I haven’t yet got a realized project to talk about, so as well as talking about our plans in Wales I’m going to reflect on how recent developments in visual culture, specifically in contemporary photography, impact on how we conceive of the role and nature of photography centres in the future. I’m going to build my arguments with reference to Ffotogallery’s work and the ongoing efforts to establish a national photography centre in Wales. I will also share some personal views on the conceptual and architectural models that have dominated capital developments in the UK visual arts sector over the last 15 years.
The story so far in Wales:
2001 – Vision set out for a new National Centre for Photography in Wales. Ffotogallery, having operated a gallery successfully in Cardiff since 1978, relinquishes its existing lease arrangement and moves to an interim arrangement on split sites: Administration, education and darkrooms at Chapter Arts Centre and a gallery at Turner House, Penarth, a historic building owned by the National Museum of Wales.
2003 – Arts Council of Wales pledges £2.4m Lottery funding to establish the new centre at Margam Park, near Port Talbot., a place with family connections to Fox Talbot. Fundraising and development planning begins in earnest. Plans include five contemporary exhibition spaces, an interactive gallery, workshop and teaching spaces, library and digital archive facilities
2005 – Partnership in place between Ffotogallery and Neath Port Talbot Borough Council, who own and manage the Margam Park site as a visitor attraction. Idea to integrate a ‘visitor experience’ of contemporary photography with exploration of the heritage, environment and landscape of Wales.
2007 – Project collapses and site lost due to local authority pulling out, despite capital funding being in place. Arts Council holds open its Lottery funding subject to alternative site being identified.
2008 – no suitable alternative site identified. Ffotogallery Director, Chris Coppock, decides to leave after 19 years and David Drake appointed as successor, starting in March 2009.
2010 – after year of operating programme and reviewing organisation’s work, new business plan submitted to Arts Council, includes the development of an integrated centre in central Cardiff location. Outline brief for new photography centre developed and discussions opened with City Council over site options. Arts Council of Wales reaffirm commitment to the capital plan, include Ffotogallery in the National Portfolio after Investment Review, and indicate availability of Capital Lottery Funding from 2012.
Let’s briefly consider some arguments for and against dedicated photography centres in the UK:
Photography remains a popular and accessible medium, with high audience interest and engagement in both contemporary and historical work
We can present the exciting UK and international photographic work that doesn’t get adequate exposure or informed critical examination by writers and curators elsewhere.
We can explore in depth specific narratives around contemporary photography and its development. These are under-represented and in some cases woefully unaddressed by the current generation of contemporary art curators and programmers in UK museums and galleries.
There is a loyal and growing artistic constituency that needs a focus for their area of interest: photographic artists continue to make work. The fine art or documentary photography degree courses in the UK remain oversubscribed, despite the challenge of high tuition fees and limited career opportunities.
Photography centres are not just about exhibition of work, they offer opportunities for creative participation, life-long learning, online and print publishing, bookshops, cafes, artist groups, membership for artists etc.
Digital developments have expanded the field of photography such that it is now inseparable from the wider contemporary visual culture.
Given the massive number of people who enjoy photography online and in print form, why spend a lot of money on gallery exhibitions which only a few people visit?
I believe these two questions can be addressed together by flipping the arguments around.
I would argue that new and existing photography centres should intelligently examine contemporary photographic art in this complex and changing cultural landscape, avoiding doctrinal adherence to an existing ‘canon’ of artists or fetishisation of the photographic image in its traditional form or context. Secondly, I think we need to unpack what we mean by a huge online audience for photography, and focus on those with a specific interest in contemporary photography as art. Although I can’t prove it, my anecdotal evidence is that people with a serious, critically engaged interest in contemporary photography enjoy it online, in print form and in galleries – and visiting galleries in photography centres can provide both a social experience and reflective environment for viewing work quite unlike the other platforms.
