MY STORY Artes Mundi, and the art of survival in a Covid world

 

Artes Mundi, the international visual art organisation based in Cardiff, gives the UK’s largest art prize - first awarded in 2003 - with a biennial exhibition to go with it. Next year it celebrates its 20th birthday, and in its first two decades it has developed partnerships, collaborations and commissions. Its director since 2019 has been Nigel Prince who was previously the executive director of the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver.

How did Artes Mundi come about, what was its founding premise, and how was the name conceived?

Founded in 2002, Artes Mundi was established as an initiative by artist and cultural entrepreneur William Wilkins with the support of the Welsh Assembly Government, the City of Cardiff, Arts Council Wales and BBC Cymru. Its founding premise was to bring exceptional international art to Wales centred on the Artes Mundi Prize with the associated exhibition taking place in Cardiff every two years. The name of the organisation, Latin for “arts of the world”, was conceived as a reflection of the focus on artists whose work engages with social realities, part of its core mission.

How are you funded?

Artes Mundi is a non-profit registered charity publicly funded as a portfolio organisation of Arts Council Wales and also receives support from Cardiff City Council. This core revenue covers baseline organisational costs and provides key validation and support. The majority of our other funds are raised via the Welsh government, trusts, foundations, cultural agencies, sponsorship, donations and individuals as well as earned income through our online shop.

This year the £60,000 prize for Artes Mundi 9 was shared by all six finalists. Why?

The prize for Artes Mundi 9 was not £60,000, it was £10,000 to each of the six artists. This comprised prize funds totalling £40,000 as usual plus £20,000 in artist fees and expenses.

 

Artes Mundi 9 (2021). Foreground: Firelei Báez; background: Prabhakar Pachpute at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff. Photography: Stuart Whipps.

 The unanimous decision was reached by the jurors who said:

“Reflecting on 2020 into the present, this has been a time of enormous social, political and economic upheaval, and as a jury, we have reached a collective, unanimous decision to award the Artes Mundi 9 prize to all six participating artists: Firelei Báez, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Meiro Koizumi, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Prabhakar Pachpute and Carrie Mae Weems.”  

“We have done so in recognition of both the context in which their work is produced; and importantly, in recognition of each individual practice which is outstanding in merit, made especially, and powerfully relevant today. 

“Together the six presentations create a coherent and timely exhibition, addressing a range of issues and topics for consideration. Furthermore, in creating new and ambitious bodies of work for Artes Mundi 9, each artist has demonstrated great resilience in overcoming the many, global obstacles that COVID-19 has presented. Collectively, the exhibition speaks to their distinctive and powerful voices in ways that are rich, thoughtful and rewarding.”  

 

What is the new collaboration with the Bagri Foundation, a family charity?

The Bagri Foundation will be the presenting partner for Artes Mundi 10 and Artes Mundi 11. It centres on shared values with regard to education and a commitment to support international contemporary visual arts practice and elevate dialogue surrounding the connections between local and global issues.

 

How important are collaborations like this in the creative sector?

Given the ever-increasing demands on public subsidy and support - and, in real terms, the pressures causing the shrinking of the amounts available - a diversification across a broad spectrum of income streams is crucial for any cultural organisation. Developing affinities, alliances and partnership with like-minded supporters like that between Artes Mundi and the Bagri Foundation is necessary to enable our work to continue in achieving what we aim to do with and for artists, audiences and communities alike.

 

Arts organisations have lost millions of pounds and hosts of vital visitors in the last two years. How do you gauge the impact of the pandemic lockdowns on the arts, and how deep does it go?

Clearly the cultural sector has been hit hard by the global pandemic as have all businesses and individuals. And it is ongoing. We are aware of peers who have had to close their organisations or now operate on significantly reduced terms. Others have weathered things better than some and the situation continues as is evident for all to see. And yet it is not wholly true that everything was cancelled.

Performing arts in theatre, music and dance continue to face extreme difficulties in terms of audience and social distancing; they are finding new ways to engage as well as welcoming the public back to their buildings and spaces while confidence is fragile.

