Art for all has always been our ethos

Perdita Hunt, Issue 117/07, p14-17, 01.07.2017
Vision of art for all becomes a reality
The Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village in Compton, Surrey, offers visitors a museum, an artists’ house and studio, a chapel and a pottery. George Frederic Watts and his wife Mary founded it on the vision of art for all.

While working on the Toynbee project in London, the two artists took their art to communities in the East End: George Frederic showed his paintings and Mary undertook terracotta modelling classes. This project led to the founding of the Whitechapel Art Gallery.
In Surrey, they continued their socially engaged work by building a chapel with 70 locals, founding a social enterprise pottery and creating a hostel for apprentices who learned their trade there.

While Surrey may have a leafy and well-heeled reputation, this image conceals pockets of severe deprivation. Helen Bowcock’s 2010 report Hidden Surrey identified areas of real need within a few miles of Compton. So the restoration of our gallery that was completed the following year would have felt superficial if it had not embraced the revival of the art-for-all ethos.
With HMP Send, we launched a programme, now in its 11th year, involving an artist-in-residence working with the Watts Collection to offer the female prisoners a new channel of communication and self worth.

We also have The Big Issues project, which works with young offenders, those with mental health difficulties, reformed drug users and homeless people. This initiative, which reaches 1,000 people a year, involves 11 partners and inspires an annual selling exhibition of the work produced.

In the recently published report looking at the social impact of the learning and outreach programme, Art for All: Inspiring, Learning and Transforming, Bowcock writes: “For those who do not have the means to access the richness of London’s culture, the landscape would be bleak without charities such as the Artists’ Village and its philosophy of art for all.”

The Big Issues and Art for All programmes reach 18,000 participants each year. They are a key ingredient for the engagement of philanthropists in the work of Watts Gallery Trust.
One of the biggest difficulties we face in working in this area is the constant change in policy and practice in prisons and young offender institutions.

Budgets, a change of staff and lockdowns are daily challenges. Yet it is our passionate belief that it is vital to work consistently and reliably with prisoners, and other vulnerable people, whose lives have been wrecked by chaotic circumstances.

Watts Gallery Trust is an independent charity that receives no regular public subsidy. There are schools nearby that are in the 17% most-income-deprived areas in England, and the area’s education score places it in the worst 6% in the country. Within this context, we are a key provider of educational opportunities.

Each year we raise the £200,000 it costs to deliver this programme because of the lives it changes and the opportunities that it transforms. Surrey may seem comfortable and affluent – but for those who live here and do not have the means or the voice,
it is desolate and their needs remain unnoticed.

If Watts Gallery Trust and communicating the Watts principle of art for all has beamed a small light of hope into this hidden seam, and brought some relief, we will have made a difference.

In the foreword to the Art for All report, former Arts Council England chairman Peter Bazalgette writes: “It all starts with great art but its transformative power is now being demonstrated by Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village with vulnerable young people, youth and adult offenders, the socially isolated and families on low incomes.

"Lest you think Surrey is an affluent place, the county has all these challenges on its doorstep. And in our data-led society, it’s also important that the value of good works such as these is evidenced. This is what this report sets out to do.”

Perdita Hunt is the director of the Watts Gallery Trust, Surrey