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Transcript of modern and contemporary art galleries tour podcast

Welcome to the Walker Art Gallery, my name is Ann Bukantas and I'm Curator of Fine Art here at the Walker. One of the things that I've been involved in over the past few months is the rehang of these four exhibition galleries which include samples of our art collection from the 1940s right through to the present day.

If you've been a regular visitor to the Walker Art Gallery, if you cast your mind back about six or seven months before these rooms closed you might remember that they had a very different look to them and a very different feel to them.

I'm going to tell you a bit about the process from getting to how they used to be to how they are now. So it's quite an informal talk, I'm not talking in depth about any individual works. If you've got any questions that you want to ask me at the end or as we go along then do feel free.

Before we refurbished these rooms there was one thing that stuck out like a sore thumb for myself and my colleagues which was that the majority of the walls were covered in a lovely padded white fabric which was not necessarily the best surface against which to show works of art. It was showing its age.

It wasn't that old actually, it had only been on the walls for a few years and we were getting some particularly attractive brown stains on it. Every time we moved a work of art there was an exact shadow of the work of art on the wall, so we had to cover that by replacing it with a bigger and bigger picture.

It got to the stage when we didn't have a bigger picture than the last picture we'd hung and we thought something has got to change here.

We made a bid to the Executive Team of National Museums Liverpool for finances to refurbish these rooms and we were successful in that. In about January, February of this year we started the long process of stripping the rooms out, getting the builders in to do the necessaries and I'm going to fill you in on some of the details of what that entailed.

We had to take a series of decisions that included everything from what the walls were going to look like, to what was going to hang on the walls to the sort of information that visitors would see when they came into the gallery. Some of that was just ideas that we had, but other elements of it were based on other things that were happening at the Walker at the time and I'll tell you about one or two of those as we go along.

The first thing really was to think about how dramatically different we wanted these rooms to look compared with how they looked previously. We certainly made a decision that we didn't want any more fabric on the walls. What we've gone for, if you want the boring builder's technical stuff, is we stripped the fabric off and we got a very simple MDF underskin and then a plasterboard on top of that so it can be painted any colour of the rainbow.

It makes it very much easier for our handling technicians, the people who come along to attach the works of art to the wall, to do that work. They just have to fill it in and it's so much easier to work with.

The colours that we've decided on are very different. I think people tend to associate modern works and particularly contemporary works of art with white walls - the idea of a white cube gallery. But, we wanted to get away from that for a couple of reasons.

One is that discussions we'd had over the past few months we felt that particularly in this room - and these are the earliest works that you'll see - these are from late 1940s through to about 1970 - a lot of the colours in them were completely bleached out by the paleness of the walls. We didn't really feel that they were necessarily being shown to their best effect.

What really made us think even more about that was when we started stripping the galleries out and we had to put some of the works from these rooms into another room across there because there were certain works we needed to keep on display, partly because of our children's gallery downstairs (we knew that children would be looking for things and we had to make sure they were out).

We hung them in the room across there which is Room 11 which has quite grey walls and all of a sudden everybody started saying 'gosh that looks fantastic! I've never really looked at that picture in such detail before’ and we realised it was the colour of the walls that was having that effect so we thought ‘right, let's go for something a bit darker’, something that's not what people would expect.

The other thing that was happening at the same time at the Walker was that we'd had an access audit so that comprised a specialist in looking at public buildings like the Walker from the perspective of people who had certain access issues such as a physical disability, a visual impairment for example. She came back to us with a series of suggested improvements and one of the things that she picked up on was the fact that in some of our rooms because we had very white walls that actually presented problems for certain visitors, in terms of visual glare, when they were trying to look at objects.

So we thought well this is a professional opinion and we've also got our subjective opinion that we want to try and change the wall colours so we decided in the end, as I walk you through you'll be able to have a look at this, is a series of changing colours of grey.

