Arnolfini CEO Kate Brindley reflects on what Vertigo Sea has brought to Bristol - and what it may entail for other parts of the UK...
As we enter our final week at Arnolfini of the highly acclaimed showing of John Akomfrah's Vertigo Sea and Tropikos, it is a good time to take stock and reflect on what the exhibition has brought to Bristol - and what it may entail for other parts of the UK as we prepare to embark on an extended nationwide touring show as part of the Art Council England's Strategic Touring Programme.
It has been an honour for Arnolfini to bring the premier of this work to Bristol. It was particularly heartening that John himself was determined that Bristol and Arnolfini was the only place in the UK which could truly provide the right platform to do justice to his meditations on archive, the seas, global trade, migration, slavery, population & cultural displacement, identity and the pressure on the planet through extractive economics.
37,000 visitors have spent time with these incredible films over the last 11 weeks. It has been inspiring to review the direct feedback and comments on social media from many of our audiences from throughout the city and further afield. People have been genuinely moved and in awe at the scale and impact of John's work, confirming afresh the power of great art can have on people’s lives.
It has also a good time to reflect on the past 18 months since I took up the challenge of leading Arnolfini as CEO through an unquestionably difficult and challenging period for the Arts sector in the UK. Increasingly Arts is having to justify itself and continually make the case for culture as more than an entertainment luxury for the few. Whilst few people disagree that arts and culture are vital parts of our national identity and economic offering, there is little agreement about how it will be funded and supported in the future.
"Arts do not have the automatic right to exist, but I believe they have a critical role in helping define and articulate what it means to be part of a cohesive society and a healthy culture in our increasingly volatile, complex and unpredictable world."
This means searching for new funding models which can create a sustainable, independently-minded and fully inclusive arts and culture sector that can flourish.
I have also just recently returned from a research trip to Beijing in China where the Chinese authorities invited art institutions and collections from the West (and the UK in particular) to explore opportunities to bring arts & cultural experiences into China and to find platforms to bring Chinese artists to the UK. As China comes to terms with economic expansion and pressure on social change and resources, it recognises that Art and Culture forms an important part of the modern citizen experience.
"Artists have always challenged norms, with art being a vehicle to represent diverse thinking, address inequalities and encourage freedom of expression."
It was an apposite moment to re-engage with some of the themes that are so central to John Akomfrah's work currently showing here at Arnolfini, namely: globalisation, trade, migration, history, population and the environment. Also, a timely reminder that, despite our own challenges in the UK, we live in a culture where it is accepted that art and culture is a fundamental gift of humankind that should be free and open to all. It will be interesting to see how China navigates these challenges in the future.
I would urge all of you who have not yet seen John Akomfrah’s significant work to come to Arnolfini before the 10 April to immerse yourself in the craft and sheer weight of emotion of Vertigo Sea. And if you have seen it already - do return one more time to reflect upon what we all could do to ensure that everyone in the future can continue to express their voice about being a part of our culture. What price can we put on that? And meanwhile I can't help thinking to myself: what would the citizens of Beijing think about Vertigo Sea? Who knows - but we might yet get a chance to find out.
I look forward to hopefully seeing many of you here in the final few days or even welcoming you to Art from Elsewhere - our next show opening on 21 April.
Art from Elsewhere sees Arnolfini and Bristol Museum & Art Gallery working in partnership to present a compelling exhibition of international art across two venues in central Bristol. The exhibition features 38 significant contemporary artists from 22 countries, whose socially-engaged work addresses life, politics and identity in a globalised society. It’s a very exciting collection, showcasing ground-breaking works recently acquired for the city and the people of Bristol.
I look forward to seeing you at Arnolfini very soon.