Urban regeneration in these difficult economic times? Manchester contemporary artist and lecturer David Gledhill talks with neo:blog about what is fast becoming
The neo: Phenomenon
Of all the species of art events that crowd the listings and review pages on and offline, the open submission exhibition is one of the most curious. Kicked into life by the Paris Salon in 1725 and imported by the Royal Academy in 1769, the basic format has been used by all manner of institutions, associations, galleries and artists groups since then. Undiscovered genius was something to be put to a panel of judges who, at least in theory, rewarded talent without prejudice, favouritism or bias. In practice, orthodoxies and exclusions were the rule rather than the exception and the exceptional were left to make their own way, particularly by the time the impressionists started applying.
Most artists have a go at an ‘open’ at least once or twice in their working lives, depending on how well they cope with rejection. Some, such as the John Moores Painting Prize, held biennially in Liverpool, are an accepted platform to boot up your prospects with London art dealers, some of whom might otherwise never drink north of Watford. Others, such as the various Jerwood opens, are well respected in the arts community but will probably leave you more or less as broke as before. That’s if you can get into one. There are opens such as the BP Portrait Award that appear to homogenise artistic production and a bunch of others hosted by the Mall Galleries in London for example, that are medium or scale specific and often fairly conservative. The grumbling of excluded artists has rumbled down the centuries and only grows louder as belts are pulled tighter. Thankfully a new breed of artist-run open exhibitions such as the Creekside Open in London and now the neo:artprize, has emerged to irrigate an arts scene that’s about as arid as a backyard in Pompeii.
The neo:artprize is an open submission competition devised by a studio group that constitute an artistic renaissance for Bolton. Working with both public and private sectors they have brought a spirit of cultural regeneration to a region suffering a recession so severe it would have discouraged less determined folk from bothering. Since opening their first gallery in the town in 2009, neo: have expanded to embrace studio space, workshop facilities, a range of exhibition venues and a growing associate membership scheme. They represent a lifeline for students graduating from University of Bolton fine arts courses and beyond, plus a vital bridge into full time artistic activity at a national level of excellence. They have proved themselves to be one of the most resourceful and visionary artists groups in the country, but more than that they have overcome what for centuries has remained the most intractable problem for most artists; distribution. It’s not too difficult to produce work, given a bit of determination, some space and materials but getting it out there can be nigh on impossible, particularly if you’ve not quite reached a mature style or your work is outside the mainstream. In a speculative profession that’s a bit like fishing without bait, artists need to show regularly to build confidence and get some feedback for their work. neo:’s various galleries have made it possible for artists in the region to build an audience and even a client base that otherwise would have proved elusive. Anything artists can do to become more self-sufficient has got to be a good thing when you consider that most metropolitan commercial galleries have to sell out every show to stay open. The narrowing of creative scope that this kind of pressure brings can have a severely restrictive effect on artists caught up in a system that remains for most of them, the ultimate goal of their careers. neo: make an alternative career path a possibility and I can’t think of another artists group that can say the same.
With the neo:printprize to follow, the neo:artprize is only the latest of a long and highly successful series of initiatives that neo: have come up with. I fully expect it to thrive and take its place alongside the established events of its kind, but with this crucial distinction; this time it’s the artists that are calling the shots. Why does that make a difference? Because with neo:, everyone wins. Their collaborators gain from association with an exceptionally professional, restlessly inventive and inclusive organisation that can breathe new life into dead urban space. The northwest gains an arts resource that is democratic, determinedly accessible and user-friendly. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, artists gain from a unique mix of space to work and space to exhibit while building networks and infrastructures that reinforce their prospects down the line. In the midst of a severe economic drought neo: have created a miraculous microclimate of positive energy. Long may it buzz and bloom.