ART IN NEWPORT
The ART IN NEWPORT series of projects explores the permanent collections of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Each project comprised an exhibition in the public gallery plus online resources.
The concept for each gallery exhibition plus online project was that of Guest Curator John Wilson. The projects were produced by John Wilson in collaboration with Roger Cucksey, Keeper of Art, Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
With research time and resources at a premium in the museums' world, our aim was to combine the expertise of the Keeper of Art - the hands-on job of building the collections - with the research skills of a Guest Curator: to add value to the institution's collections, their interpretation and public access, in today's digital environment.
The ART IN NEWPORT series was initiated with the exhibition THE POETICS OF PLACE (Newport Museum and Art Gallery, July 2004 to March 2007). The
idea for the exhibition arose from a chance
conversation I had with Roger Cucksey, Keeper of Art, Newport Museum
and Art Gallery, when we were discussing the Ernest Zobole Retrospective travelling exhibition which was due to open at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Zobole
had been based at Newport College of Art and was well represented in the Newport Museum and Art Gallery collections. Hence it seemed a good idea to bring together a
hanging of works ready to hand in the Newport collections, presenting some good examples of Zobole's works plus other paintings to highlight the wider South Wales art scene in the post-45 period.
THE POETICS OF PLACE exhibition selection, hanging and original catalogue essay (pdf here) were delivered in a two weeks' turnaround just in time for the Zobole exhibition opening. In
the event THE POETICS OF PLACE proved a popular hanging and the
paintings remained on public display for an extended period of a few
years. (The exhibition occupied a newly partitioned exhibition area
that did not interfere with the larger travelling shows that were the
staple fare scheduled for the main gallery space).
The exhibition highlighted
the value of showcasing the permanent collections of the Newport Museum
and Art Gallery through a themed selection, and set the precedent for three succeeding exhibitions of topical interest in the ART IN NEWPORT series.
Following the spontaneity of the THE POETICS OF PLACE exhibition, we continued with our our just in time approach to exhibitions to produce further themed selections to highlight the value of Newport's collections as an art historical archive. We were also able to take advantage of the Internet and new Web tools to produce online resources.
- CITY:  Documenting the City: Celebrating Newport's Coming of Age as a City, showcasing art works from the permanent collections of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
- COLLECTING:  The Art of Collecting: An exhibition exploring over a hundred years of collecting at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery.
- CHARTISM:  Documenting Chartism: The key episode in modern Newport's rise to the challenge of Industrialism and Democracy.
Each exhibition in the ART IN NEWPORT series had a topical dimension and received a warm public reception and lively press interest. Four of the projects comprised temporary art exhibitions held in the public gallery of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery. Hence the exhibitions were each on public display for periods ranging from a number of months to a number of years, and were promoted as a part of the public exhibitions programme. In addition each exhibition was supported by an online archive, to provide an ongoing educational resource. The fifth project was conceived as an online project to document the Newport Chartist Mural, John Frost Square, Newport ( - this well known Newport landmark was then the cause of a public controversy because it was scheduled to be demolished to make way for a new city centre shopping development).
Hence the ART IN NEWPORT series demonstrates the value of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery permanent collections, as a unique historical archive for the city and region and as a surprisingly rich art historical resource.
The city's pictures are there at the click of a mouse
Whilst we commenced with a specific interest to explore the new digital environment, the promise of the Web and "The Museum and Art Gallery 2.0", we soon found that our efforts reverted to more traditional analogue tasks of "Art History and Curation 101". For with the collections without the luxury of a published catalogue, and today's mantra of "digitization of the collections" a far distant ideal, our time was spent in the store room and scouring accessions cards and registers as the preliminary and time-consuming tasks of cataloguing, documentation and restoration confronted us.
In practice we found that both the online and the public gallery spaces had a positive interaction with one another. For example in the case of the exhibition THE ART OF THE NUDE, a preview video clip that we posted on You Tube had over 3,000 views before the exhibition opening; many visitors to the public gallery space and gallery talk had first viewed the exhibition online; the availability of online information facilitated press response; online user feedback such as Flickr comments provided new information and also led to the discovery of a number of new works. The use of Flickr as a private database proved a valuable tool for the curatorial selection process, allowing new means for recording and assessing art works. Flickr and You Tube stats record daily viewing and search patterns, highlighting the ongoing value of the online resources.
Hence the digital environment opens up a new information ecology for the interaction of collections and audience. Our basic exercise to expose the collections as publicly available "data" online opens up a new visibility for the collections in the public cultural sphere: moving beyond the "noise" of the storage room to the new means of "information" and "knowledge" building of the Internet: towards the "creative commons" and "re-mix culture" of the Web.
