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/

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