Anyone for ‘Welsh’ Art?

Much cultural excitement to be had in Wales at the moment, as a brand new National Museum of Art is opening up. This marks the culmination of what might be described as stage 2 of the National Gallery of Wales plan. Stage 1 has been in development for some time, with the establishment of the Artes Mundi competition. Stage 2 will see the new museum opened on the 9th of July 2011, while efforts will be pushed through over the coming years to establish a National Gallery, the Stage 3 of this new cultural development. The Museum Wales website talks enthusiastically about ‘giving a new visibility to art in Wales and to the art of Wales’, that this will act as a wonderful promotion for both Welsh art but Wales as well.

It is certainly an admirable goal, but one must wonder how effectively this costly endeavour will be in achieving its ambitions. The arts in Wales have in recent years suffered too much from being trapped in a clique. While other nations in the British Isles have succeeded in opening up art to new larger audiences (Tate Modern being the prime example of such success), Wales has seen too much of its art, both contemporary and historical slip further and further away from the limelight. This new National Museum should have the potential to address that, but how effectively will it engage audiences, and more importantly how effectively will it promote Wales?

 The heart of this issue is how much actual Welsh material will be promoted in this endeavour. There is an important distinction here between having a permanent collection, and pushing particular collections or exhibitions to new audiences. The Artes Mundi for instance, has no doubt raised drawn attention to Wales in a particular artistic community, but outside of that community, how much connection is there between Welsh people and Welsh hosted exhibitions, and how much attention does it actually draw to Welsh produce? Welsh representation at the Artes Mundi has been minimal from a point of view of competitors, and what is this saying about the current state of art in the country. Perhaps it is this issue that has seen the Artes Mundi fail to reach out to a wider Welsh audience, we as a nation do not see this competition as ‘ours’, we view it as ‘theirs’, the establishments, the non-Welsh.

The National Art collection is certainly impressive, the works assembled by the Davies Sisters in particular draw attention, but few of the works in this collection are Welsh in terms of those who produced them, equally as rare is Welsh subject matter in display. This element, Welsh subject matter, is something that is addressed in the new exhibitions, and should be welcomed, but we should be concerned that the volume of Welsh artists is still thin on the ground. The exhibitions welcome artists who have spent time here yes, but that is akin to hailing a visitor who stays a week before going home, as a Welsh National. This area is one which the Museum must be careful with. Is our National Gallery to be one which promotes Welsh work, or promotes international work? In doing so, might it be counterproductive to view this project as a Welsh National Gallery at all, and forget about any Welsh branding, after all, if we are not selling something distinctly Welsh, what point is there in branding it as such?

This might seem overly negative, but there is an important point of consideration that must be drawn out. Museums live and die on their communities, fail to connect here and no matter the number of non-community visitors that come through the door, the project will fail. All the Museum Wales institutions live through their local Welsh domiciled audiences, St Fagans in particular is a site that draws well over half its visitor numbers from within a 50 mile radius. Will this new set of galleries and exhibitions speak to the community audiences? Will it speak to local/national audiences that might not have been tapped into in the past by the previous set of art galleries? My concern is, that in trying to develop something that is inevitably going to be slanted towards the international, that we will end up losing sight of the importance of the national, the Welsh. If we fail to stress the importance and relevance of these collections to Welsh audiences, then we will be left with one critical question, that being who are we producing this for, indeed, what are we producing this for? If it is not for Welsh audiences then its merit is dubious. The strength of a museum collection rests in whether or not it will bring back the local-national visitor time and again. If that proves a success, the non local/international visitor will follow. Fail with the first, and the second will not be seen either.

This is not to say that I think this will fail, more a concern of the consequences should it fail, and a hope, that Wales has not been forgotten in its new National Art Museum.  

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