The walls in here are slightly darker, perhaps fitting the works on display in here, as you get in the final gallery, four rooms away, which has the most recent works, that's the palest of the greys but it’s not that glaring white.

We've gone for a consistent paint colour on all the woodwork throughout. I'd be interested to hear at the end what you all think, but we're satisfied that it's made them much calmer rooms but also rooms that bring out more effectively the colour of the artworks.

At the same time we had the decoration done, we also had chaps up on the top cleaning the roof lights at the top because, you might not have looked up previously but it was really very dirty up there and that was affecting the quality of light, which in turn impairs people's ability to view the works properly.

The lights were given a clean but we didn't have the money to do any more than that, so what you are seeing is a cosmetic project, all be it hopefully very good and what we haven't been able to do is things like install air conditioning, so you will find that it will still get warm in here in the summer, hopefully it won't get too cold in here during the winter. But it wasn't a full refurbishment project in that sense.

If you do feel there are still problems over lighting for example that's not something we were able to deal with in this project. The other thing that was a particular concern was something we knew was a problem but also that was raised during the access audit that I mentioned to you was the nature of the interpretation in the rooms.

On the most basic level that's the labels that are next to the pictures. I've got a little sample here of one of our old labels which used to belong in this room. Quite a fancy text, it's a 14point size font and it's all quite closely clustered together and then details on the bottom were in an even smaller font and one of the comments that came back about the labels were they could actually be quite difficult for some people to read.

So working with our designers we came up with a new visual labelling scheme for the room and you'll notice that all the text panels have got dark lines top and bottom. The other thing that was raised during the access audit was that if you put a white label against a white wall, if you've again got particularly visual impairments, it's very difficult for some people to even see where the label is on the wall and one of the recommendations made to us was that we should have a contrast between the wall and the label. Something for people to home in on. That's the reason we have these darker bars top and bottom, which also I think overall, my opinion, gives a more slick and professional look to the interpretation presentation in the room.

The other thing is that the font size has increased to 18 points, so it's gone up two sizes so hopefully that in itself is much clearer for people to read. In addition, if you look closely at the font as you are walking round, it's a much less fussy typeface, it's a sans-serif, it hasn't got all the little twiddly bits on the ends. Overall the theory is that the smaller sized labels should be much easier for visitors to read and over the next few weeks and months we're gathering feedback from our visitors on whether or not that's actually the case.

It's a sort of experiment, it might change in the future, we're not saying 'right this is it and it's set in stone'.

The next big decision to make was something that's pre-occupied me for a long time - which works are actually going to hang in these rooms and what order are those artworks going to be displayed in.

There are certain artworks in our collection that people expect to see. One of them would normally be hanging behind me - the David Hockney painting, that's away on loan at the moment - but there are certain iconic works in the collection and there are other works that, for example, we want to keep on display for our children's gallery.

There are works with which the Walker is identified. There are certain local artists such as Sam Walsh, who people come in and ask about. I never for a minute imagined that I would be taking those off display, what I wanted to do was refresh the displays and present those artworks in a very different way.

Particularly in the room that we're sitting in now. Because the transition in what artists were painting was so dramatically different in a period of just over a decade from the late 1940s through to the abstract work of the 1960s, I really wanted to use our collection to try and show that progression of change in what artists were painting and the way they painted it.

I didn't feel that prior to the rehang the way that we'd hung the works really did show that transition.

Much as I tend to resist chronological hangs what you have got in here, in this room in particular, is a very chronological hang. In the way the labels are written I've tried to draw out that change, that development and also highlight the relationships between some of the artists and why they were doing what they were doing.

Because the room was full of builders all the planning for what was going in here had to be done with small cutout pieces of paper and slightly inaccurate measurements, because I was in there with a tape measure trying to measure things on my own. Just hoping that when the works were brought into the room, my theoritical layout in my head was going to work in practice on the wall. Our handling team were great to work with and more than happy to make last minute adjustments.

