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Open Letter To City Curators And Exhibition Programmers

Manchester's artists appeal over their gallery exclusion

Published on June 24th 2014.

Open Letter To City Curators And Exhibition Programmers

MANCHESTER’s football teams and musicians are celebrated all over the world. The city also has one of the most diverse and innovative visual arts scenes in the UK.

Yet very few artists who live and work in the city have received any significant exposure in our major public-funded venues or the Manchester International Festival. Nobody is to blame for this, we are simply asking curators to have more confidence and pride in Manchester artists. 

Culture brings wider economic benefits.

When artists choose to live and work in a region they revitalize neglected urban areas, stimulate tourism, and boost the service, education and construction sectors of the local economy.

Manchester galleries need to recognize the strength of the visual arts community in the region and to invest in its growth by doing more to support, promote and showcase its artists. Endorsement by our public institutions creates confidence among collectors and encourages more people to begin collecting, making it financially viable for artists to settle here.

We have to ask ourselves why there has been no comprehensive survey show of Manchester artists since 2003? ('Thermo 03' at the Lowry, Salford).

Why don't we have any open submission exhibitions on the lines of the London Open at the Whitechapel?

Why isn't there a Manchester Art Prize?

Why is there no Biennial, and why have we never been in the running for European Capital of Culture?

Why are there no purchase schemes or artist residency programmes at our biggest galleries?

Manchester isn’t even mentioned in the review of artistic innovation in the North in the Arts Council Plan for 2011-15. Manchester galleries need to increase participation by the region's artists in the work they do.  Cities that have recognized the contribution of the visual arts to their cultural heritage, such as Glasgow, Leeds and Liverpool are celebrated as centres of creativity.

While paying tribute to the exciting artist-led initiatives and first class art schools in Manchester and beyond, our legendary DIY spirit can only carry us so far. We believe that the abundance of emerging and established artists in the region deserve a wider public platform alongside the international artists who are invited to exhibit here.

Everyone in the city will benefit from experiencing great art from all over the world side by side with the great work being made right here. A 'globalised' art world need not mean that the regional is overlooked. With committed and consistent support for Manchester artists, we can reverse the talent drain from the North.

A recent independent report (Rebalancing our Cultural Capital: 2013) exposed a huge London-centric bias in arts funding and recommended investment in artistic production outside the capital.

The Arts Council plan for 2011-2015 talks about ‘encouraging national and international recognition of the North’s artists’. At a time when there is ongoing public discussion about economic growth in the regions, the entire artistic community must come together and work to make Manchester an internationally recognised artistic centre.

Let’s make it happen. 

Maria Balshaw, Director of Manchester City Galleries and Whitworth Art Gallery, responds:

"We see ourselves as part of the visual arts scene in Manchester and so welcome all dialogue with artists about the significance of arts in Manchester.

We do show a significant number of Manchester artists across a wider range of the visual arts, from fine art to major installations, to textiles, to photography, ceramics and fashion. We're proud to be showing Dan Dubowitz and Alan Ward's marvellous photographs created in Central Library right now. We look forward to continued discussion with artist colleagues across the city and continuing to show and acquire work by artists based in our city. "

If you’d like to respond or contact the signatories: manchestercurators@yahoo.co.uk 

Signed by: (artists in alphabetical order) 

Judith Atkin, Matthew Bamber, Darren Beatty, Bartosz Beda, Mike Black, Axel Bottenberg, Sandra Bouguerch, Hannah Leighton Boyce, Alan Buckingham, Lindsey Bull, Janette M. Byrne, Margaret Cahill, John Carroll, Annie Carpenter, Jane Chavez-Dawson, Mike Chavez-Dawson, Jan Chlebik, Sophie Nixon-Clarke, Jenny Core, Stacey Coughlin, Nicola Dale, Chris Paul Daniels, Kate Davies, Jez Dolan, Fiona Donald, Tracey Eastham, Abraham Emajaro, Sarah Feinmann, David Gledhill, Lily Greenwood, Evi Grigoropolou, Susan Gunn, Geof Hadfield, John Hamilton, Annie Harrison, Michelle Harrison, Ian Hartshorne, Lucy Harvey, Sarah Hindhaugh, Stuart John Hine, Len Horsey, Jacqueline Quinn-Howarth, Hilary Jack, Catherine Kaufman, Emmylou Kelly, Ilona Kiss, Michelle Leigh, Ivan Leudar, David Lowther, Lee Machell, Jo McGonigal, Sam Meech, Sheila Meeks, Adrian Moakes, Siobhain Moakes, Fiona Moate, Geoff Molyneux, Emrys Morgan, Brian Mountford, Martin Nash, Paula Nield, Steve Oliver, Eileen O’Rourke, Jen Orpin, Daksha Patel, Michelle Pouncey, Rosanne Robertson, Katy Rutherford (Untitled Gallery), Lauren Sagar, Bridget Schilizzi, Jo Scorah, Debbie Sharp, Rebecca Sitar, Andy Smith, Liam Spencer, Evangelia Spiliopoulou, Mary Stark, Emily Strange, Dylan Thomas, Darren Tolliday, Robert Walker, Cerise Ward, Liz West, Bex Wild, Penny Williams, Janine Williamson, Ged Young. 

