I went to Chester this week to see the Ark, the latest exhibition based on a partnership between a cathedral, Gloucester last time, and Pangolin, the foundry that has a gallery in London but also a mission to get its extraordinary fellowship of client artists, past and present, seen in what is arguably the most sculptural of architectural contexts, big churches.
But there is something else going on in this tiny historic city, population 118,000 which makes it less than half the size of Hull. This summer it finally got over its political and administrative upheavals to open an enormous £37m statement of cultural confidence, the Storyhouse in Northgate, just along from the town hall.
This was the 1930s Odeon, a picture palace that had lost its place, and Chester had more recently lost its theatre. The council-generated scheme not only created a new theatre and cinema complex by extending the Ocean site and retaining the art deco charm, but resited the city library here to make it more attractive to younger readers and their carers and give Chestonians (if that’s what they are) a cultural city-centre. It’s not like a multi-arts complex I’ve ever seen, with books the first statement. They surround you as collect your coffee in the large ground floor café, and small kids - representing the second statement, that this place is about families - clamber over settees among the reference shelves, with no-one to tell them to keep quiet and no-one minding.
But there's no art gallery in its story. Almost next door in the town hall complex is where the city library used to be, and the ground floor is currently occupied by an exhibition of pop art posters from the V&A. It’s the first exhibition organised by Chester Visual Arts, a community interest company set up by a group of interested residents. “We just thought it simply wasn’t good enough that although this lovely city has a marvellous new facility in the Storyhouse, there’s no public art gallery” said Hilary Banner, a retired solicitor who is on the voluntary board with regeneration experts, a property manager, a cathedral representative an accountant and the arts professor at Chester University. “We’re here temporarily but we hope we can make it permanent, if we can attract enough interest”. They are doing, with up to 400 a day going in to see the Blakes, the Hamiltons, the Caulfields and the Lichtensteins, having convinced the V&A to put this pop-up venue on its list of touring venues for this lovely show.
This is not supposed to be Chester Visual Arts’ permanent home, it has a programme of interventions in underused buildings, but it would be the perfect answer to Chester’s conundrum if what to do with the space and how to answer its gallery deficiency, and with the help of the new pastoral policies of national institutions like the V&A, Tate and the British Museum programming longer term is more than possible.
But the point is that this is not a council initiative, or even an intervention by the Arts Council. It’s come from a group of local influential people who have been allowed to carry their enthusiasm to the public, and raised the required funding. Their next exhibition will be a collaboration with Chester Cathedral which has its own adventure this summer, with Ark, where Pangolin sculptors of the calibre of David Mach, William Pye, Sarah Lucas, Phillip King, Damien Hirst, Lynn Chadwick and Barbara Hepworth are giving Chester’s people the opportunity of a lifetime.
It’s all a reverse of the Victorian patrician practice of giving the people what they ought to have; it’s the people saying this is what we want, and we’re going to have it.