Thursday 30 October 2008

Connecting Cultures: Relaunching the collections at Cartwright Hall, Bradford

Cartwright Hall is one of those stately, Victorian monuments to wool, civic pride, ambition, wealth and paternalistic duty which graces many a small, middling-sized and large town in Northern England. It was purpose built in 1904 to house the art collection of one Mr. Lister, local wool magnate, and continues to function as a magnificent museum and art gallery. It was recently refurbished and the collections were re-curated and displayed thematically, which has allowed the historic collection to meet and mingle with the contemporary collection in a way that brings new meaning to both and probably new audiences too.

About the Collection
Cartwright Hall’s contemporary collection has never been ‘medium-specific,’ the collection was not either acquired or organised according the material from which the work was made, such as metal work, ceramics, textiles or photography, but rather according to narrative and meaning. At one time there was a ‘transcultural collection’ which focused of arts from the Indian sub-continent and on contemporary South Asian and diaspora art. It then expanded and the collecting policy became an early exemplar of ‘diversity’ in art acquisitions. The result is probably one of the most interesting public collections in Britain. Ok, I’m biased, I have work in it, but mine’s a very early work, don’t get too excited. It’s the mix and now the arrangement of the works that is so successful. Some wonderful, classic Orientalist works sit alongside contemporary work exploring migration narratives where they can quietly or noisily comment on each other without much need for interference from clunky curatorial text telling the audience what to think.

Connect, the current exhibition
The relaunch of the collections and of the current exhibition, ‘Connect,’ was followed by a short symposium on contemporary museum display in which seven of us, with work in the collection, opined as eloquently as we could on the matter of public collections. ‘Opportunity or risk?’ was the question posed and which we were asked to address in our three-minute presentations. All of us emphasised the opportunity, I think only two of us discussed the risks. I’d welcome the chance to be in more collections of this sort, the risks of having your work sanitised and intellectually vandalised by the sort of craft curators who really want to discuss only your provenance, authenticity, medals and firing temperatures are fewer I think. That said, I wouldn’t mind the chance of risking that either, but since most ceramic collections are, alas, absolutely material-specific and concentrated on the modernist, truth-to-materials drone, I don’t think I’ve got too much to worry about - unfortunately.

Good Practice
Thinking about good practice, Cartwright must also be held up as an example with their young ambassadors project. This is an outrageously audacious attempt at commandeering disaffected, callow youth, locating their art-lover within and then, as if that wasn’t enough, asking them to set about developing their teenage and early 20-something pals into sophisticated, eloquent and articulate gallery-goers too. The astonishing thing is that it’s working brilliantly. These kids are going to be holding forth about neo-modernist, quasi-de-Waalian, late 20th century handle-less pale-ware, before you can say ‘cylinder’. Can I cope?