Protest against closure of Otter Gallery at Chichester University

Jonathan Knott, 30.5.2018
University plans to create “distributed gallery” across two campuses
More than 1300 people, including the artist Phyllida Barlow, have signed a petition protesting plans to close the Otter Gallery at the University of Chichester in West Sussex.

The gallery manages a collection of 20th-century and contemporary art, which was begun in 1947 and developed under the initiative of the university’s former head of art Sheila McCririck and its former principal Betty Murray.

Last week the Otter Gallery’s friends group forwarded to their members an email from Catherine Harper, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor, announcing the university’s plans to close the gallery in its current form. It intends to replace the venue with a “distributed gallery” spread across the university’s two campuses, which are in central Chichester and nearby Bognor Regis.

The gallery is currently located in a 96 square metre space in the university’s learning resource centre, but according to Harper's email the new gallery would have “at its heart” the executive corridor of University House. Both venues are on the Bishop Otter campus in central Chichester. The space vacated by the gallery is set to become a student careers and employability centre.

“The Otter Gallery has been a significant part of our university life, and has allowed us to showcase our collection, to present loaned external pieces, to curate sensitively, and to promote the visual arts well,” Harper wrote. “The Friends of the Otter Gallery are part of that significance, and we hope will continue to be as we extend the original vision of Murray and McCririck by creating the Otter Gallery as a distributed, and therefore democratised, concept across both of our campuses.”

Harper’s email said that under the new plans, exhibitions, events, talks and private views would take place in the executive corridor of University House.

“We will continue to employ a gallery assistant, and to store our art collections and archives safely and securely,” Harper said. “But our plan is to see much more of the collected works (most of which are in storage) displayed, themed and distributed throughout both our campuses.”

The planned change would involve no job losses.

The email also said that the university “would like to see an even greater public engagement, with schools, children, community groups, and so on actively accessing and enjoying the richness of our collections”.

But a petition phas been started by photographer Anne Purkiss to protest the university's plans.

The petition says that the gallery “is Chichester’s only free public art gallery with a permanent collection”. It describes the plans as “unworkable, since much of the Otter Collection’s main works of 20th century British art are too valuable to be safely shown outside a designated gallery”.

The petition states that the distributed gallery would lose its Accredited status, in turn impacting future sponsorship and donations.

Signatory Phyllida Barlow, who represented the UK at the 2017 Venice Biennale, wrote: “Universities need galleries – art extends education and the experience of how to learn. A gallery is a resource to stimulate imagination and innovation. To get rid of a gallery on a university campus is a brutal act of philistinism. Don’t go down that route.”

A statement from the university said that the gallery would move to a distributed model on 8 October, following its final summer exhibition.

“The university has decided to return to the founders’ original vision of a distributed collection exhibited throughout the institution, enhancing students’ educational experiences through working, learning, and socialising in a culturally-rich environment,” the statement said.

“The art collection was devised explicitly for the benefit of students, staff, and visitors, and our plan is to display and distribute much more of the collected works, most of which are in storage.

“It is in the spirit of the extraordinary visionaries, Murray and McCririck, that we want to protect, preserve and display these inspirational works for the benefit of the wider communities in Chichester and Bognor Regis, and across West Sussex.”

The statement added that under the plans, greater emphasis would be placed on the online visibility of the collection and that the Otter Gallery, Archives and Collections Committee would continue to meet biannually.

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