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The Comedy of Errors

Interview: Alex Farquharson

7 November 09 interview: Frances Ashton
photos: David Baird

"Nottingham Contemporary will generate £1 million from day visits in our first season. So it’s an investment rather than a cost"

Nottingham Contemporary is all things to all people; a long-overdue and crucial addition to the city’s cultural landscape, a massive threat to the local independent arts scene, the coolest date venue in town, the building that’ll catapult Notts into the UK artistic Big League, a colossal waste of money... and it’s not even open yet. That’ll all change in November, so our Art Editor breached the shipping container towers and pinned down Director Alex Farquharson…

Traditional factory towns like Nottingham are notoriously suspicious of art in general, and a lot of people have already cast aspersions on Nottingham Contemporary...
Your point about post-industrial cities is valid, but it’s not Saturday Night and Sunday Morning anymore; where there were factories, there are now business parks and the big employers are service industries. There are people who will take quite quickly to something like Nottingham Contemporary and those who may be harder to persuade. But we’re going all-out to be as inclusive as possible; to make it really clear that Nottingham Contemporary is for everyone. Everyone’s invited, everyone’s welcome - and it’s free, so people have got nothing to lose. It’s right in the centre of town, so it puts art, contemporary art in particular, right at the heart of the city.

How are you going to win over people who think it’s a waste of public money?
It’s been estimated that Nottingham Contemporary will generate £1 million for the city just from day visits in our first exhibition season. So it’s an investment rather than a cost. Obviously we all know that these are difficult times financially - but on a much larger scale, as politicians have proven, you need to invest just to get out of these situations. So I’m convinced that we’ll represent very good value for money, even for people who aren’t very culturally engaged right now.

So who’s actually paying for all this?
The major funders are the Arts Council and Nottingham City Council, with EMDA and ERDF as our capital funders, two European sources and a private donor. In terms of our revenuee, it’s Arts Council, City Council and the rest we need to raise. We’ve got the universities supporting us in our public programme, but over half our income is from the Arts Council. So the main sources of funding are national.

And how will Nottingham Contemporary sustain itself?
We don’t know, in the same way that every cultural organisation that is publicly funded doesn’t know. There could be a change of government in April, but I hope that whoever is in power doesn’t see the arts as a kind of easy populist target to cut funds from. It’d be a drop in the ocean, and a very poor investment, given that the last few years have seen some great investments in buildings. Maybe that’s coming to an end, so it’s time to ensure that they are sufficiently funded going forward - because a relatively small cut in the arts is disastrous. They tend to be very ergonomic organisations with small teams, so if you cut 20%, there’s a risk that you actually cut 50% of the funding going towards what it’s for - the activity, the art, the education and the audience-building. It makes very little financial sense to cut arts funding; it’s a very small part of our national expenditure and contributes to all the other primary sectors, such as education and economic regeneration of cities.

Do we really need a gallery this big here? Is it a case of ‘Newcastle and Liverpool’s got one, so we need one too?’
This begs the question ‘Why not Nottingham?’ There are lots of reasons why Nottingham should have a major contemporary art centre. Audience data shows that Nottingham apparently per head has the largest cultural audience in the UK, and there’s a large appetite for culture here. There are also a lot more students per head than any other city, particularly from Nottingham Trent and its Fine Art course. I think there is a demand, and I think that Nottingham is important enough to merit it. Throughout the sixties, seventies and eighties it had the very best contemporary art centre outside of London – the Midland Group, which left quite a legacy. Nottingham has had it before - so why can’t it have it again?

Most new galleries have taken over old buildings and restored them - so why was Nottingham Contemporary built from the ground up?
It’s not necessarily cheaper to restore or renovate or add to old buildings; sometimes it can be the reverse. And while I think some of those projects are exciting, it’s certainly not the only way to go. This is an opportunity for a new piece of architecture that is visionary and forward-looking; a legacy for the future. It would be a bit odd if we looked back to the 19th Century and found that the major architectural achievements were renovations of 17th Century buildings. It’s important, for culture in general, that each epoch leaves its trace, its monuments and its achievements. I think it’s great that Nottingham City Council are a developer of new buildings for Nottingham.

So is the green lace exterior on the building built to last?
It’s concrete, it’s hardy! I’m not a builder - I don’t know what it will be like in 200 years time. Maybe it will have its lasting moments, like carved stonework in medieval buildings. Or maybe buildings shouldn’t last that long anyway. Maybe we could have moved to another planet in 200 years time.

