Touchstones Rochdale is attempting to display all of the 1600 artworks of a collection amassed over two centuries for an exhibition masterminded by artist Harry Meadley
Brilliant paintings, crap paintings, boring paintings, fascinating paintings – it’s all subjective; but they all reside in the vast network of local and municipal museum collections right across the UK.
But what we see displayed in our local gallery merely scratches the surface of these vast and varied collections, many of which have been assembled and stored over a couple of centuries.
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At Touchstones Rochdale, where the art collection numbers over 1,600 objects, they have embarked on an ambitious project that is sending them deep into the storerooms to sift through the entire holding – from forgotten portraits of distant aldermen to contemporary commissions – and display as much of it to the public as possible.
But What if We Tried? opens at the gallery on March 2 and is the brainchild of artist Harry Meadley, whose socially engaged work ranges from the episodic video work ‘On the Bench‘, which toured the waterways of South and East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire to his regular artist/ creatives interview podcast, ‘Ey Up’.
He says this latest project arose from a conversation about the collection, which asked the very question that gives the exhibition its name.
“One thing I’ve experienced when visiting local galleries is this recurring complaint or question from the public about why more of the collection isn’t on show?” says Meadley. “When I was talking with Mark [Doyle, Touchstones’ Head of Exhibitions] it came up as one of the issues that they face, both from requests in the council and from people that visit the gallery. I think these are quite universal attitudes.
“And then at that moment I asked, “Well, but what if we tried?” which became the title of the show! It was that simple,” although Meadley admits he is asking the question “from a completely naïve artist’s perspective”.
“Someone who ultimately can’t really do much of the work,” he adds, “but as soon as that question was asked, we just thought that’s it, why don’t we try?”
It was Mark Doyle and a team of two who were left with the daunting task. “The more we thought about it, I realised that there was very little I could do,” admits Meadley, “in fact it is important that the team in the gallery deal with it, because they’re far more experienced and qualified to do so.”
Meadley is however an adept storyteller whose varied practice encompasses not only filmmaking and podcasting, but also forays into stand-up and an art version of the talk show, and he has been filming the whole process at Touchstones – recording everything from council and stakeholder meetings to the discoveries in the store room – as the local authority gallery grapples with the realities of two centuries of collecting and acquisitions.
The filmed record will exist alongside and within the final collection display, which will fill the galleries with hundreds of artworks, collection store display racking and even members of staff who will somehow be squeezing their working office space into the packed gallery.
“There’s always an element of the unknown,” says Touchstones’ Mark Doyle of the ongoing process, admitting the project has already caused him and his colleagues “quite a few sleepless nights”.
“By time of opening on March 2nd the exhibition will be whatever we’ve managed by that point,” he says, “because the point of it really is to illustrate the complexity and the challenges and the issues involved in managing and dealing with a collection of 1,600 works, and then moving it and displaying it. So it’s good, but it’s stressful.”
Whatever artworks do make it into the gallery, they will not be curated or displayed by subject, theme or artist. The main gallery will boast a hectic, salon-style hang while Gallery 4 will see works arranged by accession number, reflecting when they entered the collection.
“We’ve gone from Accession number 1 to 50,” says Doyle, “the guys I work with broke it down to batches of 50 and then moved on to 50 – 100, and kept going that way. So it will give us and visitors, a sense of how the collection has evolved – the ebbs and flows, the different strategies or interests of the various curators, myself included, because it will finish with the pieces that I’ve acquired over the last three years for the collection.”
Laid bare will be the acquisitions of curators across the decades who in the 70s and 80s made a specific decision to collect more female artists, people of colour and politically active work to accompany the typically Victorian and early twentieth century bequests of benefactors, philanthropists and the patrons.
“We’ve had to stop at every point along the way,” adds Mark, “stop ourselves doing what we would ordinarily do which is try to categorise and make sense of a very diverse and eclectic range of work because that’s not the point, it’s not a conventional curated show.”
You can get a flavour of the Rochdale collection on Art UK, which catalogues and shares publicly held artworks, including nearly 600 works from Touchstones, among them paintings by Lucien Freud, Stanley Spencer and, inevitably, LS Lowry – as well as the gallery’s own forgotten Georgian, outsider artist, John Collier, who went by the name Tim Bobbin.
A Lancashire dialect poet and school teacher Bobbin was a painter, raconteur, and by all accounts, a big drinker who painted people of all classes – not to mention pub signs. “He’s quite a legend within Rochdale and I guess Lancashire folklore, he called himself the Hogarth of the North,” says Doyle.
The process has also uncovered a few things they weren’t aware of, including some works that are badly deteriorated and others that went out on loan to other collections a long time ago, never to return.
There’s a record of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell, destroyed by the order of the gallery committee in January 1934, with the artist remaining unknown and several paintings given by mystery donors, including an uncredited batch of five works given in 1911. At least three of the pieces on ‘permanent’ loan to another institution have been gone since June 1959 and works by contemporary artist Veronica Ryan and Tim Bobbin are among those in need of conservation.
“That’s the other thing to say about regional collections,” says Doyle, “the kind of serious challenges that we face in conserving and looking after work that in the past perhaps wasn’t cared for to the standards that are expected today.”
For Meadley, who kick started this voyage of discovery, it’s these challenges and the role of the custodians of the collection that are as important as the objects themselves.
“For me it could be any of the different municipal collections in the country,” he says. “The Touchstones or Rochdale collection has particular things about it that are really fascinating – and that’s part of it, but I think they are representative of similar collections and galleries all over the place.”
Meadley’s own experience of local museum collections as he grew up in Yorkshire is also something that informs this project.
“I’ve always had a slight awkwardness with being an artist,” he admits. “Coming from a certain background or part of the culture, I was very fortunate that my parents brought me to galleries but it was only ever city collections and Victorian painting and stuff.
“There are these misperceptions around art and art galleries and how that relates to class and I think there’s an under-representation of a lot of people in being exposed to a lot of this stuff. It isn’t swanky dinner parties and whatever, usually it’s bunches of people or small teams of people working really hard to keep these things cared for and shown and celebrated as best they can
“In this sense I’ve been lucky that everyone at Touchstones has been on board with the project – and for being filmed. I’m very conscious that it’s a big demand that I’ve put on them, and it’s really reassuring that they can – I hope – see the value in trying to do this and in making some of these points.”
It remains to be seen what the public will make of this noble but problematic venture, which, even though the lost Cromwell portrait won’t be going on show, promises to be a ‘warts and all’ approach to displaying a local collection – and its complicated history.
Harry Meadley: But what if we tried? runs from Saturday March 2 until Saturday June 1 2019.
The exhibition is part of Touchstone Rochdale’s Contemporary Forward programme, supported with funding from Arts Council England, The Foyle Foundation and the Friends of Rochdale Art Gallery.
The borough's award winning Arts & Heritage Centre offers a museum, four art galleries, heritage gallery, tourist information centre, café and shop with regular events and workshops.