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Alex Farquharson is Leaving Nottingham Contemporary for Tate Britain

17 October 15 words: Tony Simpson
The director of everyone's favourite local art gallery is doing one. Yep, he's London bound. We take a look back at his time here
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photo: David Baird

Some time before Nottingham Contemporary opened in November 2009, while the galleries were still being hewn out of the sandstone cliff at Garner's Hill, Histories of the Present paid tribute, among others, to the Poet Lord, George Gordon Noel Byron, at Newstead Abbey. I missed the actual show, only to catch up with it, to some degree at least, through the excellent book of the exhibition. Thus, in 2008, Alex was already making his curatorial mark on Nottingham and its Shire, interpreting our history and heritage:

“...we wanted to use the opportunity of being homeless to occupy specific spaces imbued with the particularities of Nottingham’s history. In doing so we wanted to begin forging dialogues between what was already here in Nottingham and the worlds of thought that the work of today’s artists open onto.”

So he wrote in Now and Then, a highly readable Foreword to one of Nottingham Comtemporary’s first in a distinguished list of publications linked to its shows over the seven or so years of Alex’s tenure. In 2012, I presented a copy of Histories to the Mayor of Vyronos, the district of Athens named after Byron, as it seemed to me to rediscover the English Midlands city where I live. Vyronos was busy marking the 200th anniversary of Lord Byron’s maiden speech in the House of Lords in defence of the hosiery frame-breakers of Nottinghamshire who were trying to defend their meagre livelihoods, and were soon to follow one Ned Ludd in that cause.     

But Alex’s range is truly global; 'International art, for everyone, for free!', as the reclining lady in the big hat proclaims. He has been as good as his word. David Hockney made his first visit to Nottingham for the opening of 1960-68: A Marriage of Styles, the Contemporary's stunning inaugural show in winter 2009. That high standard has been maintained and surpassed during the years that followed. Kafou: Haiti, Art and Vodou lit up a bleak Nottingham winter in 2012, while Aquatopia: The Imaginary of the Ocean Deep refreshed the balmy summer of 2013. This year's Glenn Ligon: Encounters and Collisions marked another high point, with Ligon himself enthusing about the 'adventurous programme' at Nottingham Contemporary.

For the Contemporary is a happening place. Public programmes alongside the exhibitions engage an 'informal intellectual community' which has grown accustomed to direct and revealing encounters with artists, activists, and those who write about and study them. Rights of Nature, a path-breaking excursion in emerging environmental law, opened with a weekend conference that matched Nottinghamshire’s opposition to fracking with photographic recordings of caribou migration routes in Alaska, now threatened by mineral extraction. The photographer cheerfully explained his purpose to a packed Saturday-morning hall at the commencement of the weekend’s busy programme, which was free to participants.

And then there are the Saturday nights and Sundays Mornings. Live music of diverse forms, often free and usually of high quality, brings in mixed crowds of all ages. Mas y Mas, Latin combo extraordinaire, rate a special mention for encouraging even the most reluctant dancers to give it a go. But there are literally hundreds of other musicians who have raised the roof in the hospitable cafe bar. And the acoustic in The Space next door is particularly good; guitarist Antonio Forcione played one especially memorable set there last year.

All these good things have happened while Alex has set the course for the Contemporary since its inception. No doubt, the team around him contributes mightily, which seems to me to indicate a collaborative approach befitting the democratic aspirations of the public programme.

In the same spirit of hospitality, families are made welcome at Nottingham Contemporary, with free sessions at weekends and during school holidays, producing much hands-on artwork from the infant generation and those who care for them. During the week, local schools pitch up in numbers to explore current shows, while the gallery has made a special effort to engage young adults through its Collabor-8 sessions. Appropriately, the Contemporary was nominated for an award as most child friendly gallery.

Alex once told me, “We are very fussy”. Certainly, he maintains rigorously high standards, as seen in the stunning list of shows that have populated this curiously lustrous and beautiful structure spreading across Middle Hill and High Pavement. This is Nottingham’s historic axis, stretching between the Castle and St Mary’s Church via Middle Pavement. During his tenure, Alex has probed Nottingham’s angularities in a way that reveals our city anew, while marking its place in the big wide world and encouraging us, who make our lives here, to look outwards. Thanks for the memories, Alex. We’ll see you by the murky River Thames, now you’re departing the smug and silver Trent.

Tony Simpson is part of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation

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