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James Green and Blair Todd of Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange
James Green and Blair Todd are the director and exhibitions manager respectively of the Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange in Penzance. In August artcornwall.org interviewed them together sitting in the new Exchange cafe, roughly one month after both galleries opened.
If you don't mind me saying you've worked here for a long time Blair haven't you?
BT: I think its 13 years...
So you have the benefit of knowing the Cornish scene over a longish period and James, you come with relatively fresh eyes...
JG: It's almost 13 months...
Do think things have changed much over those 13 years?
BT: They have changed: before it was just Newlyn, New Craftsman, Wills Lane, Rainyday and a few others. Because of the Tate everything's grown and escalated. The Tate has drawn a lot of artists - a whole new wave of artists - who have come to the area and brought new ways of working. Also more artists are here because they want to live here, rather than living here because of the landscape, or history.
Are you saying things were fizzling out in the late eighties - that it was quiet compared to how it is now?
BT: There has been a sudden surge forward, but equally it was never stagnant in any way - its always been very active. I was brought up in St Ives in the 70's when there was still this incredible activity of art. The Penwith Gallery was in the centre of that - most of the kids in the class had a connection: their parents were artists or something - it was the norm.
Do you want to say something, James, about your impressions of the art scene down here coming to it from the North West. I guess there are things that are different and things that are similar. What are the differences you've noticed?
JG The one thing that is different - and it takes some getting your head around - is the proliferation of commercial galleries and the effect that has on the artists that are making work. Its not a good or bad thing but it gives the region a very different character.
I was talking to Jess Cooper. She was asking how do commercial galleries down here compare with galleries in the North West, and actually if you cut out the craft galleries there are probably only 4 commercial galleries in the whole of Liverpool and Manchester - whereas down here you have staggering numbers that seem to increase daily - there's a figure of 70 galleries or something in Penwith - you can see them springing up in every shop window. I don't know where the people of Penzance are going to buy their buckets and mops anymore! So that has an effect on what people consider contemporary practice to be.
There are positive things about it eg there is a culture of art. But the negative thing is that there are graduates who are leaving college and they're thinking 'how do I cut out a career as an artist?' and they see all these galleries and the conclusion they come to is to make work for this market. In the North West they would n't think in terms of making work for a particular market - because it just doesn't exist. You'd think about how to get funding or set up artist-led projects as there is n't this tier of activity.
Which in turn reflects on the type of art that's made and eg the fact there are a lot of painters down here?
JG Yes. There are fewer artists down here doing that sort of artist-led initiative thing.
But I should say where they are doing it they're doing it very well. 'More' was fantastic: 'Happidrome' and all the other events. Lucy Willow has been doing stuff for ages and ages, and Andy Whall, there is a need for more of that. If the gallery has any influence at all we'd like to encourage more of that kind of thing.
One of my interests is in the media coverage of visual art. How does that compare?
JG There are so many regional magazines down here, like Cornwall Today and Inside Cornwall, but its very difficult to get dedicated regional coverage of the arts. There are one or two limited circulation magazines in the North West. Thinking of the Cornish press - Frank Ruhrmond - love or hate what he says, or the way he approaches it - but there is a consistent volume of coverage in the Cornwall press which you don't get in other regions.
So we dont realise how lucky we are...
Shall we talk about the Newlyn and the Exchange? I'm interested in understanding the mechanics of running a gallery like this - particularly how you programme shows and what the process is. Do you have a blank canvas in this respect? Can you put on whatever shows you like? How much are you influenced by the Arts Council and what they might want of you for example?
JG We have a certain amount of freedom. The Arts Council don't approve the programme. Some people suspect that the Arts Council have a book of Arts Council-approved exhibitions from which we select - but it just doesn't happen like that. If we met an artist and thought they had an idea that fitted with our programming policy and business plan we would pursue it. That's what we do.
JG We went on a trip to Stockholm in February. I 'd been there a year before and seen a group show at Moderna Museum. it was like the British Art show. There were a number of interesting artists that we wanted to find more about and we went and did some studio visits and invited them over to view the site, and talk about how they might make work . One thing the Newlyn has always done is to try and focus on the needs of artists and to try and find a way of supporting an artist's professional development and creating opportunities that are right for artist.
JG Sometimes our projects are touring projects, put together by other curators who have expertise in different areas. Curating new projects is very time consuming and costly. So we take advantage of that.
