Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project, 10-11 September 2015

This article was originally published on a-n news 17/9/15
Here is my original version.

Last week I attended Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project (NBP) in Newcastle. It formed part of its 5th birthday celebrations but was also a response to the problems they, and other artist-led projects in the UK, are facing. How to deal with financial insecurity, gain support from and manage the expectations of funders and Local Authorities and what to do when your building gets taken from you for redevelopment.

NewBridge’s 80 studios, project space, book shop and performance space are located on a block of land in Newcastle’s city centre along with several other small arts projects, which include VANE, Commercial Union House Studios, Tyneside Cinema’s pop up space and Globe Gallery. At a conservative estimate 200 artists are supported on this block, which is owned by the billionaire landowners the Reubens brothers. Newcastle City Council is currently in negotiations to unlock this space for redevelopment.

One of the aims of the conversation was to explore various models from around the country and Europe with representatives from different artist run projects including East Street Arts in Leeds, Grand Union in Birmingham, Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle and NAC Foundation in Rotterdam sharing their experiences and insights. The second day was more focused on local issues within the wider political and economic setting and we heard speakers from Newcastle City Council, ACE and Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. This was where you might say the conversation got a bit ‘grown up’.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Andrew Rothwell, Culture and Tourism Manager, Newcastle City Council let us know quite plainly not to expect much support from the Local Authority. There was no money for culture and seeing how it isn’t a statutory requirement and there are only two people in the Cultural Development department we are going to have to learn to stand on our own two feet. He said it more kindly than that but it was still pretty sobering.

In a neo-liberal environment where everyone has their eye on the bottom line and Local Authority budgets and cultural departments are disappearing we are asked to look to philanthropic sources of income and as someone in the discussion pointed out, it’s hard to find a philanthropist who isn’t also a philistine.

John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, UCL, talked about big institutions getting sponsorship from oil companies as if this was OK. Where are our sponsors? He asked, reminding us that our artistic values have to change to meet the needs of funders. How do we reconcile? Should we reconcile?

One contributor suggested that business needs us, needs our ideas and creativity and we should allow ourselves to be ‘tapped’. Great! And when our city becomes a completely devolved private corporation, managing its own affairs just like a big business (apparently this is happening to some cities in the US and is on the cards for us) arts and culture will settle down to become be a division of Newcastle Corp. Maybe good things can come out of art and business working together but the idea of being tapped made me feel a bit ill.

Tom Warburton, Director of Investment & Development, Newcastle City Council had the most difficult job of all the speakers. He was there to give an update on the Rubens negotiations. Many of the attendees were studio holders and wanted to know how long they had before they’d be forced to leave. What they wanted to say but didn’t was: You are happy to use Culture to sell the city to foreign investors but how willing are you to help us when we need you? You could feel the tension in the room and see it on the poor guy’s face.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

We were reminded again and again by the representatives from the city council and the Arts Council that culture is a driver for urban growth and to this some artists voiced their frustrations. What were we talking about when we used the word ‘culture’? Were we confusing it with capitalism? Is art just seen as an activity, a way of making money? What about actually paying the artists who create all this culture and growth?

The problem for NBP and projects like it across the country is that most of the stuff they do is hard to see. Unless you have a shiny, glass fronted space where the public can consume a neatly packaged product, those with power aren’t going to see the value – I doubt they understand the contribution that a repurposed office block full of studios actually has. This is the difficult side of art – people need time and space to produce it and there aren’t always tangible outcomes.

There is hope though. Grass-roots movements are beginning to gain momentum and our voices are starting to be heard. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader a feeling of optimism and opposition can be transformed into positive action here at a community level. Imagine if we worked together to voice our concerns, influence policies and made a case for artists in urban spaces? What if we saw to it that more public money (our money as Chris Erskine reminded us) got spent on culture? What would a Corbynite Newcastle look like? Alex Niven asked. Well, let’s figure it out and see!

We don’t need to grow up, not if growing up means compromising our values or forgetting why we became artists in the first place, we need to stand up and be counted.

For a full schedule and list of speakers >

Sarah Lucas and Francis Upritchard

Seeing the range of Sarah Lucas’ work together for the first time (at the Henry Moore Institute Leeds) has helped me to appreciate its warmth, and character. It is rude and ridiculous and these qualities are sometimes misunderstood and underated.  Yet despite my sympathy, I felt unsatisfied by the show. Nothing has really stayed with me.

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Leslie Greene – A World of Paint

When looking into the paintings of Leslie Greene, one is introduced to a new landscape. The physical world of distance, closeness, movement, weight and matter are the surface narrative of the material that made it. The artist is exploring alternative possibilities. Layers of colour are washed or built up with textures and interwoven lines telling a story in meshes, gaps, veils and densities. Something is happening with these shapes that are not quite recognisable. An illusion of perspective is implied as the watercolour is sharp here, fuzzy there, as if the paint were in or out of focus. Shapes seem cut out and stuck on, maybe they are, but then the shadows they cast might be painted. Some elements are familiar, that pattern might be tartan or a tablecloth, but these points of reference soon become thwarted as aesthetic reverie engages one to unravel the order of painterly events, leading you through a visual fantasy.


