I have been thinking a lot about my subsequent days in Newcastle and trying to put the entirety of the experience into some kind of perspective for myself. Make no mistake, the schedule was full and I have no lack of experiences to report or organizations to talk about. But a small, insistent thought has been developing in my head that what I saw in Newcastle was substantially different than the art and gallery scene in NYC and maybe even different than anywhere I've seen. It's an old story to talk about how commerce affects the arts and an equally old story to look at how government spending affects the arts. Certainly in NYC, where I live, commerce rules the day in a way that's visible in every gallery, museum, and studio. Then I think of the art world in Paris and Berlin, which I've gotten to know pretty well over the last few years, which have considerably more government funding and cushion for art and artists. But neither of these places has the feel of Newcastle.
I can't profess to be an expert on Newcastle now or in the past, but a couple of things seem clear to me. For a city of its size, Newcastle has had an extraordinary tradition of artist's collectives, performance art, and conceptual art practice. Perhaps this is because there are a number of vibrant university art schools in the area, or certain artists have lived here and established a tradition, or maybe it's a reason as a newcomer I can't see. But the fact of it is there. Also, and I think this does have a direct relationship with the size of the city, it seems that the officers of the Arts Council have a very personal and connected relationship with the artists and art organizations of the town. That's probably not possible in a city the size of London. I get a sense of interconnectedness between the Arts Council folks, the artists, and the galleries that is more about neighborliness than collegiality. Art that is made and shown here will be seen by people you know; people you will run into in the daily course of your life. I can't help but imagine that this has consequences, maybe not all of them positive, on what gets shown.
Another thing that seems clear to me is that government support of art in Newcastle makes a radically different paradigm than what I'm used to in NYC. The invisible hand of the market is often truly invisible here. Galleries and artists have a safety net that frees them from the unending need to sell more work. I'm not saying that the intersection of art and commerce is evil, just that it's bound to produce different work than if the commerce isn't there. Galleries can show work that they feel is important even if it doesn't readily find a market. The same is true for artists. I got a sense of experimentation and exploration, even a greater openness to failure, from the artists I met here. I'm not saying that artists in commercial environments don't explore, experiment, or fail; it's not a black or white argument. My point is that the less commercial environment makes that atmosphere more easily available. It takes some of the pressure off.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the important work of Locus+. (Locus + website) Jon Bewley has been an important part of the British art world for coming on 4 decades. He continues to steward an organization that seems to have its fingers in more than its share of important art pies. You have to read the fine print when you pick up the Chris Burden monograph in Gagosian Gallery, but make no mistake, the book was made at Locus+. The group's website describes itself:
"Locus+ is a visual arts commissioning agency that works with artists on the production and presentation of socially engaged, collaborative and temporary projects, primarily for non-gallery locations. To date we have completed over 50 projects touring to a further 25 other venues, produced over 20 publications and 9 artists multiples.
Although Locus+ was formally established in April 1993 it was preceded by the Basement Group (1979 to 1984) and Projects UK (1982 to 1992) the first office-based organisation in the UK. The organization is recognized as a key regional, national and international agency for the development of new initiatives in the realization of visual art and cross-media projects."
Those US institutions that have a strong tradition of conceptual and performance art would do well to look at bringing the touring exhibit of the Basement Group's archives, titled "This Will Not Happen Without You", to their museum. It is clearly an important and under-known moment in 70s art practice. I was also impressed by the work of Layla Curtis which I saw there. Her breakdown of of the meanings and semiotics of maps are visually exciting, full of nuance, and endlessly detailed. I hope Mr. Bewley and his organization will get more play here in the US. He certainly deserves it.
More in the coming days on Workplace Gallery, Waygood Gallery and Studios, and Globe Gallery.