What kind of art can we expect to see at Nottingham Contemporary?
First off, there are going to be all kinds of educational activities for all kinds of different groups - young people, students and so on - in what we are calling The Space, because anything can happen there. It’s our biggest room, it has a light and sound system, for the benefit of other arts organisations, artists and performers to do their own activities. Essentially we’ll be acting as a host there and giving platforms for others in the city. For our first season, which is contemporary art-focused, we’ll be showing paintings, drawing and collage. In the second season there’ll be an exhibition called Star City, with installations, performances and sculpture as well as painting, photography and so on. Our programmes will cover the full range of media that artists use today.

Where do you think Nottingham currently stands in the global and British art worlds?
Nationally, there’s a big buzz around Nottingham, and I think that that has as much to do with the artist-led scene as it has to do with new centres like ours. Also, there is great international anticipation around Nottingham Contemporary - I know because I hear it and I get invited to talk about it in far-flung places. It’s like a wave rising, and Nottingham Contemporary opening is like the final big piece in the jigsaw. The British Art Show opening in Nottingham a year into our opening will really consolidate it. So the time to really ask this question will be in two years.

Nottingham has never had so many visible art collectives and artists as it does today, but isn’t there a risk they’ll be completely overshadowed now? Will you be reaching out to them?
Many of them are already involved - quite literally, as we employ a lot of them to work with artists to make installations and so on. But one of the many things we can do is act as a kind of signpost; Nottingham Contemporary will be the first port of call for much of the audience for visual art - as we’re so big and so central, especially for people who have travelled to Nottingham - so one of the things we want to do is to direct our audience to what other people are doing and that includes the artist-run initiatives, some of which are just down the road in Sneinton. I think it’s going to be a very symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship.

How can we as a city enable local artists to prosper on a national and international scale without losing them to larger cities?
We can’t provide all the answers for that; it’s up to the individual artist and the work they make. But I do think that Nottingham Contemporary will contribute to an environment that encourages artists to stay here. It’s very important that Nottingham isn’t just a big fish in a small pond, because the danger is that there is nothing beyond the pond - that it is inward looking and insular. We need a scene that looks to the outside world, so I think its important that artists are moving in and out of the city. We’ve lost some really interesting artists of late, but I’m sure that there are some new and just as interesting ones coming through the ranks. I’m sure it will always be replenished. And I’ve noticed that people who move away often come back and don’t seem to put their connections with Nottingham altogether.

Nottingham Trent run some of the best art courses in the country. Will you be working with them?
Our relationship is already close. We have collaborated already with aspects of our programme last year on talks and so on. Both universities are partners in our public programme and some of the main aspects of this programme – talks, events, screenings, art related education activity – is specifically addressing the student body. If any single area is going to benefit, it will inevitably be Fine Art courses, but in a city this size we can also afford to build networks across different artforms and across different
areas of knowledge. I also want Nottingham Contemporary to become a really good social space, especially for students.

Where will Nottingham Contemporary be in five years time?
I hope that within even two years time we’ll be really popular locally and respected internationally. In five years time I would like people in Nottingham to think that we are an invaluable part of the cultural and social life of the city. I’d like people to be really proud of Nottingham Contemporary and feel that it’s theirs, their cultural home.

If you personally could put on an exhibition from anyone alive or dead at Nottingham Contemporary, who would it be?
In terms of historic artists, there are two that I love; Odilon Redon, whose work is really magical, and James Ensor. They are both painters, print makers, around the time of impressionism and have very rich imaginary worlds. For more recent artists, I think super-important figures are Robert Smithson - a utopian artist - and then Mike Kelley. They would be dream shows and on another level - and very hard to finance. Maybe that gives you a sense of some of my motivations.

What’s your favourite gallery outside of Nottingham?
One of the most beautiful I’ve been to is the Menil Museum in Houston - it’s based on a private collection of astonishing quality and breadth, equalling the best national museums. It’s presented incredibly beautifully, the building is amazing, the quality of work is incredible and there’s a real personality to the collection. For a more cutting-edge museum of contemporary art, I think the Vanabbe Museum in Eindhoven is super-interesting - very provocative and very lively in the way it represents its collection. The more idiosyncratic museums, would be the John Soane Museum in London - which is kind of nuts, a real cabinet of curiosities - and the Gustave Moreau Museum in Paris, which is equally bonkers but quite different.

How much for a pint of beer and a coffee in the cafe? And will there be free refills?
Not of beer! I don’t know yet, to be honest. But in terms of prices, we’ll make sure it’s competitive, especially on beer. We want the café to be good and inclusive.

Nottingham Contemporary opens on Saturday 14 November.

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