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Metronome Sessions

How the New Art Exchange Became a Leading International Arts Space

28 January 21 interview: Laura-Jade Vaughan

Skinder Hundal has been Director at New Art Exchange (NAE) since 2008, from the moment their iconic black box building in Hyson Green first opened its doors. Now, as he takes up a new position as Director of Arts, British Council, Skinder reflects on NAE’s journey from a small community-led organisation to a leading international arts space, and the important role it has played in championing art from diverse culture.

What was NAE like in 2008 when the venue first opened?
The early years were interesting, because it was quite unsettled when I arrived. New Art Exchange had been set up in 2003, but for the past five years they didn't really have an arts director. NAE grew out of two key organisations formed in the 80s: APNA Arts (for South Asian arts) and EMACA Visual Arts (East Midlands African Caribbean Arts). APNA had a kind of revolutionary spirit about social change, and EMACA who were really focused on visual culture and were part of black radical politics, art and culture. Both born out of second generation immigrant communities finding and sharing a new voice.

NAE’s new venue launched in September 2008, to the most extraordinary weekend. It was a real moment in history, that the neighborhood had produced this architectural gem - in a way, out of struggle. I think it’s one of Nottingham's biggest achievements. It's one of the most historic moments in the UK art scene, when it comes to contemporary expressionism - that a neighborhood that was doing community roots, art, visual and multiple art forms, would establish a venue of such significance that has a national and international profile these days. 

I’m aware that you used to volunteer with APNA Arts. Could you talk a bit about this experience?
I was at Nottingham Trent University studying manufacturing and industrial management in engineering, and I finished the degree, very much not wanting to do this as a job, let alone a career. So one day I ventured up a hill and down a hill into the valley of Hyson Green and came across a red building with this door open and the team from APNA Arts were there. So I started volunteering on Nottingham Mela (a South Asian arts festival), back in 1992, and little did I know that I'd be the executive producer and arts programmer one day for the festival.

Volunteering at APNA, there were just so many wonderful energies, so when I came back in 2008 it was a great honor. I was born in Moseley, Birmingham, but made in Hyson Green. I was indebted to this place. It was such an incredible journey that laid the foundations for me, which would then inform what we were to do in the future.

How has New Art Exchange changed in the past twelve years?
When I first started, I used to travel around but nobody really knew us. I always remember Zineb Sedira’s 2009 exhibition, Floating Coffins, and the significance of the work and how contemporary and edgy it was for the neighborhood; it started to change the momentum for the organisation. This work we commissioned was bought by the Tate Collection.

So I think the profile of the organisation shifted when things started to get collected by different institutions, and when we started changing our programming base. Some of the work is hitting millions of audiences, such as John Akomfrah’s video installation, The Unfinished Conversation, which tours to biennials and has a presence at Tate. Also, reaching millions of viewers, when TEDGlobal presented Hetain Patel’s Who Am I inspired by Be Like Water, an NAE investment co-commission. So, the impact of shifting gear at NAE was a significant decision.

What we've done with our uplift investment from ACE has been incredible, especially developing a schools’ and community programmes, connecting with some of the beautiful diverse voices of our city and neighborhood. Those kids, on the learning programmes, are going to be the people who are going to run our space one day. 

Thinking about the success of NAE, history is its driver, but it's also the team. The team has always been outstanding: it's been open, it's been forward driving, and we’ve had a lot of characters - nobody seemed to be a conformist.

At New Art Exchange, we never forced an agenda, never tried to say, ‘Oh, you're not doing enough of this’. We say we're not represented enough authentically

What are some of your highlights from your time at NAE?
So many initiatives come to mind. I always love our youth programme, YARD, which gave a platform for young people to become conscious, creative, collaborative citizens with authentic confidence.

Projects like Real Creative Futures, a creative business support programme, started out as a one million pound project and ended up becoming a five million pound partnership across Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Then there were projects like Here, There and Everywhere, which cemented relationships across the UK and Africa, South Asia, South Korea, Middle East and Europe, offering opportunities for artists from the UK to connect.

Our exhibitions programme has been fantastically curated and installed. There was our Hurvin Anderson show - he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2017. The fact that we got to work with great artists like Akram Zataari, Rashid Rana from Pakistan or Zarina Bhimji. These are incredible milestones for our organisation.

In 2015, the East Midlands were represented at Venice Biennale with Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf, a mini golf course designed by contemporary artists. We led and worked with peer venues who embraced diversity in their own way, around gender, disability, race, sexuality, working class communities. When we actually spoke to the local people in Venice, they said they hated the biennale as they felt excluded, so we invited every single person in this neighborhood pavilion and group show and they came.

If I think about exhibitions and critical projects, Culture Cloud, our digital open show, comes to mind. I was amazed by the incredible talent in Britain. There were artists like Mahtab Hussain, Sarah Maple, Karl Ohiri, Sayed Hasan, Faiza Butt - all of them had solo-shows at NAE afterwards and strong careers evolved. It was a pioneering moment. On that night we were celebrating, my son was racially attacked in Birmingham. It reminded me that we actually started because we wanted to create anti-racist practice, and how we've got to carry on regardless of the pain, or suffering abuse, whether physical, psychological or systemic - we must never ignore, nor should we let it break our spirit.

In the past few years, more galleries are making a commitment to exhibiting culturally diverse art, and it is part of Arts Council England’s funding criteria. What impact has this had on New Art Exchange?
I believe we were key pioneers in informing Arts Council policy - making diversity a very mainstream agenda, not something that's bolted on, but integral. At New Art Exchange, we never forced an agenda, never tried to say, ‘Oh, you're not doing enough of this’. We say we're not represented enough authentically. It’s the art of being who we are, by expressing something very naturally, with a subjective and lived truth of sorts. So it's not enforcing a stereotype, it's expressing a particular way of being. It's a cultural expression. That then is very real.

Congratulations for your new role as Director of Arts at British Council. Could you talk a bit about what the role entails?
The role is about creating worldwide exchange, by connecting artists and art ecologies, and providing opportunities for not only social change across the world, but also economic opportunity for creativity to happen. It’s allowing creative industries to flourish, and creating opportunities for British art to be seen worldwide, while also creating opportunities with the world sites. British Council with its 12,000 workforce across 126 countries, is a very exciting venture for somebody like me, who has a huge appetite for risk, connection and collaboration. So, I think it's going to be an exciting next episode and the start of a new era for me, NAE and also British Council.

@skinderhundal

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