Because it was chronological, it did really pretty much work and we didn't find there were any works we didn't have room for. Looking round the room now the earliest parts of the collection, you've got the very figurative and sometimes quite dour colours and dour subject matter of the late 1940s and the early 1950s where artists were painting things from everyday life, things that perhaps people would just take for granted. Indeed, some of the artists were known as the kitchen sink school of painters, they were doing things as ordinary as kitchen sinks.

I thought it would be quite a nice idea to literally include a sink. We had that painting over there of the bathroom in our store, it's by an artist called Terry Lee and as far as I could see it hadn't been shown for a long time. It really seemed to exemplify the type of artwork produced in that period. Another nice connection was that Terry Lee was actually the teacher of one of our education staff here at the Walker, when he heard it was going back on display he got really excited. It's nice when there is an emotional attachment from members of staff to a work of art.

We do seem to be getting a really good response on works that have been able to be included in this display that haven't really been used for quite a long time.

What you might notice that somebody mentioned the last time I did this talk was that if you are in a position to remember how the display was previously there is a lot more, particularly in this room, than there was before and as a result of that the artworks are hung much more closely together and somebody asked me whether I thought, particularly in the case of that back wall, whether it looked too crowded.

I did have a very long discussion about that with our art handling team when we were laying out the works in the room and I felt quite strongly that I did want to include all the artworks that are on that back wall, in particular that central piece, the relief sculpture that's made up of a lot of little silver cubes. It is by an artist called Mary Martin. Along with a lot of the artworks in this room, it came to us through one of the previous John Moores exhibitions. It's a fantastic example of the artist's work, it's an important example of the artist's work and it's a piece that hadn't been shown for some time.

About a year ago it got requested for an exhibition loan, so our conservators had done some conservation work on it and when it came back I really wanted us to be able to show it. I decided that was going to be the focal point of that wall and in addition to that I wanted to show it with other examples in this room of that type of work relief sculptures from that period. For example, we've got a piece next to it by the artist Victor Pasmore and you'll notice that there's an awkward looking gap on the end of that wall in front of which I've placed a display case.

The reason there is a gap there is I wanted to cram even more onto that wall - there's another piece of relief sculpture which is another example of something that's been in the basement stores of the Walker, hasn't been shown for a long time, needed some conservation work doing on it. It wasn't possible for us to arrange to have that conservation work done in time for these displays opening but we've left a gap for it.

So the discussion we had was shall we forget that piece and just spread out the other four works on that wall and give them more space or shall we go ahead and try and achieve what I wanted to achieve which was to show the fact that at this particular period in time artists had started using different materials in their work, trying to mix the idea of what was a painting, what was a sculpture. One of the best ways to do that was to show a few examples of it. I stood my ground, I had a discussion with the handling team and they thought 'we can make space for that, if people think it looks crowded, well, maybe they'll think it looks crowded'.

The alternative is one of the artworks stays in the store and to me that's a great shame when we've got such fantastic works, I'd rather they were slightly closer together than not seen at all.

The next wall along from that, which is these, very starkly contrasting with the kitchen sink artworks, two wonderful abstract paintings. Regarding that wall as a sort of temporary exhibition space, we've got a large group of works from particularly the 1960s and the very early 1970s where artists were painting these very large scale, very colourful, quite hard-edged abstract paintings.

We rarely have an opportunity to get them all out at once, because of the conflicts of space, but that wall struck me as a nice opportunity to get two out to start with and maybe a few months down the line, we'll get another two out. Rather than having to rehang the whole room, which as you can imagine is quite a big task, just to make small changes as and when we have the opportunity to do that.

Behind us here we've got a wonderful group of pop art style pictures. The piece on the end here which is by an artist called Anthony Donaldson is another painting that hadn't been shown at the Walker for quite some time. It had been requested for a loan by an international gallery last year and conservators did a lot of work on it, it came back and it looked absolutely fantastic. It's a great example of the popular culture type art that pop artists were doing and it was an absolute must to be included in this display.