Galleries and museums could operate differently. For Artes Mundi 9 we became very aware of the desire to engage with us as things eased and have just received our final evaluation reports from external sources. They reveal we generated significant visitors once we were able to open physically and qualitatively, a resounding, popular and critical appreciation. These metrics are a remarkable achievement comparing very favourably with pre-pandemic performances in previous editions. We also generated significant positive economic impact for Wales, again despite the limits on capacity and travel that restrictions imposed.

 

What do you think has to happen if the sector is to survive?

The cultural sector has always demonstrated resilience as well as approaches to change which are imaginative. For the foreseeable future, blended delivery of programmes in person and online will continue - and this actually brings some very positive benefits and outcomes across audience reach, engagement, environmental impact etc. Collaboration and sharing are increasingly important. Learning to listen and distill this into powerful programming is already in progress.

Challenging out of date notions of competition are also present and the development of a greater inclusivity and lack of territorialism. But there also needs to be changes at a fundamental level outside of cultural organisations whereby they are properly resourced to enact these responses.

 

The government’s Culture Recovery Fund has been a lifeline to ensure that arts organisations have made it this far, but how important has the private sector been up to now?

The raft of Cultural Recovery Funds were crucial in enabling many cultural organisations to continue to survive. But the private sector also played a role with many trusts and foundations similarly developing emergency support packages and assistance for artists and organisations alike. Criteria changed, usual funding streams were paused and dedicated schemes were launched often with clearer, more open and straightforward means to apply for support. While not everyone benefited and some programmes - both public and private - were not eligible for all, at the outset of the initial lockdown the recognition of the need for collective action quickly became apparent.

 

For the future, are there new ways of raising the income arts organisations will need to survive and prosper, and can larger organisations support smaller ones they haven’t before?

The paradox of funding changes highlighted by the pandemic is that those organisations who arguably had been most successful in developing strong revenue streams from things such as ticketing, retail offers etc, were the ones most drastically hit initially. As with any healthy diet, it is essential to have a broad spectrum of support from both private and public sources and a depth and commitment to these partnerships.

The cultural sector as a whole has always been creative and imaginative in identifying new ways of working as well as challenging the status quo. When resources are under pressure, then sharing through collaboration and partnership becomes one way in which available and finite support can be pooled to maximise impact. Many of us are engaged in shifting and accelerating priorities to tackle the urgent issues we collectively face surrounding inequalities and environmental concerns.

 

You came from Canada to lead Artes Mundi having previously been at Ikon in Birmingham. How has your experience helped you cope with the Covid-19 crisis that broke shortly after you arrived at Artes Mundi?

My experiences equipped me to work with the whole Artes Mundi team to continue and carry forward our work, understanding what to focus on, how to reframe priorities, focus on and embrace new possibilities and maintain a spirit within working relationships.

Artes Mundi delivers its programmes through a dedicated and modest core staff team. Furthermore, being a non-venue based organisation gave us an agility in comparison to those with larger numbers of employees and buildings to manage. Having no venue of our own means partnership is part of our DNA, and we were able to continue to foster relationships with artists and communities we work with and develop our programming while importantly gaining support through some emergency funds on top of successful fundraising achieved pre-pandemic. We managed this without having to furlough staff and were able to maintain commitments to those freelance independent practitioners with whom we had contracts.

In Canada the system of differing private revenue sources supported with some federal and provincial public funding is a model that could work well in the UK. However, greater incentives for individuals and businesses need to be brought in to enable that range and depth of patronage to develop and to nurture a culture of giving and philanthropy open to all. So, too, a decentralisation and investment across the UK is essential.

Culture is one of the four necessary pillars of a healthy society, developing engaged and questioning citizens. Hence a greater cultural shift is needed which has to be driven by progressive, imaginative change in policy and government. The value of culture needs to be recognised in what it contributes in clear economic terms and advocacy for the benefit of society as a whole and the national image, and that it is not dispensable.

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