James `best barman` Barry serving.
On 3 July 1998, there was a sense of anticipation in the Cardiff artscene: a new artist-run space was being launched. The inaugural exhibition preview was packed with artists, students and suits, curious about the new project; it was met with both a sense of expectation as well as the doom-laden predictions of a short lifespan.
Fortunately g39 is still here, quietly but determinedly delivering a programme, providing a meeting place for artists and a focus for graduates. To celebrate g39 is marking its ten-year anniversary with a commemorative programme of events, starting with If You Build It, They Will Come – an attempt to present the works of each and every artist g39 has worked with in the past decade.
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.
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. 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 our 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. This ongoing success confirms that g39 is functioning as it was envisaged and that it is crucial that we continue to play an influential role in the visual arts in Wales. By virtue of surviving this long the space may have become part of the establishment, but its history of adaptability keeps the threat of bureaucracy, and the stagnation that comes with it, at bay.
If You Build It, They Will Come demonstrates the extent to which g39 has supported artists as well as the wealth of talent that has grown from g39’s activities – a retrospective of sorts. Every artist of the last decade that has worked with the space has been invited to produce a single work for exhibition and eventual publication. The show is a demonstration of the links between artists, official or unofficial, forged at g39 or made subsequently. We know these exist, whether they are swiped at as nepotism or viewed as a collective zeitgeist or artscene, but it is these relationships that maintain a flow of ideas and theory, dialogues and interconnections. For the rest of its tenth year g39 will host a series of symposia that look at the promises artist led activity seemed to offer, at different ways of working and at the role(s) this activity can assume. It is the first step in a year-long review; an open evaluation of the last decade and a period of planning for the next.
Notes for editors:
G39 was established in 1998 and incorporated in 2000. Its mission statement is to increase awareness and understanding of contemporary art in Wales. This is achieved mainly through its programme of exhibitions, which takes place both in the permanent ‘white cube’ space in Cardiff city centre, and offsite temporary venues including digital display boards, billboards, shipping containers, warehouses and empty shop units. Through its curatorial policy g39 aims to profile work by contemporary artists from Wales alongside those from the rest of the UK and beyond; to this end the organisation has a self-imposed remit of exhibiting a minimum of 60% Welsh or Wales-based artists. G39 does not make curatorial distinctions between differing career levels of artists, but has focussed its attention on emerging artists. 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. 10 years = 280 artists = 48 exhibitions = 45,000 visitors.