The theory is when the David Hockney comes back from its current exhibition tour and it is going to be away until next year, we'll spread these paintings out and just make room for the Hockney on the wall and you'll be able to see that in the context of a wider group of works from the same period and in the same sort of style.

At the very end there is another of my suspicious gaps in the corner. There's a similar reason for that as over there. Another piece of sculpture which was in our stores which fitted to my mind very well with this group of works, but needed restoration group doing on it. It's by an artist called Rod Murray who was in art school in Liverpool in the 1960s and was a very close friend of Stuart Sutcliffe who was one of the original Beatles. When I came to do research on that particular artwork, I can show you an image but trust me it doesn't do it any favours, it looks like a black blob, but it's a wonderful colourful painted landscape.

It's actually a lightbox, it plugs in and it's got lights and a sort of moving thing at the back. The only information I had on the file was a picture of it, our accession card which has all the basic details - who made it, when it was made, what it's called and how we bought it. And then a piece of paper from the artist saying we could have the copyright and that was it. No information about the artist whatsoever.

So part of the process of getting together the information for when that work goes on display was doing research using books about the local art scene at the time. Also, looking on the internet and also speaking to people who might have known that artist. To cut a very long story short I managed to track him down, he's still very much alive and working on holographic art in which he's quite an expert. He taught for some time at the Royal College of Art and he lives only twenty miles outside Liverpool.

We invited him in, he sent loads of information on his career, on his work, he's been into the Conservation Centre and met with our conservators and we've all had a good laugh at the really primitive technology in the back of his electric ... it's a really Heath Robinson construction which our conservators are now scratching their heads thinking what can we do with this?

As a result of that I've now got a hefty file of information on that artist rather than the very scant information we had before. So that's helping me in putting the label together when it's ready to go on display. It will also help colleagues or anyone like you in the future who might be interested in that artist's work and want to make an appointment to do that research and have a look at the information.

Behind the scenes of any individual artwork in this room there's been work like that going on which I think ultimately will be to the long-term benefit of anybody that needs to use it.

I'll take you now into the next room [Room 13].

Again, if you're regular visitors you'll be familiar with a lot of the paintings that are on display here. Classic John Moores winners, works by local artists by Maurice Cockerell,the Peter Doig painting behind me here which is a previous John Moores winner and a really popular work in the collection, like I said those iconic works it's been really important to keep on display.

More than the room we've just been in, if you keep coming back to the Walker you will see these displays change because it is easier to do things with these smaller groups of works than to rehang a whole room. In particular the two Maurice Cockerells that you see on the wall here are from a series of four paintings of the seasons. So when we get towards the end of the year, I think we've got 'Summer' and 'Autumn' so the next change in here you'll see will be 'Winter' and 'Spring' to hopefully reflect a changing climate.

We've got another example from our decorative arts collection in here.

These display cases were formerly used at our Conservation Centre before the displays there were refurbished and they were up for grabs so we thought we knew we wanted to show some more decorative arts so I stole these from the Conservation Centre and we've had plinths made for them. It's a real money-saver and it's enabled us to get more of the collection on display so people can get nice and close up to it but they're obviously good and safe and secure.

I'll take you through into the next room now [Room 14].

One of the things people do ask us a lot of questions about which is really obvious in this room is our use of barriers in front of certain paintings. We do obviously have a large of curious visitors every year at the Walker and some of them do like to touch works of art.

The painting on the other side of the room which is by a young artist called Alexis Harding won the John Moores contemporary painting exhibition competition two years ago and that's a really classic example of a very, very highly textured work and it's a surface that people love to touch and they want to touch. We don't want to put a painting like that in a glass box in a frame because it was never intended to be in a frame.

At the same time, we have to try and discourage visitors from touching it because for somebody to touch a painting like that can do an immense amount of damage and that's the reason why we do have physical barriers all the way around any painting that hasn't actually got glass on it. Obviously our security warden staff as they're going round play a part in that process of protecting the works of art.