The Lowry. A Local Artist Features But He's Been Dead AwhileThe Lowry - a local artist features but he's been dead a while

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25 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Lynne EdwardsJune 24th 2014.

Couldn't agree more. I hope you DO make it happen.

Ghostly TomJune 24th 2014.

Something in the summer of the even years between the MIF odd years would be cool.

Chrisski77June 24th 2014.

Good that this is getting exposure, but some points: 1-Football and music got their exposure through their own merit. The Council has always commercially gained from this after the fact. 2-The most comprehensive Manchester artist survey of 2003 was the city wide 'Artist Run' co-ordinated by Castlefield Gallery and not 'Thermo 03'. Still too long ago in either case. 3-It has always been up to the innovators to produce despite adversity - necessity is the mother of invention - funding helps but isn't critical to development in essentially commercial and commodified fields.

1 Response: Reply To This...
DaveJune 25th 2014.

I'm afraid that anyone who thinks that massive cash investment, marketing and publicity play no part in football and music is kidding themselves. Let's not buy into the old myth of the suffering artist. The Arts Council wants its funded organizations to promote Northern artists and this is simply not happening enough, hence no mention of Manchester in ACE's 'Plan' for 2011-15. This is just embarrassing for the city when you look at how much the artist-led sector is doing. Don't forget that many artists are far more interested in getting an audience for their work than in selling it. It's about communication after all.

Chris LethbridgeJune 24th 2014.

This issue is by no means new. I am in complete agreement that the city's curators should familiarise themselves with and champion the best of locally based talent. However it is also important to bear in mind that major galleries are charged with with representing a range of work, the priority being a coherent programme that will engage with audiences on many levels. Allied to limitations on time, space and budget this creates a context within which shows by locally based artists will inevitably be in a minority. I fear there will always be a majority who end up feeling excluded for one reason or another. In response to this appeal the major galleries could - and probably will - point to the ways in which they have benefited local practitioners over the years, including through exhibiting opportunities. In some cases these have been substantial and I suspect Manchester's galleries may even perform relatively well when compared with some of their peers in other regions. Showing locally based artists because they 'have' to and the creation of dedicated exhibitions or set aside spaces within major institutions potentially devalues the process potentially engendering a culture of tokenism that merely serves to marginalise Manchester artists further. This is not to suggest there is grounds for complacency or that the status quo should not be challenged. From time to time one certainly gets the feeling that there are artists who would be feted elsewhere who are treated as 'also rans' on the basis they have chosen to work in the region (an irony when this comes from curators based in the same city). Ideally one would hope to see Manchester's artists competing on a level playing field with their peers while the galleries take a more active and ambassadorial role in championing the best work produced in the city. This move by artists to open up the conversation must surely be welcome and it will be very interesting to see how the galleries respond.

Simon TurnerJune 25th 2014.

What's that New Art Space at Federation House? 7 or 8 storey old Co-operative building. Haven't Castlefield Gallery been given access to that space for developing new artistic talent in Manchester over the next 5 years?

3 Responses: Reply To This...
DaveJune 25th 2014.

The Castlefield Gallery are a beacon for regional artists but they aren't Arts Council funded. Can you believe it? The artist-led and independent arts sector has always been resourceful and resilient in Manchester but it can't reach the wider audiences that the public funded spaces can. In a thriving arts ecology there needs to be joined up thinking and much more co-operation between the two.

Chris LethbridgeJune 25th 2014.

When Castlefield lost its RFO status in 2011, there were raised eyebrows at the fact this was completely at odds with what the Arts Council claimed were its priorities. I think a campaign by artists to restore that status would be a worthwhile undertaking. Castlefield is widely respected both by artists and other galleries - small and large, regional and national. It occupies a strong position to advocate on behalf of regional talent.

David GledhillJune 26th 2014.

