Art of the world

Tessa Jackson reflects on eight years at the helm of Artes Mundi

By early 2002 the idea of a contemporary visual art prize emanating from Wales had been debated by a number of public bodies including the Welsh Government, Cardiff Council, Arts Council of Wales, National Museums Wales and BBC Cymru.  Each had been encouraged by William Wilkins, a practicing artist as well as an energetic cultural entrepreneur, to believe that such an initiative could create “a new event on the cultural calendar of Wales and ensure an enhanced profile for Wales on the world stage”.

My first knowledge of it came from a small single column width advert in the UK media, seeking an Artistic Director. Some funding had been pledged but the organisation, its charitable status, board, team and office was still to be established. Having collaborated previously with the visual arts in Wales and lived more than a decade in Scotland, I saw the new devolution era as providing an exciting challenge and opportunity to establish an utterly international and thought provoking project from scratch.

Of course, over the eight years of Artes Mundi’s development, the world has changed.  At the beginning 9/11 was fresh in everyone’s mind.  Human tragedy was laid bare once again following the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004.  In 2005 Hurricane Katrina hit and after months of discussion and disagreement, the UK embarked on war with Iraq.

At the start of Artes Mundi the initial theme for the Prize was to have been the human form but in my view this was too limiting not to say excluding, particularly when many in the world are not able to represent the human form if they are to remain true to their culture or religion. So with the establishment of the organisation came the decision to set the Prize’s theme as the human condition as much as the human form. It was decided that Artes Mundi would celebrate artists who had achieved recognition for the quality of their work in their own country or part of the world and were emerging internationally, while simultaneously recognising art that added to our understanding of humanity.

At the start some saw this as too universal and imprecise a criterion. However, over the years the theme of the human condition has been one of Artes Mundi’s strongest assets. Each selection of artists has provided new insights and audiences responding positively to artwork with real content.  Funders and sponsors have also expressed their support, keen to connect with an initiative which was both contemporary and topical.

Many political, public and private and political issues have been explored, sometimes with humour highlighting life’s absurdity, but more often with serious concern for the societies we live within. Artists are not journalists. They expose the  diversity and commonality of our lives through the prism of their cultural position and experience. Poetic sensibility reinforces their vision.

In Artes Mundi 4 this year, for instance, the inclusion of Muratbek Djumaliev and Gulnara Kasmalieva, two Kyrgyz artists who operate as a pair as well as being husband and wife, are a tangible link to the political unrest being played out in their Central Asian country.  It is a part of the world which otherwise we might know little about but which has just come into our news because Kyrgyzstan provides military bases for both the Americans and the Russians. Through their inclusion on the shortlist we have been privileged to gain an understanding of how trade along the ancient Silk Road continues today.

From the outset Artes Mundi has been unashamedly international in its approach, working with fellow professionals from every continent except Antarctica. It has given the responsibility of selecting the shortlisted artists to others, of choosing the Prize-winner to a separate independent panel. This has meant we have been able to involve curators, artists, writers, critics, and museum professionals from across the globe, many of them visiting Wales for the first time. It has meant that Wales has gained a reputation for real cultural connections beyond post colonial or political expediency.

There has been comment as to what have been the benefits for artists in Wales beyond the fact that to date two have been included in the four shortlists.  Those shortlists have comprised artists from 28 countries, with 500 nominations from about 80 countries for the latest selection. Wales has many good artists.  However, our selectors can only choose between six and eight artists from across the world. Only a couple of other countries have managed to get two artists selected in the same period. Moreover, Artes Mundi has brought other and longer term benefits for Wales, including:

  • Young people gaining employment.
  • Wales-based artists being selected for residencies and exhibitions elsewhere in the world.
  • International artwork being purchased for our national collections.
  • Greater UK and international media coverage.
  • Significant inward investment into cultural activity from the international companies which have supported us.

At the time of the first Artes Mundi in 2004, National Museum Cardiff was not able to present, on a regular basis, modern and contemporary art due to shortage of space.  Now it will be opening a new wing in 2011 in order to do just that. While Artes Mundi may have played a small part in that journey, the enthusiasm and strength of its audiences and public response has certainly contributed to the Museum’s vision.

At Artes Mundi we like to think our activities and brand have made a real contribution to how Wales sees itself, as much as how it is seen in the world.  Over the last eight years news of Artes Mundi, its activities and the debates it has triggered, have been picked up by a growing range of media and people. The internationalism of the Prize has been enormously enhanced by its launch coinciding with the age of the internet. The world has changed so much in these first eight years. Just imagine where we and Wales will be in 2018.

This article first appeared in the current Summer 2010 issue of the IWA’s journal, Agenda.

Tessa Jackson is Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Artes Mundi.

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