This week, Historic England launches a new exhibition celebrating public art in post-war Britain. Among the displays are photographs, plans and catalogues documenting two exhibitions created by Arnolfini’s first Director, Jeremy Rees. Here's Bristol’s City Archivist Julian Warren on why they matter...
From 20 May to 29 June 1968, the exhibition New British Sculpture/Bristol temporarily sited twenty-five colourful and abstract artworks across the centre of Bristol. It was organised by Arnolfini under the auspices of founding Director Jeremy Rees, and featured sculptures made from welded metal and fibreglass, by artists working in the style then associated with St Martin’s College in London. Writing in the catalogue for the exhibition, art historian and Keeper of the Modern Collection at Tate Gallery Ronald Alley, noted that, ‘the fact that many of the pieces are displayed on public sites in the most prominent parts of Bristol makes it altogether exceptional. Instead of having to enter a gallery, people can see examples of this new art form in everyday public settings.’
No previous British exhibition had taken such a risk in siting contemporary sculpture quite so publicly outdoors.
In a series of Sculpture in the Open Air exhibitions, begun in London in 1948 and which continued until 1966, British modern sculpture, as epitomised by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, had begun to be shown outside of gallery spaces, but it was still confined to particular parks to which visitors were admitted. In contrast, the conspicuousness of the work in New British Sculpture/Bristol meant that anyone might happen upon it, day or night, and so exposed the work to new audiences who would not have otherwise encountered it. In this regard, New British Sculpture/Bristol followed the lead of the Sculpture in Environment project that had opened in New York the previous year, and which included Barnett Newman’s Broken Obelisk, sited in the Seagram Plaza. Other exhibitions, including the City of London Festival project Sculpture in the City, were to open later that year, but New British Sculpture/Bristol was the first in Britain to follow the American example.
In 1972, the Arts Council of Great Britain looked to Arnolfini’s pioneering example in developing a new project to produce exhibitions of sited sculpture in regional cities – City Sculpture. Rees was invited to work with the curator Anthony Stokes in collaboration with the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, to commission new public sculptures for specific sites in eight cities across England and Wales; Plymouth, Cardiff, Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Sheffield, Southampton. Their plan for City Sculpture was to create opportunities for ‘a number of sculptors to make works in relation to the sites on which they were to be shown’. As Rees explained, the ‘works will be sited for an initial period of six months, at the end of which the cities will have the opportunity to negotiate for their permanent retention.’
New British Sculpture/Bristol and the subsequent City Sculpture project both played highly significant early roles in expanding the possibilities for commissioning and engaging with public art. Rees continued his involvement with public art throughout his career, most notably through his work in establishing the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail in 1986, while Bristol continues to act as a focus for the development of public art practice in Britain through, for example, the implementation of its Public Art Strategy or the work of Situations, the commissioning and research agency for art in the public realm.
This article is an excerpt from an original piece commissioned by Art in the Public Realm Bristol (Bristol City Council) in 2011. The full article is available via their website, click here.
‘Out There – Our Post-War Public Art’ is showing at Somerset House from 3 February to 10 April 2016. Find out more.