The temporary exhibition hanging in the public gallery space provides a unique moment for the viewing and appreciation of art works. For it is only at this point that each individual art work may be seen under proper hanging and lighting conditions, and approached within the wider interpretive framework of the exhibition as a whole.
The public response to the ART IN NEWPORT series of exhibitions likewise confirmed the unique value of a public gallery display occupying the whole of the gallery space. The temporary exhibition and the machinery of a full public gallery display is a rare luxury.
Nowadays the Web is a viable option for the promotion of an exhibition when set against the prohibitive cost of a traditional hard copy publication (catalogue, plates, essays). The continued availability of an online archive operates as a facsimile record that may lead the viewer and researcher back to the original work. One is reminded of the early insight of William J. Mitchell regarding the arrival of the Internet and the changing role of the public museum and art gallery, wherein a new emphasis is placed upon the public art collection as an archival resource:
virtual museums develop, the role of actual museums will shift; they
will increasingly be seen as places for going back to the originals" ( City of Bits, 1995).
Internet opens up art hoard
We may note the following contexts and motivations in our series of online projects and interventions to present cultural assets in the public cultural sphere:
Web resources: Towards "the museum and art gallery 2.0"
To explore the new digital environment of the Internet for the presentation of art exhibitions and collections online - the promise of the Web where all information is just a click away.
Hence using the newly available user tools of the "the Web 2.0", both to produce exhibitions in a "just in time" manner and to provide a permanent online archive. Using web-based resources such as photo and video sharing on Flickr and YouTube, website and blog publishing tools.
To demonstrate the educational potential of online resources. Migrating the temporary public art exhibition to form a permanent archive online.
Art collections and public policy
Concerns for the future of public art collections, both within the wider world of commercial art collecting and the changing policy context of public museums and local government.
For example the Art Fund's report The Collecting Challenge noted that,
"lack of advocacy and support for collecting in both central and local government means there is a danger that the collecting habit is being lost, along with the skills and expertise necessary for it" [2006: see report pdf here].
A vivid case in point being the Bury Lowry controversy [ see BBC news here and here ; and Flickr protest here ].
The South Wales Argus affirmed the pioneering online dimension of the ART IN NEWPORT series with reference to Newport City Council's ongoing Scrutiny Committee Review of the Newport Museum and Art Gallery policy framework. See Internet opens up art hoard ( here ):
"the way the public accesses the collection could be about to change forever (...) Long-term, this now opens up the possibility of creating an online catalogue of the collection, allowing a wider public than ever before to access this tremendous local resource, not least schools, art students and young people";
and Call to put city's art wealth on show ( here ). The Argus also published the cartoon You can now browse the Newport Museum and Gallery online, shown below.
Public access - Art collections online
Copyright South Wales Argus, May 2007. Reproduced with permission.
The early days of challenge and opportunity for the promotion of public art collections online.
Web 2.0 user tools such as Flickr and You Tube emerged from the Web's early-adopter hacker culture to prove their value as a mainstream medium over a three year period or so. Flickr was a notable success, and we may note its adoption by official cultural institutions embracing new means of public participation and dialogue. Over this period we observed the pioneering role of the United States Library of Congress which tested Flickr as a platform for publishing, research and digital rights (Creative Commons); other institutional players have followed suit such as ChicagoHistoryMuseum, manchestergalleries and Tate Gallery; and more recently and closer to home MuseumWales and LlGC~NLW (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales). Hence a number of public museums and art galleries are now starting to use Web resources such as Flickr as useful marketing, educational and research tools. With these tentative moves we may say that museums' practice is starting to catch up with public expectations of an online world.
The new digital environment provides new means to deliver the traditional aims of the public museum and art gallery: the building of the institution's collections and their research, educational and public access dimensions.
The Art in Newport projects have been produced by John Wilson, Guest Curator in collaboration with Roger
Cucksey, Keeper of Art, Newport Museum and Art Gallery ( Newport Museum and Art Gallery | Exhibitions ).
All online resources are produced by John Wilson and all views expressed therein are those of the author. All reproductions of art works are copyright Newport Museum and Art Gallery. All other photographs are copyright John Wilson unless otherwise stated. All text is copyright John Wilson.
John Wilson gratefully acknowledges the support of Roger Cucksey, Keeper of Art, Newport Museum and Art Gallery for helping to make the ART IN NEWPORT series happen.
The ART IN NEWPORT series of exhibitions was the result of a long term collaboration between John Wilson and Roger Cucksey. Having combined the skills of art curation and historical research to produce a number of projects over the years, we now responded to the new opportunity of the Internet to explore Newport's collections through a series of topical exhibitions in the public gallery space plus online projects.
John Wilson | April 2010.