In terms of how photography centres embrace the digital opportunity, a few words of caution apply here:
Firstly, a move towards being digital media centres brought about the closure of several dedicated photography galleries in the 1990s – Watershed and f Stop being two such examples.
Secondly, we should be careful not to confuse or worse still lose our most loyal audiences. Ffotogallery ran a new programme called Vision On in 2009, which looked at data visualization, gaming, sound and vision, social networking etc. Created a participatory ‘anti-gallery’ feel to the space. We gained some new people, but lost a major share of our regular audience for the duration of the season.
Real or perceived hierarchies in the art world
When I got the job as Director of Ffotogallery, a well known international curator I know questioned why I wanted to work for a medium specific visual arts organisation. His actual words were “No self-respecting photographic artist would turn down an opportunity to exhibit at the Serpentine or Whitechapel in favour of a show at The Photographers Gallery”
My repost was to say that most artists would jump at either or both opportunities, depending on the context in which they wanted their work presented. But I think we have to acknowledge that there is a damaging prejudice against photography in some quarters of the contemporary art world – Paul Graham addressed this issue in a speech at MOMA, New York last year:
Paul Graham ‘The Unreasonable Apple 2010
Whilst acknowledging how the major contemporary art institutions have recognized Robert Frank, Martin Parr, Stephen Shore alongside Jeff Wall, Thomas Demand and Cindy Sherman, Graham states:
“what of those who work today with equal commitment and sincerity, using straight photography in the cacophonous present? I will not name names here, but for these serious photographers the fog of time still obfuscates their efforts, and the blindness j’accuse some of the art world of suffering from, narrows their options. It means their work will almost never be considered for Documenta, or placed alongside other artists in a Biennale, or found for sale in major contemporary art galleries and art fairs’.
Clearly there certain big name artists whose agents and representatives will block approaches and want to position them only in relation to the most powerful and well-resourced visual arts institutions in the UK. However, thankfully I have found no shortage of high calibre, prominent international artists to work with and who see it as a privilege to be invited to exhibit in Wales.
Let’s turn to some ideas about visual art buildings and architecture that have been dominant in the UK over the last 15 years
The most significant Lottery awards have tended to go to ‘Grand Projets’, often with lavish claims about their impact in terms of local regeneration and sold as new visitor attractions, sometimes including an ‘interactive’ technology mediated visitor experience
– costly conversions of industrial and other buildings (eg. The Baltic, Tate Modern)
– iconic architectural statements (eg. Rivington Place, London, The Public, West Bromwich)
– modern extensions to existing museums and galleries (the V & A, Holbourne Museum)
My critique of many of these developments:
Architect’s vision often compromises artistic purpose
Costly to build, costly to sustain
Not very green
Product of Lottery glut
Utilise expensive technologies that almost immediately become redundant or superceded by new platforms
Many have focused on ‘museum paradigm’ – collections and curation in an art historical context
Tendency towards brand name/institutional dominance rather than real quality and innovation
Conservative view of audience needs and growth potential, somewhat risk averse
My ambition for Ffotogallery, and for the new photography centre I hope to establish in Wales
Fleet of foot organisation that is well networked in terms of the evolving cultural agenda
Engaging with new and established artists, at many levels, and emerging artistic practices
Staff who are energetic, enthusiastic and intellectually engaged in their subject
A programming approach that offers effective ‘mediation’ between artists and audiences
An architectural design that makes best use of resources – high quality, versatile spaces for exhibition, production and training, education and social interaction
Ability to programme ‘cross-platform’ – online and physical
Technology that is as ‘future proofed’ as possible.
The right ambience – a rich sensory experience (the smell of coffee and freshly baked muffins, a well stocked bookshop and a bar that is welcoming and a good meeting place for artists and creatives).
Central location with high visibility and good accessibility
A building of a scale and ambition for the development that is sustainable in economic and environmental terms
A business model that strikes the right balance between subsidy and self-generated income