Behind me here is what I think is a really beautiful painting, another example of something that's been down in the stores in the Walker and hasn't been shown for quite some time. It's by an artist who had a studio in Liverpool for I think 25 years he had a studio at the Bluecoat. So, it's got a really strong connection with the city, he's now living back in Ireland, his name is Clement McAleer and the scene you can see was inspired by the coastline just outside Liverpool.

So, it's a great work for visitors interested in knowing about artworks that were produced in or inspired by the city of Liverpool. I think this was the first work that when I started writing the label text for it I started thinking 'Gosh, I really need a bit more space here', because there are facts that I think are interesting, if I was a visitor I'd like to know that.

A colleague and I had visited another museum who instead of having a traditional label text, they just used a series of interesting facts that they thought visitors might like and we were quite curious about that. I had a chat with her and we came up with the idea that as well as having a label that gave, let's say, the expected information, it would run on to another bit of information that gave some additional points if people were interested in that.

This was a classic example because, although he was Irish he spent a lot of time in Liverpool. It's just pointing out those extra things, giving people an extra layer of information if they want it. You'll see dotted around in quite a random way, depending on how I felt at the time I was writing the label, is this little bit of extra information given with certain of the artworks and again that's something that we're going to be getting feedback off visitors as to whether or not they think that's something that's useful.

Ultimately a further layer of information which some of my colleagues who are dotted around the room are involved in is we are going to be putting more information on all these artworks onto our website. Hopefully, also having a computer-based version of that in one of these galleries so that people can actually sit down and if they want to do more research on a work of art, find out more about the artist or about the history of that work, they can actually look that information up on the website. It's very much about giving visitors more choice.

What you've also got in here is lots more decorative arts, some fantastic new acquisitions that were made including some of the pieces of jewellery over the past 12 - 24 months. As time goes by, my colleagues in Decorative Arts plan to refresh these displays to get more of their collections out on show.

After this year's John Moores exhibition, if the Walker Art Gallery acquires the winner of this year's John Moores exhibition for its collection, that particular painting would join the displays either in this room or the neighbouring room in the same way that we're trying to get new decorative arts acquisitions out.

I'd like to end by taking you into this room [Room 15] and showing you some of our more recent acquisitions at the Walker that it was quite important that we focused on in these displays.

Of all the rooms in the Walker, of all the permanent collection galleries in the Walker, this is probably the room that gets changed round most often. We do like to try and reflect what's new in the collection, but also like I mentioned before with the earlier abstract paintings from certain periods we have got a large amount of work and the only way that we can really show that is to keep rotating those displays.

So, the starting point for this room when we re-opened was always going to be this artwork behind me which is a series of five large photographic panels by the artist Helen Chadwick who died a few years ago, very sadly before her time. She was one of the most significant, highly regarded female artists of the latter part of the twentieth century. She was hugely influential on new generations of artists who are actually working today and this piece which is called 'Viral Landscapes' is one of the works that Helen herself regarded as the most important that she'd ever produced.

The negotiation for acquiring it was going on for about three years, looking at other works that were available and in the case of this work an added complication it was about to go on a long exhibition tour which probably spanned two years in total. So, even if and when we acquired we weren't going to be able to physically get our hands on it straight away. Because of having these rooms refurbished it sort of worked out all right in the end because it came back to us earlier this year, went into our store just for a few months and then we were able to bring it and put it straight on display.

Somebody asked me at the last talk whether or not it was always necessary to show it as a full sequence as it is at the moment, surely there aren't many walls with that much space? The great thing about this work, and it was one of the factors that helped us to decide to acquire it in the end, is we do have a measure of flexibility in how it's shown.

Most recently, before it came to the Walker and it was in the tour, it was shown at Manchester Art Gallery and they only had space to show four panels of it and showed them in quite a different way, I think they had gaps between them as well.

