By Kathryn Tann and Lianne Toye

20 April 2021 - 11:00

Art installation at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff - Carrie Mae Weems - From RESIST COVID TAKE 6! 2020 public art campaign.
Carrie Mae Weems - From RESIST COVID TAKE 6! 2020 public art campaign. ©

Courtesy the artist and Social Studies 101 in association with THE OFFICE performing arts + film. Photography: Polly Thomas. 

Welsh arts organisation Artes Mundi offers the UK’s largest international contemporary art prize. Here, writer Kathryn Tann interviews Lianne Toye, Artes Mundi deputy director and head of development, about how the organisation has adapted to the challenges of creating an international art exhibition during a pandemic, and how these challenges have opened up new and successful ways of working.

This year sees the launch of the ninth Artes Mundi Exhibition. Over the past year the non-profit arts organisation hasn’t simply adapted to a socially distanced obstacle course, it’s grown stronger. 

The biennial prize – based in Cardiff, but with a thoroughly international reach – has now successfully launched its ninth exhibition. Showcased are the new and recent works of six shortlisted artists, all from different countries, which ‘examine, address and question some of the most significant issues we are currently facing’. Though nobody could have foreseen the new landscape of those issues when the list was chosen in September 2019. 

While Wales is still subject to national Covid-19 restrictions, the exhibition will be virtual only, with detailed video tours of each installation available freely online. The physical exhibition spaces, at the Cardiff galleries of the National Museum of Wales, Chapter Arts Centre and g39, hope to open their doors to the public in time for a long summer of visitors. Initially planned for its usual 16-week run, this year the exhibition will be open until 5 September.

Looking out for silver linings

Lianne Toye, Artes Mundi deputy director and head of development, reckons that a twice-delayed exhibition and digital launch are small prices to pay in an industry that has suffered greatly over the past twelve months. 

‘We’re all glass-half-full kind of people as a team, and I think there are industries and there are people across the arts in different art forms, who have really been impacted on a horrific scale, and cannot function and cannot deliver. We have been able to deliver and while there may have been minor changes to things, and while it’s no longer the case that we can all pile into the gallery, none of it has been or felt like an unsurmountable challenge.’

‘I think visual arts generally have been much luckier than performing arts. We’re even luckier because we’re not a venue, therefore we haven’t had the loss of income from a commercial arm, with funding diminishing. Lots of organisations rely heavily not just on ticket revenue but income from shops and cafes. We haven’t had to contend with that.’

More than just a prize

Lianne goes on to explain that Artes Mundi does much more than its main exhibition every two years. Throughout the season, the organisation is committed to supporting artists and encouraging artistic engagement – with partners like artist led group The Aurora Trinity Collective, various community projects and collaborations, and a fast-growing programme of events and initiatives beyond the Cardiff-based prize.

Back in January of 2020, Artes Mundi took on a new member of the team – Letty Clarke – to curate their public programmes. The hope was to develop a stronger programme of activity running throughout the two-year cycle, and to do so in a ‘much more significant and embedded way.’ 

When Covid-19 restrictions began to set in, Artes Mundi were able to shift their exhibition schedule. 

‘We’re fortunate in that when we first went into lockdown, we were still seven months ahead of when the actual exhibition was due to open in October, so we had the time to be able to plan for that’, Lianne explained. 

The altered timeline gave the team a window of opportunity to focus on their community engagement, in a way they might not have been able to before. The first thing they identified was, that with all the new cultural recovery schemes launched, they had expertise that could be put to good use: supporting people in approaching those arduous and often intimidating funding applications.

‘We offered to help artists and individuals who were really struggling. Because if you worked on your own, you could be more isolated than usual.’

Growing from that initiative, Artes Mundi then ran a series of artist assemblies. They had found, when connecting with individuals about application support, that ‘they didn’t have a forum to come together and talk about their experiences - and perhaps exchange not just ideas but talk about the issues they’re facing and help each other out.’ These sessions went on fortnightly and then monthly. 

In response to Black Lives Matter, Artes Mundi began organising ‘Held Space Assemblies’ for black and non-black artists of colour, providing a safe space for networking, collectivising, and sharing ideas around arts practices, healing, justice, personal experiences and change. This is something that they plan to continue with support from the Arts Council. 

The power of digital

Alongside evolving work with Aurora Trinity Art Collective in Cardiff, such as sewing workshops and social meet-ups, these initiatives have all been run virtually and remotely. 

‘Lots of those activities just grew. The relationships really strengthened and evolved, and we’ve ended up in this space where all of this work is very much part of our everyday and becoming more so. People are developing ideas around what they want within the group and what they want to pursue - and that would have perhaps not have happened to such a degree if Covid-19 hadn’t happened, because we wouldn’t have been looking for ways of doing things in such a different format.’

And this online and remote activity, inevitably, shaped the format of this year’s exhibition activity too. Whereas ordinarily, Artes Mundi would be limited to engagement with local Cardiff and south Wales schools, they can now connect nationally – and even internationally – bringing direct access to visual art to young people regardless of geography. This applies to the exhibition itself which, though it usually welcomes visitors from all over the world, will this year expect an international reach on a bigger scale than ever. Already, the team are finding ticket sales for their digital artist talks are two-fold what they would have been for a physical venue. 

Improving accessibility for future years

Lianne Toye is particularly enthusiastic about what this all means for accessibility.  

‘It’s a new way of thinking and a new way of working. For people who are ordinarily not able to leave their homes – because they’re having chemotherapy, or have an illness or physical disability, or because they don’t like to go out in crowds – there are always issues. It could be as simple as not being able to afford the travel to visit Cardiff, or not being able to have the time off work. It means that somebody at any time can be anywhere in the world and can view the art online. It’s not necessarily as good as being in something in real life, but it’s a close second.’

Lianne also believes that having the exhibition available freely online – through carefully-crafted, voice-guided videos which discuss the work and the artists’ intentions – will improve accessibility for the many people who are nervous or unfamiliar attending galleries and viewing art. She thinks that this could be a way of reaching out to people who feel that art isn’t for them – that they can explore and enjoy it on their own, comfortable, terms, and then decide whether they’d like to see the real thing. 

‘Everyone can feel part of it and feel involved, which is really what we want to do, because art is for everybody. It’s about bringing people together and sharing other people’s lived experience, and learning from that.’

A new moment for visual art

Artes Mundi’s mission is ‘to bring exceptional international art to Wales and to generate unique opportunities for individuals and local communities to engage creatively with the urgent issues of our time in ways which resonate with us all.’ It seems that this year that mission has been more important – and more impactful – than ever. Art is proving itself to be a powerful force in what will be a long process of healing and recovery. What Artes Mundi are doing, in Cardiff and beyond, is applying their work not just to recovery, but to valuable change and adaptation.

‘The pace of life has changed,’ says Lianne, ‘so I think generally people are more perceptive – to actually to think about others and that whole theme of the human condition and lived experience, which is what we are about.’

British Council Wales is a funding partner of Artes Mundi, supporting the international promotion of the prize and artists, and the associated conference and public programming.

The Artes Mundi 9 exhibition runs from 15 March to 5 September 2021 and can be accessed online here until museums and galleries can reopen. 

Writer Kathryn Tann and Lianne Toye of Artes Mundi

Kathryn Tann and Lianne Toye