Monday, March 21, 2011

At the end of an art experiment?

Next week the "regularly funded organisations" that the Arts Council has been funding for years find out if they are still regularly funded. The last few years has seen unprecedented arts spending, particularly in building new or extending and renovating old theatres, galleries and museums. Art as a driver for urban and civic renewal probably began with the Bilbao Guggenheim, but arts funding and a benign, supportive government (and councils) has seen a flourishing over the last fifteen years that we are unlikely to see again in our lifetime. It has been both success and failure - with the Tate Modern at the one end and the ill-fated Public in West Bromwich at the other. If in Manchester we still have our own glass elephant, in Urbis, at least its an imposing one, even if its about to enter a 3rd stage of its short, ill-defined life, this time as the National Football Museum.

Yet, if there was is one civic art project that I personally look on with both pride and admiration it has to be the New Art Gallery in Walsall. The regeneration it promised to bring to its end of town may be yet to come (Urban Splash have been advertising their unbuilt flats next to it, almost as long as I can remember), but as building in itself, as a gallery, and as home to the Garman-Ryan collection it is immaculately conceived. The building, first of all, four storeys, two upturned oblong, might seem less impressive on first glance, than the odd shapes of the Imperial War Museum North or Urbis, but it is elegant nonetheless, like giant fence posts at the end of a drab Midlands town centre.

Inside it is even more so, with traditional materials, wooden floors, stairs and wall coverings, giving it a quiet timelessness that glass and steel can never quite achieve. The gallery spaces are even better - extensive, connected, and perfect for both a busy tour and quiet contemplation - the latter being something that you rarely get at Tate Modern for instance. Best of all, the Gallery, ten years old last year, has an artistic purpose that Urbis or the Public could only dream of it. It was built to permanently house the Garman-Ryan collection. Kathleen Garman was mistress, and eventually wife, to the brilliant American sculptor Jacob Epstein. A middle class girl from Wednesbury, near Walsall, she ended up, with her siblings, at the heart of 20th century modernism. The collection bequeathed by her and her friend, the sculptor Sally Ryan, to Walsall art gallery, includes a rich selection of Epstein's work (including many head sculptings of Kathleen, her children, and other luminaries of the day), as well as contemporary artists, and impressive works from antiquity. Spread over two floors, the collection deserves repeated visits.

But the gallery also has a large exhibition space, usually given over to contemporary and/or community exhibitions. Over the last year the artist Bob and Roberta Smith has taken over the space, has been the gallery's artist in residence, and now curates an exhibition that takes its cues from the lives of the Garman's (particularly Epstein's tragic -and unacknowledged son, Theo). What to make of Bob and Roberta Smith? His (for the name is in itself a distraction) art seems to be rooted in the formlessness of the YBA generation, poking fun at the contemporary world, but also raising the political temperature of a sometimes apolitical generation. The bric-a-brac sculptures and bright painted signs and statements that dominate his work in the Gallery, seem out of place far from the shallow day-glo glare of Hoxton or wherever. This is an overly knowing art, that perhaps works best when it works in conjunction. "The Life of the Mind" takes on the lives of the Garmans and Epsteins sculptures of his daughter Esther, and tries to make connections between artistic and everyday lives, between facile objects and gallery exhibits.

On Saturday, there were a series of accompanying sound and performances taking place in the gallery. With Epstein's sculpture of his daughter Esther looking on, and Bob and Roberta Smith's signpost statements bright and amateurish behind, two young orators tried to outshout each other with monologues, responding to a painting of Valerie Solano's shooting of Andy Warhol, the woman with a SCUM (Society for the Cutting up of Men) and the man with a SCUW (Society for the Cutting up of Women, presumably) t-shirt. In another room a man unwraps chocolates, whilst twisting a Rubik's cube. Walsall, not known for pretension, looked on amused.

There's some good work in the exhibition, and I was particularly pleased to see some photographs by Helen Chadwick as well as her famous "Piss Flowers." Excellent autobiographical pieces by Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are also there, as the cream of the YBA contribution, and as well as transplanting Epstein's Esther, a Van Gogh sketch is also removed from the permanent collection into this part of the gallery.
It's all good fun, even if it left me feel a little annoyed at the continued jokiness of post-YBA British art. Ostensibly an exhibition about art and life, and how the two collide, Bob and Roberta Smith's seems a particularly inappropriate artist to be able to delve into this subtle relationship. Everything is potentially a joke, or potentially not; and the diversity of the curated pieces seems as child-like as the curator's own kindergarten writings. Not alone amongst contemporary artists in resting heavily on the written word, Bob and Roberta Smith's own words seem more appropriate to the carnival, which his work in the exhibition seems to mirror. Carol Ann Duffy's recent selection at the Tate in Liverpool, in contrast, seems much more considered. Go see, but for the individual pieces, rather than the zany connections.

The bigger picture, I guess, is that Epstein is an artist who already connects in many different ways - through his contemporaries; through his historical antecedents; and through his influence. The Garman-Ryan archive offers much in the way of fascination, but I felt that it was the US art scene of the 80s and 90s, with its frivolity, its chaos, and its crassness, that Bob and Roberta Smith was bringing up here: and there seems little obvious echo of 20th century modernism. I'm not an art historian, but the misunderstanding seems an important, perhaps even a serious one.

Yet, we should revel in this, for where will its like come again? The Bilbao experiment - of art for regeneration has been rolled out substantially throug lottery largesse, so that there are far more impressive gallery spaces in the UK than I can ever remember. Whether its the Baltic, the Tate Modern or the New Art Gallery, these spaces bring out the best in contemporary, historical and touring art. Yet they are part of a powerfully symbiotic creative infrastructure that involves community artists, creative partnerships in schools, visiting shows, artists in residence, and the post-YBA flowering of British art. Yet for all the money on show at Frieze or wherever, for all the graduates pouring out of art schools, for all the artists studios, and expensive art publications, has the last 15 years or so really been a golden age? It feels that the time has passed on again - that there's an internationalism, a globalised art elite now that trots from festival to festival, country to country. The work itself hardly has time to settle, to find roots. Some of these new buildings - and certainly some of the projects that fill them - will no doubt be hit next week by arts council cuts; yet the visual arts has made a brash, loud case for itself, bouyed by free entry, its role in regeneration, and the media interest in everything from the Turner Prize to Banksy.

We have gone beyond the fusty permanent collections of municipal galleries, and indeed, some of these are now being sold off to pay for children's centres and whatever else, to a need for art spaces to be as dynamic as new media, as fast moving as film, as contemporary as the latest Apple advertisement. The need for a permanently revolving series of exhibitions (all free at point of use) is not only an artistically challenging one, but an expensive one. Urbis had no permanent exhibits during its most successful phase, but that creates its own challenges. Contemporary art is verbose, has many voices, and yet one wonders how much of it will survive time's filter? At every auction house there are 19th century landscapes and portrait paintings, only memorable if they accidentally have some connection with a still pivotal figure.

The New Art Gallery, Walsall, exemplary in every way, will no doubt remain a key civic rallying point - on Saturday it was busier than the ICA last time I visited (and with better exhibitions) - but elsewhere, you wonder whether this particular experiment - art as civic enterprise - is nearing its end.

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