Unknown: unknown to self and others – can take everyone by surprise and contains deeply-buried experiences that still exert an influence. This area is the most mysterious and decreases through self-discovery.

johari-window

The aim of self-awareness is to increase the ‘open area’, although in reality these quadrants are in flux and change frequently.  It’s the power of the unknown that interests me most; I think it’s a useful metaphor for discussing how we generate ideas and tap into our own creativity. Understanding the role of others in our own creative process is also useful. When do I need time alone to generate ideas? When do I need others to push my thinking? What role do I play alongside others in generating ideas? These relationships can take many different forms, for example: some people are like an ideas sprinkler system, sputtering and spraying their thinking in every direction; some people require an external catalyst, but can then generate their own innovative thinking by building on those foundations; some people are network builders and generate new ideas by bringing innovative thinkers together; and some people are good at grounding ideas by pulling them down from a floaty place up in the clouds, and transforming them into achievable actions. The more aware we are of our own creative process, the more efficient we can be in harnessing its potential.

In totally unrelated news, my blog has been very kindly nominated for the UK Blog Awards (art and culture category). There is a public vote from 5-19 December; after that, the top eight in each category go forward to a judging panel round. So if you like what you read and can spare a couple of minutes, I’d appreciate your support. To vote, go to http://blogawardsuk.co.uk/ukba2017/entries/kiwi-loose-museums

 

Header image: http://www.nga.gov/content/ngaweb/Collection/art-object-page.70170.html