Bristol’s Arnolfini reborn

Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery, forced to wind down its activities after losing its Arts Council England national portfolio status in July 2017, has relaunched with a new exhibitions programme, new ACE funding and a partnership with the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol).

The new business plan and partnership is the latest in a series of ACE-backed associations between communities, universities and cultural organisations which is transforming the fortunes for arts businesses since the cutting of arts subsidies from 2010.

Arnolfini closed its gallery 18 months ago after it had lost its £750,000 ACE annual grant because of a crisis in finance and management.

Now, ACE has pledged £1.8m over three years as the gallery launches its new programme this weekend, in Bush House, the dockside former warehouse that has been its home since 1975, and continuing charitable support from the Ashley Clinton Barker-Mill Trust. The hope is that Arnolfini will return to ACE’s national portfolio status in 2022.

The relaunch follows the Bristol Visual Arts Review by Giles Worsdale, former director of Baltic, and Artangel’s James Lingwood, which recommended a complete rethink for Arnolfini.

“We’ve been on a journey and in the last six months have been able to find a solution to making sure the Arnolfini is able to grow, develop and flourish” said UWE Bristol’s head of the faculty of arts and creative industries, Professor Jane Roscoe. “Plus we’ve got a new type of conversation happening between two organisations.”

Part of her art and design department is now occupying two-thirds of Bush House, space previously leased to businesses. The Arnolfini has a new board of trustees, chaired by the Welsh National Trust’s Llosa Daly, which has two places for UWE Bristol representatives, and an interim director, Gary Topp. Key to the easing of pressure, he said, was the responsibility for the buildings upkeep shifting to the university, and it transpires that discussions with the UWE Bristol were already under way at the time of the 2017 funding announcement, with the university having bought the Grade II-listed Bush House in 2015.

“Cultural presentation is a constant” Topp said “but the real work has been in putting in place the reformed business model and partnerships which were required to give the Arnolfini a long-term sustainable future. Fundamental to that is the relationship with the university.”

The arts centre remains an independent charitable incorporated organisation but working closely “in a perfect symbiosis” with UWE Bristol. “You couldn’t have a better arrangement in my view” said Topp. “A central location on Bristol’s harbourside in a building that is from basement to fifth floor crammed with creativity”.

UWE Bristol is committed to investing in the Bush House building, including a refurbishment of its auditorium, but is also pursuing partnerships with other Bristol arts organisations, said Prof Roscoe. There is already a relationship with Spike Island, the contemporary art and design centre, the Watershed film centre and the Bottle Yard film and TV studios.

“Bristol is full of opportunity at the moment with Channel 4 coming and Netflix having an office here; we're joining up the dots and creating a cultural network, working with some of those agendas to bring forward the next generation of talent.”

The last Arnolfini exhibition was Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! in January 2018, and the show opening tomorrow and running until December 15 is Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance – Act 3, which explores the role women have played in the history of resistance movements, following previous iterations at Nottingham Contemporary and the De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill-on-Sea. The full 2020 programme, including exhibitions, is to be announced shortly.

Founded in Bristol in 1961, the Arnolfini has been a pioneer of interdisciplinary contemporary arts, with programmes of visual art, performance, dance, film and music. “We wanted Arnolfini to be a cultural pacemaker deeply linked to the heart of Bristol, with an eclectic programme to stimulate critical thinking” said its founder, Annabel Rees. “I’m so proud that Arnolfini is carrying on that tradition today.”

So far there is no financial support from Bristol Council, but the centre has its backing, according to the city’s deputy mayor Craig Cheney. “Arnolfini is vital in representing the city’s own unique artistic cultures, while also bringing the world’s best artists to work in the city and the council looks forward to working closely with Arnolfini in the future” he said.


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