national gallery for contemporary art

The Case for a National Gallery for Contemporary Art

Adam Price AC/AM makes an impassioned argument for the foundation of National Gallery for Contemporary Art in Wales, and puts forward perhaps a surprising contender for its location.

A decade has passed since a Welsh Government commissioned study last recommended that Wales created a National Gallery for Contemporary Art. The sub-prime mortgage crisis in America meant we instead got a sub-prime solution in the form of a new wing for the National Museum’s Cathays Park base. The fact that in 2018 Wales as a nation has just half a National Gallery and no National Gallery of Contemporary Art at all says more about the culture of our state than the state of our culture. Soon another feasibility study will report, but there’s been little debate so far on what kind of new cultural institution we could and should create, or whether we need one at all.

I will lay my cards firmly on the green baize. We have many truly excellent existing galleries – MOMA in Machynlleth, Oriel Mostyn, Myrddin, Davies, the Glynn Vivian and Aberystwyth Arts Centre (and also artist-led initiatives like G39, THIS Wrexham, Arcade Cardiff, Colony Projects) to name but a few. But in terms of what is required in Wales to put art and creativity at the centre of things, these are like 17th century Quaker meeting houses, disparate gatherings of the devoted few, when what we really need is something on the scale of the great Cathedrals or the Methodist Revival.

My previous intervention in this debate, five years ago, was to pitch for a Welsh Guggenheim. The unexpected rejection by Helsinki City Council of a well-advanced proposal to build a second European base for the renowned New York arts foundation, I argued, created a unique opportunity for Wales. While the Basques I had been speaking with were quite supportive, when the BBC ran the idea as an almost-done deal I was soon on the receiving end of an almighty put-down by the New York Foundation’s Director, Richard Armstrong, declaiming, in a terse email delivered via his spokesperson, “unequivocally that we will not entertain the idea of a Guggenheim in Wales.”

The fact, as it later emerged, that Mr Armstrong was involved in then confidential discussions to revive the Helsinki proposal possibly explained the strength of their ire. A few months later a revised project was approved, an architect appointed… until the Finns changed their minds again and killed the project for good. I wonder whether Mr Armstrong would be quite so unequivocal about Wales now.

But in the subsequent years I’ve changed my mind about the value of cultural “inward investment”. The Pompidou, the Louvre, the Hermitage and, within the UK, the Tate and the V&A have all adopted the same branch museum strategy. Which means the Bilbao Effect – borrowing cultural capital from elsewhere to catapult oneself into the big league – is now pretty much nugatory. As Hans Ulrich Obrist has argued: “the most interesting international art institutions will be the ones that succeed in making a stand against the homogenising stances of globalisation, building discourses around local cultures and genius.” Expecting a creative organisation from outside to arrive in Wales to solve all our problems is, as former National Theatre Wales Director John McGrath said in his 2016 Hay Lecture, looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

The starting point in imagining what a National Gallery of Contemporary Art could and should be, therefore, is to dare ourselves to be ourselves. Simply building another me-too monument in Cardiff – build it and it they will come – in a world where every wannabee cultural capital has invested billions in courting Richard Florida’s creative class seems inherently to be a bad idea. The genesis of the National Theatre of Wales which eschewed a traditional venue-based or touring model, to create its own unique idea, a peripatetic laboratory of site-specific work culminating memorably in its inaugural year in the magnificent Passion of Port Talbot, shows what might be possible in reinventing the idea of what a national cultural institution could be.

Adapting NTW’s idea of the nation – its beaches, forests and factories – as stage could mean seeing the nation as gallery, in the same way as Cardiff Contemporary has turned the city’s urban fabric into a mass exhibition space. This could mark a return to the popular mobile exhibitions that the Arts Council of Wales funded to international acclaim in the 1970s, as part of the Art and Society programme, with enigmatic billboards at railway stations on subjects like sex and work, and the German Imperial flag flying controversially above the National Museum to mark the opening series on war. A Welsh take on the CASA FOA festival in Buenos Aires, which sees a new building every year made over room by room as a showcase for the best in art, design and architecture, could perhaps be repeated every year, Eisteddfod-style, in a different valley, village or city street. There could be a particular emphasis on events as an artistic medium, emulating, for example, Canvass Chicago’s subchroma,an annual exploration of art and tech which sees disused warehouses and factory spaces turned into an immersive virtual playground of interactive installations, curated galleries of physical and digital work, music and live performance.

So in a small, decentralised nation like Wales, any truly National Gallery of Contemporary Art must see its mission as being beyond its building.  But it will still need a home. At a practical level that’s because the visual arts, more than other art forms, are displayed over long periods rather than performed over short ones. In other words you need a lot of space. And though the culturally democratic idea that art can be anywhere is important, we also need palaces of culture or Kunsthalle – to use that wonderfully grand European phrase – where we concentrate art so that we can appreciate it on a scale and intensity above that of our everyday experience. As Tate Modern has demonstrated, these cathedrals of creativity, can democratise culture without in any way dumbing down.

