Mark Sheerin speaks to, Huw Bartlett, gallery owner of Brighton's idiosyncratic Community Arts Centre, about arts provision in Brighton and the rigours of his weekly Work Programme.
For a so-called Community Arts Centre, the gallery at 31 Queen's Road, Brighton, is nothing if not both easy to miss and hard to negotiate. An unpromising doorwell off the main road leads you down into a smoker’s courtyard, through which you pass on your way further down to the literal underground of seaside town's art scene.
© Eva Kalpadaki
This basement has no plumbing; advance publicity never indicates what to expect; and, since November 2012, there has been a bewildering turnover of some 15 shows. This relentless activity goes by the punitive-sounding name Work Programme.
The programme may be rigorous but the artists have responded well to the weekly challenge. Loquacious Director Huw Bartlett (pictured second left above) tells me more over coffee:
“It’s something that artists genuinely relate to because it offers them time and space and obviously we’d love to be in the situation where we could offer the third thing, which is money, as well.
“But that time and space is, I think, something they respond to and to be honest with you nobody’s refused yet.”
Space if not time is thin on the ground in this city, despite seeming endless supply of artists. Bartlett goes on to say: “Brighton is a very small place. He compares the difference between Community Arts Centre and larger local galleries as “a kind of David and Goliath situation”.
And in his excitable way with words, says: “a lot of our arts provision is provided for us by longstanding rhinoceroses - I guess, big organisations that suck the life out of the swamp so we few frogs that exist we just hop around".
The comment is qualified by a laugh and the observation, “This isn't making any sense.” But without pointing a finger at any longstanding rhinoceri, Bartlett is clear about his unique proposition.
“I think what separates Community Arts Centre is, number one, it’s not a community arts centre; there’s no yoga takes place; there’s none of that,” he points out.
“It doesn’t chase success,” he says. “It doesn’t reflect hierarchies. I’m not waiting for the next successful artist, whose balls are slightly further out of the water than mine. I’m not interested in where people are on the podium, because I think the podium should be level. There’s no third place; everyone wins the race; everyone’s first and second and third.”
This level playing field is evident from a glance at the list of participants. In recent months they have included a Greek artist with a PhD in abstract photography and a 9-year old girl preparing for her show after school.
Both shows by, respectively, Eva Kalpadaki and Betty O'Connell-Rogers were, in their way, quite brilliant, given the limitations of time, space and age.
Bartlett displays no concern for visitor numbers, taking the qualitative rather than quantative approach to success. “The ideal visitor is a future participant of work programme,” he says, aware how insular it may sound.
“If you come to work programme it’s because you want one yourself. Or you should.” He then asks me, a regular visitor to CAC, “What do you want!?” There seems no answer to that.
Week after week the gallery builds to a Saturday evening private view and Bartlett corrales a healthy number of visitors via social media and word of mouth. Training in graphic design may help with the fliers but, thanks to his longterm experience as an artist, these are stripped of all but the barest of info.
Visitors have very little idea what to expect and the Director makes no apologies for this.
“The work programme is set up in a way that it has to be oblique, because I don’t know what going to happen. All I know is that this person’s in the studio now; if people want to do their own research and make it less oblique, be my guests, because we’ve all got internet these days,” says Bartlett, who adds, “My job is to supply times and dates.”
We talk about marketing, that necessary evil, for a moment or two and he says. “I think the notion of voice is something I’m interested in, creating a kind of community voice,” he says. “People can find out there’s only one guy doing this shit, but I quite like pretending at least that it’s not.”
So, no yoga, no jumble sales either, but plenty of discussion and, despite the obfuscations, an improbable sense of community. Bartlett may just have redefined the term. So, Brightonians, do come to your local arts centre this Saturday.
- WorkProgramme Sixteen opens at CAC, Saturday 20 July at 7.00pm. Admission free.
- Follow Community Art Centre on Facebook
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