Apologies to Castlefield Gallery for misrepresenting their case. They do receive Arts Council funding via the Grants for the Arts programme but not currently through the National Portfolio. Everyone who cares about contemporary art in Manchester should campaign for their regular funding to be restored as they do far more for the regions artists than the rest of our galleries put together.

AnonymousJune 25th 2014.

For those interested here's a FB thread that's been going on over the weekend: m.facebook.com/story.php…

1 Response: Reply To This...
David GledhillJune 30th 2014.

Please be aware that the views expressed on any social media forum regarding this issue are the views of the individuals concerned. The Open Letter was written in consultation with the signatories and other interested parties and as such is a collective statement.

Mike Chavez-DawsonJune 26th 2014.

I am a firm supporter of David's call to action around this highly pertinent issue, though as previously highlighted in the Face Book thread that was started over the weekend (21/06/2014) - it's a far-greater and complex issue than can be discussed via a blog, that being said – it is certainly a good place to start – and it is great that Manchester Confidential has decided to support the debate. As Chris Lethbridge quite clearly stated ‘this isn’t new’, I recall when I first arrived in Manchester twenty odd years ago - very similar debates were going on about ACE funding and the London bias – and certain folk got on with addressing it, but like all these things they got cliquey too - ironically once they got a little exposure or selected for this or that – funnily enough the majority of those folk are now based out of the region and in certain cases country (but this unfortunately is inevitable as there are very few folk with genuine altruistic motives beyond themselves and possibly close friends or those they perceive that may advance their needs/careers etc.) saying that, things have improved quiet considerably since then – but still, of course – things can always be more conducive and as Chrisski77 paraphrased ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, and yes ‘I know’ there has been various independent DIY strategies and artist-led initiatives with remarkable tenacity over the last couple of decades, all of whom have produced a rich and diverse programme of activity on far limited budgets than ‘publicly funded’ institutes usually on negligible salary/fee(s). Though as they mature and sustain I know that all of these have ended up requiring substantial ACE funding and further affiliations with larger institutes to maintain their activity in-order to ‘take it to the next level’ (this seems to mean sustainable). I’m aware that ACE isn’t the only funding stream and the way things are going in a few years time it might not even exist in its current form if at all, but undeniably it is a significant funding stream that needs to fulfil its aims. The bottom line is that publicly funded institutes are going to need to be more transparent and dare I say it ‘open handed’ with both emerging and mid-career years within their locale, not only will this foster, nourish and enrich the scene but it turn their funding criteria. This will mean facing up to the ingrained bureaucracy, it’s not going to be easy, but then change never is. As far as I can see, we all seem to want the same thing in terms of high quality, intelligently informed and engaging platforms to sustain our diverse ‘art ecology’ and if the voices of ‘informed concern’ aren't reciprocated then in the long-term this will be at the detriment of all interested parties. I am certainly not backtracking on the ‘pertinent points of concern raised, but for the record I would still like to applaud the support and changes that have been noticeable and beneficial to the careers & profiles of artists based in the region – long may that may continue, but that being said – more needs to be done and as David’s open letter concludes – lets make it happen!

1 Response: Reply To This...
Mike Chavez-DawsonJune 26th 2014.

'...with both emerging and mid-career artists within their locale...' (artists not years).

AnonymousJune 27th 2014.

I'd point out that curators also fund themselves through college and do part-time work, are incredibly poorly paid for the level experience they are required to have and face a hell of a lot of competition to get those jobs. They do all of this because they love art too, which people seem to forget. Chris Lethbridge is spot on with regard to representation - there has to be a balance and galleries have to bring in audiences and have a well-rounded programme in order to attract the funding that lets them support new practice.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Chris LethbridgeJune 28th 2014.

I do think it is more constructive when visual arts professionals see themselves as a community of interest that includes production, curation, criticism etc. A danger is when sub-sets who work and socialise together become insular and start to develop a sense of grievance or 'persecution'. Sure I have in my time encountered plenty of curators who stand aloof from artists (unless they are well known!) and who patronise - very annoying they are too! But equally I have met plenty of artists who have adopted a 'bosses and workers' mentality - casting themselves as the victimised, downtrodden workers and the curators as a powerful, remote elite. Both the letter and the response raise some interesting questions about what constitutes that community and who is included. The letter raises some legitimate issues that are worth airing, but I find myself questioning the definition here of what is meant by 'Manchester artists'. For example, in threads on the topic elsewhere on social media I've detected a dismissive attitude to shows given to senior university staff. I see no logical reason not to include those artists as a part of the Manchester 'scene'. I worry that the authors of the letter have perceived what constitutes that community in quite a particular and limited way.

