On the Day of Brexit: Art As Hope (More than Ever)

On the Day of Brexit: Art As Hope (More than Ever)

I didn’t, perhaps rather naively it seems, anticipate the outcome of the vote last Thursday and its potential consequences for our political, physical, social and moral proximity to our neighbouring countries, nor the hopeful chain of thinking that came as a response to the Arts Council Curator’s Event in the aftermath the following day.

Walking in to Plymouth Arts Centre was something quite extraordinary. As a Plymouthian, I felt great fondness in being at an institution that had such a formative impact on my decision to pursue curatorial activities. What started out as a loving affiliation of their fabulous vegetarian restaurant , aided by an experimental  vegetarian mother, I was fortunate enough to be an intern at Plymouth Art Centre across 2008-9.

Without doubt, this year impacted upon how I would work in the future like no other. During this time I was welcomed and  worked with both Paula Orrell, the Curator until 2011 and Caroline Mawdsley, who ran the education and outreach programme. Both had a deep passion  for Plymouth,  a real belief in the power of socially engaged practice to speak to people and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment to collaboration both in terms of how Plymouth Arts Centre worked in the city but also how it worked with its artists. Perhaps in short, I always felt during my time there that arts organisations in Plymouth were better, and forgive the political pun, stronger together.

The warmth of welcome at PAC was still there. As was the imperative that art should be able to talk to, no less react to, the changing social and political context within which it is produced. To say the mood was low would be an understatement. But a sense of common confusion, anxiety and impetus for positive change should also be acknowledged. Whilst many of the delegates were initially open in their concern as to why we were gathered in Plymouth to talk about ‘new commissioning’ in light of what had happened, we couldn’t have been in a better environment.

An introduction by Plymouth Arts Centre (PAC) Artistic Director Ben Borthwick set a progressive tone. Addressing the palpably negative mood in his opening speech, Ben quickly reaffirmed not only the reason we why we had collectively pursued careers in the visual arts initially, no less why the discussions held on that day were important: “Never has art been more important. Never has it needed to open up new ways of thinking and new ways of seeing”. As Curators,  these arguments in asserting the value of art are commonplace- the room collectively nodded as we reflected upon the significant contribution artists make to envisaging events and the world from other perspectives- but the utter timeless of this reminder, was powerful.

The rest of the day was wonderfully organised and talked considerably about care between artists, organisations and contexts. A trip to Plymouth Museum to hear about their ambitious  plans for an expanded museum/ library project and to KARST to learn more about their brave decision to create an artist-run and critical space were inspiring. There is still lot to process from the conversations had on this historic day. But if it instilled one thing, that was to retain faith in artists and those who work to support them, in creating reflections on how we now best move forward.

Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Gallery July – September 2016

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