Plaid-Empyreal,2010 ,acrylic, 61cm x 50cm

Leslie Greene’s website.

Can You Hear Me Now? Stephen Carley and Anna Mawby Curated by Andrea Hadley-Johnson. Derby Museums and Art Gallery

This newly commissioned installation takes as its starting point the contributions of hundreds of people. Their words, emotional, confessional and confrontational, form the basis of a museum, a material collection realised by Stephen Carley and Anna Mawby. The first piece of work to greet the visitor is a large sign made from blackboard with ‘When people politely lie’ written on in chalk. The title, sadness, indicates an element of confrontation and hints towards the interactive element that implicates us as a viewer. The names of the artists are written on the wall as well as ‘and you’, engaging us as a collaborator and reminds us that you only get back what you put in.

The public submitted a range of responses to a set of words; sadness, fear, guilt, delight, anger and disgust each becoming a theme or point of departure. While the themes are not restricted to each room, there is a feeling of being at a fairground; the work leads you on through each emotion.  For Carley guilt involves dirty sheets or shopping at John Lewis and of course desire is just out of reach. Mawby expresses anger, with sunken paper boats, the word repression just visible between its folds. Her pierced bottles, showing loss, have water flowing out from tiny piercings that spell out statements of sadness. A hidden mechanism keeps the bottled topped up suggesting no end to the tears.

On a notice board in the first room visitors are invited to deposit their unwanted emotions (like baggage at the door, as it were), setting the tone for a confessional journey. This kind of engagement invites an exploration of the personal experience. It is the visitor who takes on the role of confessor. While we are used to public confession, internal and private lives being exposed to us every-day, the intention here seems to be to provoke or antagonise us daring us to respond, or question our own relationship to the range of emotive issues explored.

There are points of recognition to be found as one moves along, however most of the work is open ended, so we are left hovering between material, text and signifiers. Disembodied statements, like snippets from a diary, are drawn, carved or sewn onto everyday objects, reflecting our urge to project onto things, or give things material form. The pairing together of text and object has implications, a mattress, a record player or cracked mirror can be read in a variety of ways. Thoughts, feelings and ideas are displayed, bottled, or left as traces in salt. The pleasure is gained from translating these messages.

The element of collaboration is clearly evident, and while each artist has a distinct voice, not just in the use of separate fonts, all the work suggests something alchemical has gone on. Carley’s take is somewhat edgy; life on a roll of toilet-paper, seems to be a waste of life, yet the text is written in gold. Mawby’s pieces are fairly primal, using light, salt and flowing water, the movement of materials transfers the meanings of the text. For both artists, words are incantations; materials are connected to memory, sometimes even nostalgia. Through juxtaposition and contradiction they create magic.

The best pieces offer up alternate readings, being ambiguous enough to allow the viewer’s imagination to read between the lines or enable a number of different interpretations. It might be argued that we are offered too much information, however, the feeling of overload easily fits in with frustrations and difficulty of the subject matter, i.e. emotional expression. In this regard the show is asking ‘can you hear me NOW?’, and the answer has to be ‘yes’.

On until June 10th 2012, for more info click


If… Lesley Guy

g39, Wyndham Arcade, Cardiff

Until Sat 20 Feb

Consisting of 24 illustrations made on paper pulled from a children’s colouring book, and stuck to the wall with single pieces of Blu-Tack, Lesley’s Guy’s Baby Animals possesses a naivety that jars nicely with its occasionally ominous content.

Taking pages from an animal colouring-in book and overlaying them with dense pen and ink drawings, Guy’s approach to image making is, she says, concerned with “mythos; a way of knowing that is intuitive and basic.” That’s not to say what she’s doing is all unstructured automatic writing, however. The defamiliarisation she enacts on the page is measured and purposeful, and the exhibition seems to showcase her progression through the process, from Chimps (Without Irony), which has no real embellishment whatsoever, through to Wild Boar (Belle et la Bete), which has gothic touches and bears barely any resemblance to its original.

The best of it is somewhere in between. Such pieces are ambiguous, unsettling and indebted to Gestalt psychology, as in Elephants (Now Try These), Badgers (The Manatou) and Orangutan (The Invisible Man) which both yield a number of different interpretations. These are also the darker pieces in the set, retaining parts of the children’s book, and exaggerating the implied malevolence of her drawing.

The motifs that recur throughout her work seem to reflect these attempts to uncover new ways of seeing: there are eyes all over her work. Images are mirrored and perspectives are distorted. In one piece, the entire page has been covered with a drawing of a scuba diver finding buried treasure.

It’s a striking series by an artist searching for new perspectives and, in the process, attempting to create a kind of symbiosis between the overlaid sketch and the original page.

Originally published in Buzz, February 2010