As I was going down to St Ives
Artists ignore St Ives at their peril. You have to be well connected to hang on the walls of Cornwall's new Tate, which is pulling in visitors in their thousands.
A founder member of The Independent David Lister joined the paper in 1986 as Assistant Home Editor. He became the paper's arts correspondent in 1988 and is now Arts Editor and writes a column each Saturday. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
Thursday 14 May 1998
"I said when we opened that we must immediately address the people who think the gallery has nothing to do with them," recalls director Mike Tooby. "So we addressed the people on the beach. We had workshops on the printing techniques involved in the patterns on the surf board."
Five years on, the surf board is still in pristine condition, symbolic but untested on the surfing beach of Porthmeor, above which the beautiful Tate outpost is situated. But community involvement remains crucial. Tooby celebrates the Tate's fifth birthday next month, as committed as ever to his belief that art must be relevant locally.
This is a man who tells me he will not hang a Picasso at the Tate, St Ives, because the greatest artist of the century neglected to visit west Cornwall. Rothko was luckier. He once spent a weekend at St Ives. So Rothko had an exhibition at the St Ives Tate.
Ninety-year-old John Wells, a member of the St Ives school in the Forties, has his first exhibition for years opening at the gallery. He is sharing the space with an exhibition by John Beard, an Australian who has painted large, haunting abstract canvases of a rock off the coast of Portugal. There are parallels with the Cornish seascape and painting tradition, and Beard is now working in a studio in west Cornwall.
To be on the walls at St Ives you have to have lived, worked or formed a relationship with the area. It seems a limiting philosophy. But the public, the ever increasing number of visitors, and the all important community of local artists has
embraced it. And St Ives has never had it so good.
The original estimate was that the Tate would attract 70,000 visitors a year. The actual figure has been 186,000. For the first time St Ives has tourists all year round. There has been an eight per cent increase in the volume of year-round trade in the town, which traders say is directly accountable to the Tate. Hoteliers have year-round custom for the first time, with one prodding Tooby in the street to say "You realise that because of you I've had to install central heating."
The tourist board in a recent report claimed there was a pounds 16.5m spend a year by people whose main reason for coming to Cornwall was to see the gallery. Prices of paintings in local galleries have risen and at least one London gallery is setting up in the town.
Tooby recognises a downside to all this. "The impact of the Tate has been to boost the property market. We don't want artists priced out of the area." So he has appealed for a lottery injection of pounds 2.5m to refurbish a block of studios on the beachside, currently housing artists including Sandra Blow and Ralph Freeman.
Tooby, 41, who came to the Tate five years ago from the Mappin Gallery in Sheffield, also has an interesting philosophy of staff involvement with visitors. Every member of the Tate's staff including himself has to give daily tours for visitors. Prior to this, exhibiting artists are obliged to discuss their work with the staff.
But, I ask him, does a philosophy of artists having to relate to the Cornish tradition not mean that the local people and particularly youngsters are denied an ideal opportunity to see masterpieces currently languishing in storage in the Tate in London? The Tate has nearly 40 Picassos in store. Will he not let Cornwall residents see a Picasso unless he can find a Cornish angle?
"I suppose the simple answer to that would be yes, you're correct. What I don't want is to see the inside of the gallery as a sealed unit which relates not to the houses and people nearby, but to a concept called the art world. I just don't agree that an exhibit in gallery X can be curated in the same way as an exhibit in gallery Y 2,000 miles away."
It is a strikingly different philosophy from that in force at the other celebrated "satellite" gallery opening of recent times, the new Guggenheim at Bilbao in Spain. When I asked Tom Krens, head of the Guggenheim in New York, about his approach of simply drafting in works from the New York collection and largely ignoring local culture, Krens responded: "The idea of globalisation is everywhere, so it doesn't actually matter where you put the information... As long as we make our statement, it doesn't matter where we are."
Tooby finds that an anathema. "That's the other side of the coin of what we're doing. What we didn't want here was that kind of branch gallery, of art being parachuted in. For me, a successful gallery is one which reflects the place it's created in. The successful gallery is one that addresses visitors and the visitors' experience. You don't close yourself to the rest of the world, but you say why should this be here rather than anywhere else? How has the artist or curator related to visitors here?
"What has struck me as a fallacy of living in Cornwall is the attempt to make distinctions between what you provide for visitors and what you provide for locals. Both need a coherent picture."
But is there not a case that the Tate, St Ives should be the national modern art gallery for the west country?
"Precisely." But his answer shows it is anything but 'precisely.' "If we show Rothko as we did, we have to say what is the context for Rothko here? He came here for a long weekend having met Patrick Heron in the States. If we were to do Matisse here, we would ask if it was possible to make the case in Britain that Heron and William Scott were doing similar things. We showed Braque in the Christopher Wood show and Cocteau because we asked the people what was in Christopher Wood's head when he arrived in St Ives. With John Beard we say 'isn't it interesting to find a contemporary artist who has spent all this time on seascape but who had never been to St Ives.' "
Lateral thinking certainly impinges on the Tooby philosophy of art. But in the delightful gallery, with the sea and clustered houses reflected on its glass cylindrical centrepiece, and its rooftop cafe overlooking the ocean, visitors seem to relish a taste of the Cornish art tradition with international references, however lateral.
Meanwhile, Tooby is planning his next local/national/galactic project. In August of next year there is a total eclipse of the sun over Cornwall and Tooby is inviting five artists to create new works around the eclipse. Some will be made on the day, some in advance, some afterwards, and there will be a more general display on the theme of light.
Five years on, Cornwall is still providing enough artistic inspirations for the new Tate to offer a coherent and altogether different aesthetic experience.
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