Welsh art galleries have their eyes on the prize - Museums Association

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Welsh art galleries have their eyes on the prize

Expanding the Artes Mundi exhibition beyond Cardiff reflects wider moves to strengthen Wales’ visual arts sector
Art Awards Wales
Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea is one of the Artes Mundi venues – the biennial began in October and runs until 25 February 2024

Artes Mundi is holding its 10th biennial exhibition and international contemporary art prize (AM10) this year and the programme is more expansive than ever.

For the first time, the organisation is working with institutions across Wales to display the work of the seven artists shortlisted for the UK’s largest contemporary art prize.

The venues taking part are National Museum Cardiff (part of Amgueddfa Cymru – Museum Wales); Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea; Chapter, Cardiff; Mostyn, Llandudno; and the Oriel Davies Gallery in Newtown.

Expanding the Artes Mundi exhibition beyond Cardiff reflects wider moves to strengthen Wales’ visual arts sector by better connecting activities across the country.

It was always my intention that Artes Mundi would reposition itself

Nigel Prince

The most high-profile example is the plan to create a National Gallery of Contemporary Art for Wales. Amgueddfa Cymru is running the project, working with Arts Council Wales and the National Library.

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The aim is to create a new model for a national gallery that will see nine partner galleries – including all those involved in this year’s Artes Mundi – leading on their own projects and exhibitions drawn from the national collections.

Working in partnership is one of the key strengths of the visual arts in Wales, according to those who work in the sector.

Steffan Jones-Hughes, the director of the Oriel Davies Gallery, says: “Quite often, the arts in Wales are a bit disjointed because of geographical challenges, but there are good relationships throughout Wales. There’s a strong sense of working together and being supportive.

“Partnership working is important. We work extensively with regional and local partners and, increasingly, with national and international partners such as the National Gallery in London, Amgueddfa Cymru and Artes Mundi. We want to continue to make connections with artists, organisations and communities to extend our understanding of our place in the world.”

Jones-Hughes is excited by the opportunities afforded by AM10 being a pan-Wales event. He says: “It’s great to be able to showcase international artists in this way.”

Alfredo Cramerotti, the director of Mostyn, says this year’s Artes Mundi will raise the profile of Wales’ visual arts.

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“The visual arts is still relatively limited in terms of visibility, nationally and internationally – and it is quite difficult for emerging artists to break through and maintain a career,” he says.

“This pan-Wales exhibition will provide a platform for international artists to be seen in a context that is geographically dispersed but culturally cohesive.”

The arts in Wales has a strong community focus and a distinct identity, with socially engaged practice often an important aspect. This fits well with the aims of Artes Mundi, which is committed to working with artists who engage with social reality and lived experience.

Its director, Nigel Prince, has made sure the prize, exhibition, artists’ work and community programming are well integrated (see box).

Cramerotti and Jones-Hughes both work hard to find a balance between profiling the work of international artists and attracting visitors from overseas, while involving local audiences.

“As an organisation, we place ourselves at the heart of our community, offering much to our local audiences and providing world-class art for cultural tourist audiences,” says Jones-Hughes.

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“We get visitors from across the UK, Ireland, US, Canada, Netherlands and Sweden. So we have to balance offering world-class art that can be challenging, while making connections with our local setting, so that we are relevant to our local audience.”

But progress is not helped by the severe financial constraints that visual arts organisations in Wales operate under.

“Financially, the arts in Wales is undervalued,” says Jones-Hughes. “Our main funding partner is Arts Council of Wales. The total spend on the arts in 2021-22 was £55m.” He says this compares unfavourably with the amount allocated to the arts in areas of England that have similar populations as Wales.

Financially, the arts in Wales is undervalued

Steffan Jones-Hughes

Despite the financial challenges, the Oriel Davies Gallery will continue to support communities and artists.

“We see our work as making contemporary art accessible to everyone,” says Jones-Hughes. “We’re an open organisation, not afraid to take risks.

“Our focus is on Welsh artists, so there is always a representation of Welsh art on show. With Artes Mundi, we are working with Carolina Caycedo, who explores land rights, mineral extraction and river systems.

“We have developed a complementary programme – working with Welsh artists, designers, makers, thinkers, environmentalists and performers – to explore global themes within our sense of place.”

Cramerotti also emphasises the importance of artists who address contemporary concerns.

“I see art reflecting changes and development in current affairs, be that climate issues and the environment, demographics and cultural identify, or political takes on devolution, economic structures and the like,” he says. “New generations of artists don’t leave these kinds of issues outside their practice.”

The seven artists shortlisted (see box) for AM10 reflect this view, with identity, conflict, trauma, migration, feminism and the climate crisis among issues that feed into their work.

The development of Artes Mundi

Planning the 10th Artes Mundi biennial exhibition and international contemporary art prize has given the director, Nigel Prince, the chance to reflect on the development of the organisation since it was formed in 2002, and what the future holds.

This year’s event marks a departure, with the exhibition being held in venues across Wales for the first time, rather than just in Cardiff, where Artes Mundi is based.

This year’s seven shortlisted artists are Mounira Al Solh, Rushdi Anwar, Alia Farid, Nguyen Trinh Thi, Taloi Havini, Carolina Caycedo and Naomi Rincón Gallardo.

“It was always my intention that Artes Mundi would reposition itself,” says Prince. “Given that we don’t have a building, why are we confining ourselves to one venue? And by logical extension, why then do we confine ourselves to one town or one city?”

Prince has also been keen for Artes Mundi to have a less hierarchical relationship with artists, and to move away from the original idea of simply showcasing their work.

“For me, the word ‘showcase’ sits a little uneasily, in the sense that it shouldn’t really be about the arts organisation being somehow this great paragon of knowing what is right or wrong, interesting or uninteresting.

“There’s something about that suggestion of that hierarchical relationship that I don’t find particularly interesting and it’s not my experience as a curator of working with artists. So, I wanted to sort of push that away.”

As part of this, Prince has tried to make the work that Artes Mundi does beyond the prize and the exhibition far more integrated into the rest of the programme.

“We always did other programming, community engagement projects and things such as that, but it was far less visible,” he says.

“So, I wanted to recalibrate that and bring the visibility of that on a par with the exhibition, and start to look for ways to weave together these different strands of programming. Now there’s a greater visibility to those creative partnerships and community collaborations.”

With its new venue partners, Artes Mundi is also boosted by the strength of its community relationships and the opportunities those provide.

“If we’re working with Mostyn, Oriel Davies or Glynn Vivian then, as organisations, they have particular relationships to their local communities,” says Prince.

“That becomes quite rewarding when we’re thinking about which artists might present their work where in Wales. We do some very deliberate matchmaking.”

He gives the example of the artist Mounira Al Solh, who lives and works in Lebanon, as well as in the Netherlands. Al Solh produces paintings, video installations, works on paper, performative gestures and embroidery that explore loss, migration, memory and trauma.

For her presentation at the National Museum Cardiff, Al Solh is producing a sculptural “tent” as part of an ongoing series, constructed and embroidered by a group of women in Lebanon.

She will also present a new series of drawings with women in Cardiff and Swansea that will provide a platform for the testimonies of refugees, exiled individuals and families from Syria and the Middle East in Wales.

This is part of a series of more than 500 portraits titled I Strongly Believe in our Right to be Frivolous (2012-ongoing).

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