Although it's not showing the whole artwork as it was ultimately intended, we do have the option with the blessing of the artist's estate to show one piece or two pieces or to show it in a slightly different combination, although it is great as you see it here to have the opportunity to show the whole run together.

All the other rooms including this one have got general introductory panels, really to just give visitors an overall introduction. This is the only artwork in the new displays that has its own introductory panel, in part because it's important to focus on it, as it is such a major acquisition for us. I think that hopefully, the information that's on that panel is the same type of information that is on any of the individual label texts, presented in a slightly more expansive way. It gives a bit of background information as all the labels hopefully do about the artist and also about this particular artwork and what led up to its creation.

In some respects although it might not look like it it's actually a portrait of Helen Chadwick herself, because the photographic landscapes are of the Pembrokeshire coast, but these shapes that you see super-imposed over the landscapes are actually taken from medical slides of Helen's own body cells that were surgically removed from different parts of her body such as her ear.

She worked quite obsessively to teach herself various medical skills that enabled her to work with doctors for example, in order to create artworks of this type. Some of the work she did was really quite controversial because she was working with body cells and embryos. This is a wonderful example of the start of her work in that type of area which is important and this unusual format of the individual photographs which are very long and thin, if you think about when you see a slide under a microscope it actually mimics the format of the medical slide.

The other thing that's really quite poignant about these works, is two or three years ago now there was a major fire at the arts store owned by a company called Momart in London and a lot of artists' work was destroyed in that fire. Very much of Helen's artwork was stored in that store and a lot of it was lost. Fortunately these pieces weren't amongst the work that was stored there and although we were well into the process of negotiation when that happened it does mean that as surviving works it's even more important that they've come to a public collection like the Walker's that can hopefully, will, do a good job of looking after them for the future.

The works shown around the rest of the room are in part a selection of different works from the latter period of the 20th century and some more recent acquisitions and contemporary work. Helen's work is partnered by a couple of other photographic pieces from our collection and if you read the introductory label for this room it will make the point that the Walker, although it's particularly known for collection paintings and that's partly because of the history of the John Moores competition, a painting competition held at the Walker since 1957, we do also collect other things.

Recently we have been, over the past couple of decades, we have been trying to build up a more representative selection of contemporary art that artists are doing - they don't all paint. The photographic based works by Gilbert and George and Hermione Wiltshire were things that were already in our collection but have been helped to give a new context for the Helen Chadwick photo piece.

In addition to that, just to end on, in the middle of the room is a sculpture that we were given about a year ago by the Liverpool artist Tony Cragg who has gone on to become a really international name so far as contemporary sculptures are concerned. That came to us from a private donor through an organisation called the Contemporary Art Society. One of the things they do is ensure that galleries like the Walker collect contemporary art and it's important to have a good representative work by a local artist, it's another work that did need some conservation work doing on it.

The white pieces you can see are plaster and they are very fragile and it's another reason why it's got a wonderful barrier around it which is a necessary evil.

Last of all, if any of you came to the Walker about a year ago you may have seen a lego art gallery by a couple of artists called 'The Little Artists', cutting edge contemporary artists who produce conceptual art and one of the things they do, not the only thing they do, but one of the things they do is they make artworks in lego. Straight from the box, they don't paint it or anything, they swap the pieces around.

We worked with them last year on their exhibition and also because they worked with us on producing the graphics on our children's gallery Big Art we thought it would be great to have an example of their work in our collection and when we had the exhibition of their lego art gallery it was hugely popular.

Do have a look more closely after my talk but in that case there we've got miniature versions in lego of two of the most famous contemporary works of art of the past century possibly - 'Damien Hirst's Shark' and 'Tracey Emin's Bed'. Totally, wonderfully made out of lego, apparently the shark is from a pirate's lego kit and I don't know where they got the little wine glass that Tracey Emin is drinking from and they're great fun and have been really popular with our younger visitors.

It's nice to have smaller pieces of sculpture so we can get more stuff out rather than large-scale works that do take up a large amount of space.