LOW PROFILE are joined by Lindsay Hughes in the 2nd of a series of LONG CONVERSATIONS around engagement and participation, that discuss details of participatory arts projects by those who make work in this area.
Lindsay Hughes is Creative Producer: Visual Arts at ICIA, University of Bath. Lindsay has worked with a wide range of nationally and internationally renowned artists in a variety of arts organisations and contexts, including Arnolfini (Bristol), Spacex Gallery (Exeter), Tate St. Ives (Cornwall) and Whitechapel Gallery (London). As Senior Visual Arts Officer for Arts Council Wales, she co-commissioned the 2011 presence for Wales at Venice Biennale, set up the Brian Ross Memorial Art Prize and more recently initiated and developed a new programme of artist residencies, advocacy and research for public art across Wales. In her role at ICIA, Lindsay invited LOW PROFILE to develop a proposal for the project that has become Picture In The Paper and has worked with artists from around the UK to commission, develop and tour new work as part of the Visual Arts programme, through residencies, events, exhibitions and situated projects.
LOW PROFILE (LP) – The University of Bath is A really interesting context to situate a contemporary arts centre. The University, which, in contrast to our experiences of going to a relatively small art college, is a massive campus and doesn’t offer any creative/art courses. This means you are already located within a large community of people who you could say, you have to win over to engage with what you are doing/offering…
On top of that, you are situated up a hill, outside of the city centre of Bath and so getting other people, art audiences or not, to travel and make the effort to come to ICIA is not straight forward. All of this could seem quite negative, but somehow it also feels quite unusual and therefore has the potential to be really special. We have always been suckers for an underdog and forgive us for saying this, but there is an aspect to the challenge to build an audience for your new space that captures our enthusiasm in working with you. Could you talk about your experiences of working in this environment, your hopes for the future of the art centre and how working with us on this project feeds into that?
Lindsay Hughes (LH) – The biggest challenge is also the reason why I wanted to be here, which is because it is an non-arts university which on one level is extremely refreshing, but also incredibly difficult – its a double edge sword. In some ways, you can see ICIA as having a double personality in its audience demographic, meeting both students and the general public. The easiest way for me to see our audiences is to not separate them out into campus and off campus. Building an audience for an organisation which has not been necessarily been that visible, is in some ways like starting again.
For me working with artists like LOW PROFILE just makes the context even more interesting.
Previous projects such as working with Laurence Payot taught me a lot too. I hope that the challenge of building an audience never goes away and I don’t think it will.
Tapping into research departments at the University has such potential and I feel very lucky to have that at my fingertips, having access to such a rich resource which I can open up to artists is the most rewarding – and then trying to reach and build new audiences through that resource.
Rachel Dobbs (from LP) (RD) – Working out what the immediate audience needs is a useful thing to be thinking about. I’m interested in the idea of arts organisations as serving a community in some way. That community is not always only a geographically local one, I suppose I’m referring to the national and international community that forms around artists / artworks and arts activity in general too. When we’ve been meeting people for Picture In The Paper (PITP), I have been enjoying using the term/phrase ‘a new Centre of the Arts for Bath’. In making PITP, I suppose we’re answering another type of ‘need’ – the need to feel part of something else that is bigger than just yourself, the need to express and understand something more about the place in which you live and work, the need to celebrate and record, or mark these things in some way.
And the notion of Arts Centre as resource. What do you feel are the potential resources this type of centre can provide?
LH – Being part of a bigger community is incredibly important, for me we have to start with Bath itself and being accepted as part of the local arts community and not just something that happens at the University. I would like the centre to be seen as an extended space, one that brings together people and acts as a pivotal point socially. To belong somewhere is important and we can offer that sense of belonging through projects that break down the walls of our institution. We are creating new gallery walls and now I want break them down!
How we have worked so far has without such a formal gallery space has been quite responsive and certainly operating under the radar. We have to ensure that we maintain the sense of energy we have already built – I have seen lots of arts organisations lose a radical approach once a new building has opened so I am wary of that.
RD – It also seems that in your decisions around programming there is a desire to create a community of artists that are connected through ICIA – people whose work starts to have a conversation with each other and that has the potential to feed off of each other, or nurture each other in some way. Less focused on a specific building (as you point out) and also with the very different (unique) situation of having a (student population) audience that engages directly with the programme over the short term, rather than necessarily a public audience that follows a whole programme over a longer number of years and that that reaches out of the local, towards the global.
