'Exploring Solitude' (2012) Neville & Joan Gabie

'Exploring Solitude' (2012) Neville & Joan Gabie

Museum staff, artists and audiences emphasize benefits of New Expressions

By Claire Gulliver

02 August 2012

Museum staff, artists and audiences have highlighted the benefits of taking part in New Expressions 2 – and its six contemporary artist’s commissions. Their comments feature in a new document, ‘Sharing the Impact of New Expressions 2’, released this summer. The publication is part of an evaluation of the programme, which saw nine lead artists collaborate with six museums across South West England in 2011 and 2012.

Taking in moving image, installations, immersive experiences and exhibitions, museums in Bristol, Plymouth, Exeter, Falmouth, Barnstaple and Cheltenham all presented new work as part of the programme, which also offered professional development opportunities and field visits for the museum staff involved.

By September this year, more than 800,000 people will have visited the six venues and almost 5,000 people will have taken part in activities in their own communities, linked to the artists’ work.

More than 350 museum staff, artists, volunteers and curators have taken part in workshops and study visits to the best examples of museum-artist collaboration, regionally and nationally.

The evaluation study has revealed that many of the commissions’ audiences had their first chance to enjoy high quality contemporary art – more than 30 per cent of people interviewed at the shows had little or no previous experience of contemporary work.

And all of the museum staff involved reported that taking part in New Expressions had increased their confidence and ambition in working with contemporary artists.

For artists, the collaborations provided fresh opportunities to stretch their creative practice, push artistic boundaries and open up new conversations.

International ceramics artist Clare Twomey, who created ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ – a semi-permanent installation – with Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, said: ‘I don’t normally make work that museums collect. My work is normally too big or too ephemeral. Creating ‘Plymouth Porcelain: A New Collection’ has been a huge thing. And the future potential for dialogue is huge too, because my work will be on show in the museum for a long time’.

Museum staff have been energised by the chance to work with contemporary artists. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter worked with interactive media artists Blast Theory. RAMM’s Rick Lawrence said: ‘Working with the artists, we’ve realised that interpretation can be more open-ended. It can be loose and spring from the collections – taking something dry and factual and making it open, creative and emotional’.

Helen Brown of Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, which worked with the artists Neville Gabie and Joan Gabie, said: ‘Taking part in New Expressions events and field visits has made me feel more confident. Having the chance to talk to others makes a lot of difference. I feel like I have my finger on the pulse’.

Meanwhile, audience members and participants have been intrigued and captivated by the artists’ commissions – 88% enjoyed the experience: ‘You expect fossils and you’re hit with art – it’s great!’ said one visitor to Neville and Joan Gabie’s collaborative show with Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. And one participant in a session with artists Antony Penrose and Andrew Lanyon at Falmouth Art Gallery said it was ‘so astonishingly good that it brought tears to my eyes’.

The six commissions, unveiled between December 2011 and March 2012, were the culmination of a year-long partnership between the artists and their museums.

‘Sharing the Impact of New Expressions 2’ can be downloaded from the New Expressions website http://www.newexpressions.org/Downloads/

New Expressions 2 was funded by MLA Renaissance South West, the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts and the Museum Development Fund.

Work is currently underway to develop a third phase of the New Expressions programme, New Expressions 3.