Mill Lane, 1996.
G39 is an artist-run gallery in the centre of Cardiff, Wales’ capital city. The organisation recently relocated from a narrow three storey building where it originated, to an expansive warehouse. The gallery curates between six and eight exhibitions per year and often hosts events in the interim weeks. In addition to the gallery programme, g39 also works in offsite locations for individual projects. The organisation also runs Wales Artist Resource Programme – WARP - an open-access resource and training space for artists.
G39 focuses on contemporary work and consciously programmes a mix of work from Wales with work from further afield, placing work by established names alongside work by emerging or lesser known artists. The focus is on experimentation and risk and g39 aims to provide the opportunities to showcase new work rather than relying on selling.
The organisation exists with the generous support of the Arts Council Of Wales and in 2004 it became the first artist-run space in Wales to be supported by a revenue agreement with ACW. In 2008 g39 was recognised as a Beacon company, an award that aims to ‘enable those companies and organisations which consistently create work of high quality and achieve levels of excellence to develop’. The Arts Council currently provide around 60% of the organisation's total costs and the remainder is provided through different trusts and organisations and, crucially, the input of a number of volunteers on the project. Between 2008 and 2011 the WARP programme was generously supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.
A brief(ish) history
G39 was established in 1998 and incorporated in 2000; it is an artist run organisation in the heart of Cardiff and is part gallery, part community and part resource. Founded by artists Chris Brown
and Anthony Shapland
and supported by numerous artists over its lifetime, it has organised exhibitions both in the permanent ‘white cube’ space in Cardiff city centre as well as using offsite temporary venues including digital display boards, billboards, shipping containers, warehouses and empty shop units.
The project started in the upstairs, disused rooms of a former travel agent on Mill Lane. Shapland, who grew up in Bargoed, lived in the space after returning from studies to Wales in the mid-nineties renting the top floor, a run-down flat with no shower (the nearby Empire Pool providing showers). This eventually became a studio space as well as basic accommodation. Having worked at The Tannery, an artist run space in London, Shapland was keen to see what could be done in Wales and realised the potential for the city centre space as a showing space for other artists.
At that time he was involved in delivering an artists project for Ffotogallery
with another artist, Chris Brown. Brown had arrived in Wales to start an MA in Newport and was equally keen to get involved in generating a project. There seemed to be a new interest in younger artists in Wales, running parallel with a new found confidence in Welsh music, film and literature. Around that time the Centre for Visual Arts was about to open, with a lot of hopes for its future, Jennie Savage
was running SKIP
, an art-zine that was bringing together artists and writers, the first Ffresh
show at Chapter
) opened, curated by Karen MacKinnon
, a cross section of new work being produced at that time in Wales and Show1
, curated by John Hambley
in a temporary space at Jacobs market followed a similar path. Hambley, a Fine Art graduate from Cardiff, went on to become an arts officer at the Arts Council Of Wales
), and was instrumental in expanding the knowledge of artist run practice at the Council.
The phenomenon of artist-initiated projects is by no means novel and the motivations and ambitions of different spaces are as varied as their output. The idea of providing independent or new ways of working acknowledges a certain ideological belief that the self-empowering nature of artist-run spaces could be used to shape culture. A willingness to be open to change, being flexible enough to adapt and respond to dominant political or cultural trends – whether for or against – has ensured that these spaces have maintained a key position in the mechanisms of the artworld.
Shapland and Brown started working on the project together and an application was made to develop the idea of a showing space in Mill Lane. With the impermanence of the building in mind the two devised a naming system that would incorporate change; taking the g from gallery and the street number of whichever building the project moved to the project made the threat of change part of its being. It could be g39, g40, g101 but the formula stayed the same. Finally, with the support of the landlord of the time a period of rent-free use was negotiated in exchange for some renovation and a modest grant enabled work to start in 1997.
Calling in favours from friends and family and developing links with artists that were keen to see the project develop the space was re-built, re-wired and re-plumbed on a shoestring. The first show, Pistol
, opened in July 1998. Curatorially the show was a bit free-form but it signalled what was to become the ethos of the space – extending generosity and trust to artists to help them deliver their work to the highest standards possible, sustaining a mix of artists working in Wales while acting as a conduit for work from further afield; an open door policy with a focus on dialogue. And plenty of tea.