AnonymousJune 28th 2014.

If it's the case that the Letter carries a set of grievance, which I don't believe it does, then it's the grievance of the vast majority that feel excluded. Nobody would object to artists getting opportunities, exposure, having their work bought just because they were mostly from the same institution. It's when that institution dominates to the exclusion of people who don't happen to teach or have graduated from it. Let's not reduce this to that old 'moaning artists' cliche. A lot of public money from several sources is being directed towards a small elite, some of them having benefited over and over again. The Open Letter is positive, collaborative and genuinely public spirited. The number of likes it's received would seem to suggest that it's been received that way.

Dave GriffithsJune 29th 2014.

This open letter takes a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but I'm glad it's started up a debate. The main targets appear to be our two major public galleries, although their evidence of working with the Manchester art world does show supportive efforts are being made at different career levels and strata. Although more opportunities would obviously be welcome locally, I'm worried that the debate is becoming provincial. Validation by our local institutions is surely only part of what we might aspire to compared to our other artist-run, national and international ambitions. For that reason I feel these targets, and arguments about exhibition and collection, are not the key issues. Manchester artists should instead campaign together to reverse the imbalance of funding between 'the regions' and the capital. Increasing and diversifying investment in developing critical practice is surely the key to enhancing our reputation further afield... not a petty argument about who had a show or sold work to the council. Artists might also decide to act more collectively and strategically to create a better rewarded system. We should campaign for fair pay and conditions for all the work we do - be it in education, engagement, technical support, and exhibitions. Manchester artists could organise better to barter our skills, share resources and act more cooperatively. Such changes to our working lives would free up a bit more time to develop practice, access opportunities and create the artworld we want. We live and work amongst Manchester's trade union heritage, yet haven't organised ourselves into a strong negotiating and mutually supportive force. We must demand recognition of the immeasurable GDP contribution made by artists to our local economies, and this goes way beyond blaming a handful of local art professionals

David GledhillJune 29th 2014.

I'd certainly advocate joining the Artists Union England who are holding a meeting in London at the UCU offices from 1-5pm on July 19th. I'll certainly be going and wholeheartedly endorse what Dave is saying. The problem is many stranded but I think the issues raised by the letter are pertinent and there to be taken up across the country. I've had messages of support from other cities where the same thing is happening. The ROCC report, which I would recommend artists read, talks about the imbalance in cultural support between London and the regions and recommends an investment of £600 million in art production outside the capital. That's money for production not display. Artists must organise if their industry is to escape the sclerotic state it's in at the moment.

AnonymousJuly 1st 2014.

Open Letter ‘We have to ask ourselves why there has been no comprehensive survey show of Manchester artists since 2003? ('Thermo 03' at the Lowry, Salford).’ www.bbc.co.uk/… ‘The exhibition at the Lowry has many highlights, with The Little Artists' versions of recent modern art in Lego grabbing the most attention. They're not the only ones to produce something exceptional. Jane Griffiths' portraits of famous TV dogs (including K-9 from Doctor Who and Eddie from Fraser) and Dale Winton tea set are wonderfully kitsch, Sophie Benson's paintings of icebergs are intriguing and more than a little beguiling, and Lesley Halliwell's colourful circles and squares have a hypnotic effect. There's something for everyone at the show, whether you fancy a hydrangea pressed in sheets of glasses or a yellow line threading through the gallery, and it's not to be missed.’ Alfred Hickling, The Guardian, ‘There is no visible thread to Thermo 03, an exhibition designed to draw attention to the best of Manchester's contemporary art scene. There is, however, a helpful yellow line on the floor to steer you through the bewilderingly diverse selection. The work cuts across all divisions of age and experience, so that grizzled abstractionists and earnest topographers share the floor with confrontational film-makers and a bumptious crowd of recently graduated practical jokers. Painstaking graphics sit alongside playful kitsch. Precious pressed-flower sculptures are besieged by little plastic animals. Some of the light switches are attributed to Dean Hughes, while others are presumably just light switches. Eventually, the yellow line itself terminates in a paintbrush suspended half way up a wall, revealing itself to be a piece by Jonathan Trayner entitled Painting a Line. Thermo 03 is effectively a big commercial for the visual arts in Manchester - splashy and attention-seeking, with the emphasis on getting things sold. Anyone with a desire to part with £3,000 for Laurence Lane's solid bronze whoopee cushion, or an old BMX bike belonging to Ben Cook, knows where to come. Even Trayner is available to paint a yellow line in your own home, price to be negotiated. But for all its cheerful presentation as an overstocked art supermarket, Thermo 03 leaves the impression of a vigorously ambitious art scene in the ascendant. Mike Dawson exhibits a T-shirt that states, "I just want to be a fucking cool artist", which seems commendable for its honesty. And the Little Artists (John Cake and Darren Neave) have been shortlisted for the new £10,000 Comme Ca art prize - touted as the Turner of the North - for their cheeky Lego reproductions of Brit-art icons such as Rachel Whiteread's Room and Damien Hirst's Shark. And though the overall thread remains elusive, there are a surprising number of works involving stretched tape, tangled cotton and even an old washing line. The future of art in Manchester is clearly as long as a piece of string.’ Definitely should bring back Thermo 03.

