Langwith Arts is the brainchild of Dr John Issitt, Provost of Langwith College. In a bid to redevelop his college as a dynamic and cultural hub, 2006 saw the first Langwith Arts Festival – a series of student-organised events over a May bank holiday weekend with a theme, ‘movement’. A varied programme incorporated Dance, Pantomime, Afro-Caribbean and Juggle Societies, a Jazz band, a Barbershop quartet and a group of break dancers. It was novel and well attended, and Issitt’s hopes seemed to be coming into fruition.
But since then, things have begun to snowball.
Langwith has a great advantage over other colleges. For the last seventeen years, the Norman Rea Art Gallery has provided an exhibition space for a number of aspiring artists, both local and student. In recent months, though, there has been a major transition in the organisation of such showcases. Suzanne Dekker of Langwith College has previously headed the logistical aspects of the exhibitions. But what we see today is something quite different. There is currently a core group of six students (sourced through the Volunteering Unit) who are taking control of the Norman Rea Art Gallery, under the banner of Langwith Arts – a means ‘to provide students with an opportunity to be involved with the running of a professional gallery before they leave university’, suggests Geoff Currie, a member of the student committee. Although Dr Issitt still has much contact with those individuals, come the summer term it will be solely under the management of the student committee.
Already Langwith Arts has begun sourcing first year students to take over committee positions for the next academic year to ensure its sustainability. Dr Issitt suggests that the project has a number of beneficial aspects, including the development of an even better interface with the local community and, most importantly, an opportunity for students to develop their skills as event organisers and exhibition curators.
The CETLE has recently been drafted in to hone the skills of these student curators by providing £7,000 worth of funding over a two year period. The CETLE is involved in creating training products for the committee to learn how to develop a systematic database of artists and contacts, curate space effectively, select artwork professionally and manage a gallery efficiently. Twenty percent of sales profits are ploughed back into an exhibition fund to help the sustainability of the project and to further the promotion of the exhibitions. But Dr Issitt suggests that support for these student activities is necessary: ‘it’s not totally commercially viable. We can’t be commercially viable where we are. Viable in an absolute sense, because there is not enough foot-fall, it’s not in the centre of town, it is only a university gallery and most sales are actually made on the opening night’.
Saying that, Dr Issitt and the team are rather optimistic about the progress they are making, and the CETLE are supporting them through this complicated developmental stage. The students are beginning to work more closely together, and two exhibitions are already listed for next term. Their major current task is to create a year long programme of exhibitions in order to reduce mailing costs (a number of invites are sent out prior to each exhibition opening). Electronic invites, targeted publicity and other cost-reduction efforts are being made in order to further the chances of sustainability.
Although Dr Issitt suggests that ‘it’s about aesthetics, it’s about intellectual engagement, it’s about the value of art and it’s about the enrichment of our community’, the ultimate focus seems to be on the students themselves: ‘there are many people who come to this University who want be part of events, who want to be part of exhibitions – this is a perfect opportunity for people to get hold of that.’ Indeed, they can make decisions, and they can gain great experience – this is their blank canvas.
With a variety of roles within the committee, which roll over each term (including Publicity, Secretary, Artist Liaison, Curator, Opening Night Host, Vice-director and Director), the committee is attractive for students with many different interests.
Currie suggests that ‘the opportunity to gain knowledge of issues raised in managing a team, running a show from beginning to end (including understanding proper lead-times) and the actual effort it takes will give me a good idea of how to sell myself when applying for a job and how to anticipate issues at a gallery I may be coming into.’ Beyond this, he is ‘learning how to read people’ and how to manage teams effectively. More macrocosmically, he explains how ‘York will be able to produce strong candidates for professional curatorial roles’ with the aid of the experience had at the Norman Rea Art Gallery.
Currie also makes it clear that this is an initiative which gives opportunities to under-promoted artists: ‘For some, they are just starting out and others want to branch out into a more experimental form of working which is not clearly sellable in a larger gallery.’ The CETLE ensured that the gallery was able to expand its capacity for running non-traditional exhibitions, including artist workshops, and the funding will also allow the committee to ‘reach out to galleries throughout the country and gain valuable knowledge for current members. The knowledge will be recorded and passed on to upcoming students.’
Indeed, this is beneficial for all involved. The University is presented with a dynamic art space, students learn how to curate exhibitions and Langwith fosters its identity as a cultural college. Things are changing, and the CETLE is aiding that development.
Article written by Duncan Piper, originally published in Enterprise focus.