TAITMAIL Thinking into The Box
When The Box, Plymouth’s £46m museum/archive/art gallery, opened in 2020 it did so with a mission statement: “To redefine the collections-based institution for the 21st century, expanding its horizons from local to global, placing collections, artists and audiences at its core”.
Its CEO since a year ago, Victoria Pomery, has rewritten it: “Reimagining the future from the past, making a collections-based institution really relevant for an audience of the 21st century”.
All the “horizons”, “placing” and “global” tick words are implicit in her vision, but it has artists and audiences at its centre and is uncompromising against a backdrop of Westminster culture wars. “Contemporary artists can help us understand our collections with all sorts of big issues, like how we work around climate change, how we decolonise collections, how we talk in different ways, how we give different narratives and diverse stories” she says.
The Box is a resounding civic statement about the importance of culture to the community, and it owes its inspiration to the British Art Show, the five yearly exhibition of contemporary work that tours four cities (the others are Wolverhampton, Aberdeen and Manchester), and in 2011 it had 39 artists demonstrating how they use history to interpret the present. “That was the impetus” she says. “With it Plymouth went on a journey recognising the role contemporary British visual art can have in raising a city’s visibility. It had an agenda around place-making, and it was a game changer. It was a moment when the city really began thinking about grand transition and transformation”.
The Box – see the illustration above – is literally that. It replaces the old Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery which closed in 2016, and incorporates the Central Library with the nearby deconsecrated St Luke’s Church added, refurbished to turn it into a spacious art gallery; the Plymouth and West Devon Records Office; the South West Image Bank; and the South West Film and TV Archive. “We’re a bit British Museum, a bit British Library and a bit Tate” Pomery says.
There was a programme of sorts when she arrived, but it was “fluid” she says, she had to firm it up, generally knocking it into shape, tidying the Box. She presides over a kind of round table of experts. “It’s about how you get a plurality of voices, because ideas need to come from all sorts of places and sometimes institutions get stuck with ideas” she says. She spends a lot of time outside The Box talking to people, and making relationships including a friendship with James Mackenzie-Blackman, her opposite number at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. “I’m really ambitions for the organisation because it feels like Plymouth deserves this”.
Pomery (above) came with a reputation for achieving the impossible. She worked for ten years to get Turner Contemporary open in Margate against almost universal scepticism, another local authority dream, and succeeded beyond anyone’s imagining, going on to run it for ten more years. She opened it in 2011 hoping for 150,000 visitors a year and in 2019 welcomed over 400,000.
The biggest difference between the two projects is that at Margate she had no permanent collection; in Plymouth she has two million objects including Bronze Age artefacts, 13th century documents and art by Degas, Millais, Burne-Jones, Stanley Spencer and lots by Joshua Reynolds.
Yesterday she announced her first full programme which is, you have to say, breath-taking in its boldness, but also in public awareness.
It starts soberly enough on December 5 with Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart with The Box being one of the nine museums partnering with the National Gallery in a virtual exhibition in which pictures from the National are compared with those from the local collection.
But the season proper starts in the spring. Pomery believes that women have been unfairly, some would say stupidly, excluded from public art displays, and she starts with a focus on powerful women, starting with the anti-apartheid campaigner Sue Williamson who gets her first exhibition in a British institutional gallery, an overview of a 40-year career, plus a sculpture commission that reflects the South African experience against a memorial on Plymouth Ho to British casualties in the Boer War. There’ll be an exhibition by the LGBTQ+ activists Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings exploring how communities have been differently represented through history. Later there will be Rana Begum with an exhibition in St Luke’s about her explorations of light and colour, sculpture and architecture, design and painting. None of them have any previous connection with Plymouth.
And from Woburn Abbey she is borrowing the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, in legend commissioned by Plymothian Francis Drake whom she sent off to the new world from the harbour here. It was, she will show, the starting point for exploration for the likes of Drake and Hawkins, Cook and Darwin, as well as the colonisation of strategic parts of the world to the west of Plymouth Sound.
A film has been commissioned from John Akomfrah, whose past work has focussed on racial tensions in the UK, for showing a year from now which is expected to reflect on the diseases the pilgrims took to the New World with devastating consequences, and parallels with the coronavirus pandemic.
And in the summer there will be a major exhibition to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of a son of Plymouth who everyone seems to have forgotten came from here, Joshua Reynolds. The large holding of his early works will be complemented by loans from the likes of Tate, in the only (so far) tercentenary Reynolds show.
The archive adds a new dimension to the range of resources at her disposal. Plymouth has the sea on one side, Dartmoor on the other, and a history as both a major naval base and an industrial centre – textiles brands like Jaeger and Berketex had long-standing presences here. And it was a trading port.
She and her team are working on future programmes that will explore in depth issues around exclusion, diversity and representation in what is a small – 260,000 people – but increasingly diverse city. “We have to do it” she says gently. “It’s not to be shied away from”. She has all-party support from the city council (the chair of her board is the leader of the council, the vice-chair the leader of the opposition) from which she gets funding as well as being an Arts Council NPO.
Creating a vision is the easy part, realising it is hard, Pomery says. “In the current climate it’s very difficult to run cultural organisations, complex. It’s about setting out that vision and sticking to it. That’s what we see in place-making, you have to be really ambitious, and you have to be the best. These are tough times and with culture wars in background there’s a lot going on.
“It isn’t easy, but I think it’s how we use creativity as a sector, how we talk to our audiences, and it isn’t just a one-way thing. Culture is not only about artistic excellence, it’s about helping people to realise their own creativity. Our cultural institutions should be able to do that.”