If there has to be a building then, as this is Wales, our national conversation will soon focus on where, though the more interesting questions are what and why. To some extent, however, these questions are interlocked. It’s the galleries in unexpected places that are doing unexpected things because they have to strive more in order to thrive and flourish. MassMoca, a sprawling complex of converted industrial buildings in a former mill-town in the Berkshires region of Western Massachusetts, which opened in 1999 is the original template where the later Guggenheim Director Thomas Krens, first formulated the ideas that he would later use to such to great effect in Bilbao, itself at the time, as an ugly, rusting post-industrial hulk of a city, as unlikely a choice as art-metropolis as you could imagine.

In any country the capital city will be the obvious place for a new national cultural institution. Cardiff is also a major creative and cultural hub, recognised as such in being shortlisted as a potential new HQ for Channel Four. But it’s because it’s obvious that we should purposely look elsewhere. A strong case, for example, could be made for a rural location for a contemporary art gallery, as Hauser and Wirth’s Somerset outpost and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark’s most visited gallery, have proven. As the visual arts have become more than just painting, with sculpture, performance and installations, alongside digital and video/film, then the white cube of the conventionally urban gallery is now just one format in an increasingly diverse art ecosystem that now comprises sculpture gardens, landscaped art parks and courtyarded art environments.

Even in Bilbao the outside has become at least as important as what’s inside, as it’s the Frank Gehry building itself, its setting and the massive Jeff Koons puppy at its door that are for many the real draw. The importance of vista and the external environment chimes with the landscape tradition in Welsh art, and Welsh thought’s wider emphasis on cydymdreiddiad – the interpenetration of place and culture. There is more than just a whiff of Frank Lloyd Wright’s original vision for his Taliesin school-house in former London art dealer Richard Salmon’s ideas for the Gelli Aur estate in Carmarthenshire, a rural salon of transdisciplinary creativity, where artists-in-residence will be literally so in an integrated complex of in-house work/live spaces, the modern equivalent of the artists’ colony.

To break the false – and very English – dichotomy between rural Eden and the urban landscape’s dark satanic mills first laid bare in Raymond Williams classic study, The City and the Country, a Welsh National Gallery of Contemporary Art would do well to have both a rural and urban canvas. There are lots of interesting potential locations for the latter: Pontypridd (Owen Smith MP’s original suggestion of a Tate on the Taff), Swansea (where there are plans afoot to regenerate the Hafod Copperworks), or Newport (one of the few cities in the UK to lack any kind of contemporary art gallery) to name just a few.

My current vote for an urban campus, however, for a Museum of Living Art (a much better term in contrasting with the dead art of historical collections I believe than modern or contemporary) would go to Port Talbot, another Welsh bidder for the Channel Four move. Port Talbot’s bid was no doubt sniggered at by some, but I think it reflected a cockiness that should be part of the new national curriculum. No, it is not picture post-card Wales, but it has a certain rough-hewn beauty which makes it a place of pilgrimage to photographers at night, which Fox Talbot, the pioneer of photography and scion of the town’s founding family, would no doubt appreciate. As infrastructure in Wales was built around its extractive economy, Port Talbot has among the best transport links of anywhere in Wales. If the Rhondda Tunnel is reopened its final destination would be here. What better place to build a new Wales where what we extract is creativity through knowledge.

Art can flourish in out-of-the-way places. The Museum of New and Old Art opened in 2011 by the gambling magnate David Walsh in Hobart, Tasmania has been a massive hit with both critics and the public. Likewise the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art funded by Walmart heir Alice Walton in Bentonville, Kentucky, or the Benesse Art Site built by Japanese billionaire Soichiro Fukutake that has turned the Naoshima islands into a modern art mecca. What is true of all these examples is that they have embodied a certain experimental or pioneering spirit which is about as far away as possible as the carefully curated predictability of the publicly funded institution. Mona’s ironic marketing pitch is: “Catch the ferry. Drink beer. Eat cheese. Talk crap about art. You’ll love it.”

The individuality of these places has a lot to do with the fact that they are funded by visionary individuals (or their foundations) with deep pockets. So one of the main challenges we face is how to compete with that in the context of an austerity-ravaged public sector. Ideally we need a modern Carnegie – not just to fund a building, but to make it an engine of creativity at a global scale. We are, after all, about to place creative problem solving and critical thinking and play at the heart of our education system through the Donaldson proposals. Ironically, the only two nations to do so (Finland and Wales) will be one that rejected Guggenheim and another rejected by them. Imagine, we now created our own foundation – who knows, maybe jointly with the Finns – which sought to fire up every child’s spark of creativity, so often dulled by the time we reached adulthood. Wales only has about half a dozen billionaires. Perhaps a compelling case could be made to one of them to make Wales the cradle of a post-industrial revolution.