Dave GriffithsJuly 2nd 2014.

I'm also interested in what the new Artists Union England might offer, but their initial membership base is heavily South East centric, thus the meetings hosted in London. I'd question how far they'd campaign against the metropolitan bias. My concern is that AUE may operate more like a professional association, rather than in solidarity with the wider trade union movement. Their priorities should become clearer soon after the online consultation, London meeting and a decision on the cost of subs. Personally I'd like to see northern artists form branches within an established trade union such as Unison. In terms of pay, conditions and pensions, artists share much in common with other low-paid, precarious public sector workers. Through Unison we could access negotiation skills training, funding for campaign researchers, and support for dispute resolution.

Nick JordanJuly 3rd 2014.

Dave Griffiths makes good points here, that as artists we should act co-operatively and work together to create the artworld that we want to see, and avoid a provincial squabble. The debate is welcome, but rather than directing fire at specific galleries or individuals, we’d be better served by actively campaigning to re-dress wider structural imbalances and inequalities, such as Arts Council funding allocations, low pay (for both gallery staff and artists) and the effects of austerity-driven cuts, all of which deplete opportunities and resources for us all (and depress the local economy). The recent small increase in the proportion of Arts Council funding for organisations outside London is only in percentage terms (4 percent), not in cash terms (which has been cut), so is nothing to celebrate. In Manchester, curators and artists alike are at a serious disadvantage from a plethora of wider issues, such as deep Government funding cuts to the City Council, affordable rents, low-paid work, plus a lack of space/opportunities to exhibit work wherever the artist is from. Artists from Berlin, San Francisco, London or wherever will all find it difficult to have their work seen in Manchester too, due to a complete lack of serious commercial gallery spaces and just a handful of publicly-funded (and under-funded) institutions. As Chris Lethbridge points out, it is good that this letter highlights the need for curators to familiarize themselves with locally-based artists, and act as ambassadors for their region when abroad. As artists, educators and curators we all have a duty to that. I think that our city’s curators are doing a good job under very difficult circumstances – I’ve found many to be open and receptive. And we have a dynamic programme at Manchester Art Gallery, a revamped and enlarged Whitworth on the way, and a new ‘HOME’ for the Cornerhouse to look forward to. Plus Islington Mill has just secured a significant investment, and Castlefield Gallery has re-joined the Arts Council portfolio (perhaps partly thanks to very vocal public outrage that is was ever lost in the first place). These should all at the very least contribute to a thriving art scene, if they remain open and outward looking, and continue to be invested in, without further cuts. I don’t think regional group art shows are the answer, or requiring galleries to proportion space to local artists for example. Whilst many will always feel left out locally, in a very limited field, we should all be united in campaigning for fairer funding settlements, devolved regional budgets, a living wage, affordable rents and co-operative & collaborative working between individuals/institutions at local, national and international level, so that more interesting art can be made seen in Manchester from as wide a field as possible, and that more rewarding and cogent opportunities can be shared.

AnonymousJuly 3rd 2014.

I think they should definitely bring back Thermo 03. Except this time they should get Jonathan Trayner to paint two lines on the floor through the gallery space. And there should certainly be some more stretched tape, tangled cotton and old washing line included. BRING BACK THERMO 03!!!!!!!

AnonymousJuly 4th 2014.

Let's celebrate the fact that a relatively large group of artists across a range of disciplines have actually spoken out in a positive, constructive way about programming, funding, and related issues for the first time in Manchester (to my knowledge). Artists voices are hardly ever heard in this way. The liveliness of the public debate is an indicator of just how overdue their contribution has been. We need to lend our wholehearted support to the Artists Union England and to any other group platforms that represent our views and interests. The letter is positive and calls for dialogue. I for one remain extremely hopeful that we can achieve a spirit of mutual support and co-operation and win acclaim for the city as a cultural destination, through a more equitable distribution of resources and opportunities.

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