After a year of project funding one of the ways g39 could continue was to apply for lottery funding. This involved a whole set of box-ticking, hoop-jumping and goalpost-shifting criteria and the application took up most of 1999. The process of making this application shaped the organisation, it had to have a board of trustees and to register as a company Ltd by guarantee, policies had to be written up and set in stone and a constitution and mission statement had to be drafted. Suddenly g39 became a more permanent and tangible thing, it had to shape itself as a project that answered lottery criteria that seemed to shift in the political breeze. Lottery was established to be an answerable and measurable way of distributing public money; it was necessarily predicated on quantity assessment, not quality and certainly not innovation or risk. During this time the largest lottery project in the city – the Centre for Visual Arts
- closed its doors after just 14 months; the backlash against ACW lottery management of the project was considerable. G39's lottery funding was for a three-year period and the organisation had to exist in a permanent state of form filling and quarterly reports.
Thankfully, this method of funding ended at midnight on the last day of the year in 2003. The relief of getting to the end of this period was short lived as three applications to ACW were refused and the organisation prepared to close its doors. The building was emptied, applications from artists were returned, it seemed that the project had come to a natural end. Recognising the impact this would have, arts officers Emma Geliot
and Antony Owen-Hicks
went back to the Council and developed an interim rescue package: one year later the space was taken on as a Revenue client, and has subsequently gained Beacon status. By virtue of surviving this long the space may have become part of the establishment, but its history of flexibility in times of crisis and sense of adaptability keeps the threat of bureaucracy, and the stagnation that comes with it, at bay.
The space has grown a few times in this history. Between Christmas and the New year in 1999 the space extended into the shop-space beneath and then to a linked room on the top floor which provided offices. In 2002 drilling started on the ground floor and a hatch cut through reinforced concrete into a previously unseen cellar space. It had been sealed in 1974 and had not been used since. This gave g39 increased storage and intermittent gallery space. Then in 2008 negotiations started with the shop next door to sub-let an extra space in the adjacent building. The project has gone from two small upstairs rooms to become four high (including the cellar) and two across. It now houses a gallery programme, a resource space for artists and an office. There is barely an inch of wasted space in the building and curating for a relatively awkward domestic sized space is always a challenge.
Though the physical space is small – the size of a three-storey townhouse – its catchment is far larger, encompassing networks of artists, groups and galleries that the space is actively involved in. It is clear that their attention to this network, and a commitment to working with artists to present pioneering work in a clear and accessible manner, that has generated and sustained support from visitors and artists alike. G39 is active in curating projects internationally within other galleries and acts as an important showcase of work from Wales as well as a conduit for work from further afield. Shapland recently co-curated Flourish
for the Moravska galleries
) in the Czech republic with Marek Pokorny
in Montreal with B312
), both key landmark shows of work from Wales.
The organisation sees its role as a ‘bridge’ between the artist, and the public, and a key component of the curatorial rationale is bringing contemporary work to new audiences. It provides a much-needed link in the Cardiff artscene as an independent intermediary space which has flexibility and sense of experimentation; something that larger, more established spaces cannot so readily maintain.
Across the UK the development of the studios with showing space has been a model that has been used again and again, based on a socialist principle of working collectively for the good of everyone. In the past these spaces were seen as ‘alternative’ and loaded with ‘anti-establishment’ connotations, mirroring the indie music label ethos or ‘zine cultures. However, this dated version of a world with clear values drawn in black and white has been blurred. In the nineties many London artist-led projects were bankrolled by dealers and collectors who generated the self-fulfilling prophecy that they could gain kudos – and wealth – by assisting the emergence of the yBas. More recently many artist-run spaces have built themselves on more commercial models, in their structures and participation in art fairs, with certain artists taking the role of dealers and representing other artists. The boundaries between artists, curators, writers and dealers have never been so fluid.
In Wales the pressures and motives have been different; in the absence of a prominent economic driver, artist-run activity has had to address other issues. The cultural factors of national identity, of a sense of being peripheral, and of the schisms caused by both language and geographic boundaries are omnipresent; though these are countered by a willingness to engage on an international level and the interesting tension in the pull forward of the contemporary and the pull back of tradition. Since the outset of the g39 project there has been a sense that curatorial strategy could address these issues; if the space was to play a key cultural role it first had to develop a strong relationship with artists in Wales while acting as a conduit for work from elsewhere. It was essential that this understanding was at its core. This has meant that g39 has been engaged in creating a sense of cohesion, evolving in parallel but in different ways than its metropolitan counterparts.
g39 has survived ten years in Cardiff while larger spaces have come and gone. It has partly been flexibility and a responsive attitude that has lent the project its longevity. This ongoing success confirms that g39 is functioning as it was envisaged and that it is crucial that it continue to play an influential role in the visual arts in Wales.