The city of Swansea in Wales isn’t the first place that springs to mind when one thinks of fine art. The industrialist town has been rather depleted on its luck in the last few decades; a decline in jobs first caused by the closure of the mines and now by the steel plants, which has left many out of work. The knock on effects of a town down and out are visible – many buildings are left empty and the landscape feels slightly burdened. But what it does have by the bucket load, is Welsh charm, in every sense of the word. The people could not be friendlier, the beaches could not be prettier and the passion for their heritage could not be prouder. It may be a bit rough around the edges, but Swansea welcomes you with open arms, and makes no pretence about being anything other than its bare self.
And at the very heart of Swansea’s heritage, is a small art gallery – an establishment older than the city’s university and a beacon of proud Welshness, the Glynn Vivian Gallery. Donated to the city by a wealthy 19th century industrialist and philanthropist whose family grew rich off the local copper business, the Glynn Vivian reopens this week, after a five year refurbishment.
This new gallery is the kind of building that should set the milestone for others. The revamped building contains a monumental glass extension which complements the original 1909 red brick construction, with planes of glass flooding the building with light, whilst gripping the old mason-work, firmly nudging it in to modernity. The entrance way is home to a new café and gift shop (of course), but also a multimedia centre, garden, on site storage facilities and conservation laboratories that look like something from NASA’s headquarters in all their succulent and sterile beauty. It also allows Glynn Vivian Gallery to house new exhibitions and displays – rooms are now fully fitted with temperature control, shifting walls and modern lighting the likes of which any top-tier international gallery would have. It also means they can now secure work of the highest pedigree, with the donor’s complete piece of mind. Proof of this is evident in three works having been lent from the Tate collection for the grand reopening as part of their scheme to help show some of their best pieces of art across the country – taking the art, to the people. A beautiful Picasso painting of his studio in the South of France has all the characteristics of his Cubist genius, a Marcel Duchamp exploded collage of Dada charming eccentricness sits inside a glass case, and possibly the best painting Turner ever completed; Snow Storm – Steamboat has a whole glorious wall to itself. The works have been hidden throughout the new gallery like treasures to be hunted down. There is also a touring exhibition on its seventh leg of UK galleries of Leonardo Da Vinci drawings from the Royal Collection. These wonderfully delicate studies depict the crazed mind of a true Renaissance genius and give wonderful insight in to his obsessive inquisitiveness.
Then there is Glynn’s personal collection of porcelain, from Ancient Greek amphora to Chinese porcelain and Italian majolica. There is also a collection of old and modern master works of art, which might not quite compete with the likes of national collections, but are none the less beautiful and important. Names such as Claude Monet, Stanley Spencer, Lucien Pissarro, Guido Reni, Paul Nash, Thomas Gainsborough, William Blake and Agostino Carracci show just how eclectic Glynn’s collecting was, and helps to promote the idea that Welsh artists should be recognised as equal contemporaries with their more illustrious European counterparts.
The contemporary arts section in the opposite wing of the building has several floors of state of the art show space, and contains a constantly rotating roster of works by some of the most important names in contemporarty British and international art, showing everything from video to installation and performance. The current show Out Of Darkness brings together a selection of works by international artists whose work explores the themes of darkness, light, and journeys. Spanning film, animation, scutlpture and intallation, the exhibition revsists artists who have helped shape the gallery’s 105 year history, by collecting and collaging highlights from its past in an ingenious way of commemorating and thanking its own heritage. Featuring work by Yingmei Duan, Cerith Wyn Evans, William Kentridge and Mark Wallinger to name a few, the show delights in its excitement and despite its small size, feels like another hidden gem within the larger aspect of Glynn Vivian.
The vast atrium of the old gallery can also now be used for large scale installation works – and is currently filled with the upturned hull of a ship within which a video by the artist Lindsay Seers recounts memories of her lost family, entwined with the history of the gallery in an ever evolving video work, set up with the help of Artangel Collection.
With no fewer than six exhibitions, set over nine rooms, spanning over 2,000 years of at history from the local to the international (not including events, tours, screenings, discussions, labs etc…), the approach to the conventional “gallery” is unique, exciting and and informative, and to be honest, its hard to find fault with it. It offers something for everyone and enough to keep engagement up. It also is successful in its curatorship, with each space feeling like a continuation of the last, even if jumping from contemporary video art to 16th century religious Italian paintings in a matter of metres – the flow is succinct and so enjoyable that one hardly notices the leap, and that’s not something easy to do. In fact, if anything, the quickness with which the focus shifts keeps you on your toes so much it physical pulls you around the space.
No longer does the Glynn Vivian Gallery feel like just that, a gallery. It’s now a destination. It has been transformed in to a truly multidisciplinary centre for creativeness and cultural heritage. On the surface it shows art, but underneath that, it shows what can happen when a town comes together and puts their mind to something. Perhaps Swansea’s problems go deeper than anything fixable with a handful of Leonardo Da Vinci drawings, but for many, this shows that the seeds of change are being sewn locally and that people do believe in the city and its power to inspire. Everything the gallery offers, from shows to tours to workshops, is completely free, helping establish that this is really something to benefit the city’s population. Having received financial support from the Arts Council of Wales, Swansea Council, the Welsh Government, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the European Regional Development Fund, the new space is testament that art can help regeneration. And it’s a model that is currently being replicated throughout the UK – Peterborough City Gallery working with METAL (an organisation for promoting the arts outside London), the Hepworth in Wakefield, Turner Contemporary in Margate, HOME in Manchester, the list goes on. It’s a welcome change from the 90s London-centric model, and finally towns and cities across the country are getting the cultural help they deserve and art is coming out of the capital and to the people. The gallery even runs courses and classes with local homeless shelters, to prove their social responsibility. Our only gripe is that the local council insist on running the gallery’s website as a minor section of the horribly unfriendly local Swansea.gov enterprise – something we thought councils had realised was incredibly out of fashion and inconvinient. It promotes the gallery under their dated branding as a civic relic and doesn’t nearly do it justice.
The Gylnn Vivian Gallery is no doubt going to a huge draw for Swansea, which will benefit the city for generations to come. Its unique approach to curatorship cements its place as one of the best of as new breed of spaces popping up in some of the country’s more deprived towns, and shows a real dedication to regeneration, cultural heritage and using the arts to make a real difference. It makes the idea of a weekend in South Wales suddenly seem very appealing.