LH – And that is what a University should aim to do. The University is international it its reach and we need to be part of an international network.
RD – It’s really interesting to think about the difference between an international focus in a University context and an artworld / arts-ecology contextLH – The building is just a building, but what takes place inside – conversations, experiences should transcend the physical space. For the University, of course, they need to attract students from across the world – but for us the desire to be connected is a bit different, it needs to also stem from a place which is progressive.
RD – You could draw parallels between the need to have an international outlook within research departments and the need for international networks between artists / arts organisations and their international peers though?
LH – Sure – digging deeper into the research departments, that’s where the parallels are.
HJ – It’s interesting that within the current context of funding for the arts (that it is limited) Universities who have public arts programmes are in the position to support artists and deliver programmes/projects that otherwise might not happen. We, for instance, had a much better chance of getting support from the Arts Council because we had ICIA as a partner offering a serious budget. I see a lot of potential for the new art centre to continue to work with artists and other arts platforms in partnership to draw down funding and also to achieve activity outcomes on a greater scale than is ever possible for one organisation doing it on its own.
This possibility for partnership working also seems akin to your desire to connect artists with others in the University – matchmaking artists with researchers, or with people from the city etc – I wonder how a focused approach to working collectively is at the heart of what you are doing?
LH – When we were deciding whether to go for NPO status we felt that we would be more productive and supportive if we stepped outside of the public funding stream, as we would be able to offer match funding to artists and in turn support the arts economy.
We are able to be more experimental in our approach as its always about the work than limitations of achieving certain statistics. We do need to fundraise but what we have is the backing of the University and also access to research money.
The opportunity for greater partnership working is also there – at the heart of what we do is being able to enable artists in research and production.
RD – Picking up on what you said earlier about things stemming from a place that is progressive, this started me thinking about what this might mean – on the outset, it might be referring to a mindset that favours change and innovation (and maybe even towards notions of social reform) but I’m also excited about the idea of it being to do with things that happen or develop gradually, over time (slow and steady progress). This requires a level of stability and a desire to invest in projects/action/activities that might take a long time.
I would tentatively add that the current NPO scheme doesn’t offer this kind of stability/medium-term or long-term certainty. Universities have traditionally provided this, to a certain degree – they are slower to move (which can be a positive thing, but at the same time a negative thing). The crossover into a focus on research and production rather than specifically on outcomes seems to be an important one. In what ways do both of you think that Picture In The Paper interacts with this agenda?
LH – The long term investment both financially as well as creatively aligns itself with the University, if you think that a University provides an environment where you test, and develop ideas.
RD – I like that in our explanation of the PITP project, when we talk about the archive of photographs being on public display for the life of the building and the agreement that ICIA has made to look after this collection, it focusses people’s minds on what that expected lifetime of the project might be. It kind of gets you thinking about the level of commitment that is involved with the assumed duty of care over participants’ contributions and the generation and maintenance of the work.
HJ – Well, research should really mean research – study/discovery/working out through finding out.
LH – Exactly.
RD – I feel really strongly that PITP in only possible through this rigorous process of study / discovery/working out through finding out.
LH – The outcome is important but its the journey that really allows for change – to a University, the study, discovery and finding out aspect of a process is totally aligned.
HJ – Taking on the role of really embedding a local audience at the heart of what you are doing alongside gaining the attention and engagement of a national/international arts audience is a big undertaking. We are already meeting people and having groups suggested for PITP that I would have never have imagined. Do you think that the uncovering of the groups in Bath could also provide ICIA with an audience they might never have discovered and is it feasible that as well as looking after the archive of photos for the life of the building, that the new centre for the arts will be able to attempt to ‘hold onto’ those people and find ways to continue to engage with them?
LH – Yes totally, I think for it to really work, we need to continue the dialogue and find ways of ’embedding’ these audiences/groups into what we do – and not doing it for the sake of it, but to really embed the centre within the community, rather than the community in the arts centre. I really want the people you are meeting to come and to bring their friends/family and to see the archive of photographs and to be proud of their involvement with the project. Our commitment is to then build on this relationship.
HJ – That’s great!
LH – One more thing to add is not only is this a commitment from us to Bath but also our commitment to you as artists and to having an eye on what your needs are and how we can support you as artists long term.