So in this case curators might write to you and suggest you take a show - or you'll get to hear of something else thats happening?
JG Yes that's exactly what happens and of course lots of artist contact us with proposals. That's useful for us to see what's going on and think about how those artist might be used for single projects or group shows. But we get more than we can support.
I guess things are planned ahead 2 or 3 years in advance?
JG We have a clear idea for the next 12 months and after that one or two key projects lined up. But we want to resist the temptation to plan too far in advance. One of the things about the Newlyn was that as a small organisation it was light on its feet and was able to respond to opportunities as they arose, and although we've grown in scale we want to retain some of that energy, but if you do programme back to back in the future you lose all possibly of doing that.
BT Also realising that at the Exchange we have this fantastic ramp and long wall that has no purpose apart for access, so that has the potential for small spontaneous pieces, and Claire who runs the 2 education rooms is also keen that they're used for very quick shows working in a 'Transition' way. There's lots of potential in that even when we've got a static 8 week show, stuff can flare up in between - which is a very Newlyn way of working.
'Transition' was good. Will it carry on into the future?
BT Yes it will, we're just a bit stuck. It works on a 6 day week and we're currently either 5 or 7 days!
JG I've never seen 'Transition' but it sounds such a brilliant model. Its seems to me amongst the most exciting bits of programming that galleries have done. I come to it cold but its a key part of the programme - almost the heart of the programme - the idea of taking this risk and giving the gallery over to artists that wouldn't have a chance to try it otherwise - and you look at the artists that have done 'Transition' and what they're now doing...
Which brings us on to the last part of the interview - and other aspects of your role in relation to local artists. Regarding the Newlyn Society of Artists (NSA) in particular - isn't it part of the constitution of the Newlyn gallery to show their work?
JG There's no legal or binding commitment to show NSA work but its a key relationship - the key relationship historically. We're keen to build on that. Its an exciting time for the NSA because - independently of the gallery - the NSA are seeing this as a moment to change, and to look at models that are artist-led models rather than 19th century art-society models, and also to look at the way artists are practising elsewhere. If you consider the NSA as the largest artist-led initiative in the country then it becomes very exciting.
But there are also ways in which the gallery can help support the NSA: so we're trying to assist them generate additional funding, and staff support. Its still a very active relationship.
One question that a few people brought up after the Tate Art Now show is whether anyone down here has ever considered doing an open exhibition like maybe Oriel Mostyn?
BT No, but at the last NSA meeting one proposal was exactly this: an open competition for NSA members and others in the SW with a prize and judges. It could be exciting if it happens.
There arent enough open exhibitions - certainly in the South West.
BT Well theres the RWA
And Sherbourne House
BT and Pheonix Exeter
OK I stand corrected!
Just to finish, have you words of advice for artists who want to send you proposals? You must get a lot of stuff sent to you. But you're happy to accept it, and artists should make their work known to you, am I right?
JG Coming back to the artist led thing - I rang around 6 or 8 galleries in the North-West region, and on average galleries were getting 300 unsolicited applications from artists a year. The Tate would get huge numbers but no shows would result. Probably about 1% altogether would result in some development.
Its important that just coldly sending slides in to a gallery you get a very very low return from that. The key thing is that artist-led projects and exhibitions in non-galleries spaces are very important. Galleries tend to view artists that do it for themselves positively. They immediately take them more seriously. Also it allows the artist an opportunity to represent the work in a way that ideally they would want it to be seen.
There are artists that are dynamic, and doing it, and making opportunities for themselves - and there are others who send off slides in huge numbers and get little back from it and feel embittered by the experience - but artists should understand how galleries operate. They should understand what the programming policy of the gallery is before they approach them or they should ring up the gallery first. There's a lot of work the artists should do before they photocopy eg 10 letters and send them out.
Do you get applications from groups of artists and ideas for shows as well? I suppose you're not averse to getting those too?
JG If an artist wanted to curate a project that would be fine we'd be interested in hearing from independent curators or artist curators? Have we had many of those in the past?
BT We do get a few. We get every kind of proposal. I mean we get e-mails from places like...um..
BT Not even that exciting
JG We get emails from people internationally and you know they've sent it to 300 galleries...
BT But when an artist has made the effort to know the name of the exhibition manager it really helps. Every exhibition we have had has its own story. There's no one way that they come together.
All the photos were taken on the opening night (top 3: Newlyn Gallery, bottom 3: The Exchange)
RW August 2007