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Imagine New Rules: Rule No. 1

Read the full transcript from the first episode of our new Arnolfini Podcast series 'Imagine New Rules'. Here, Arnolfini director Claire Doherty reflected on the opportunity to reimagine arts organisations of the future as catalysts for the imagination and social change.

"Hello, I’m Claire Doherty, the director of Arnolfini in Bristol.

You are listening to the ‘Imagine New Rules’ podcast.

I’ve been Director of Arnolfini, Bristol’s Centre for Contemporary Arts, for just 50 days.

I first walked through the doors of Arnolfini some 30 years ago. Aged 17, I’d come from the other side of the country to look at how many paintings by women artists were on display at Bristol Museum as part of a school project. Or, at least that was the official line, as I seem to remember there was a boy involved – but that’s another story.

I remember standing at the top of the steep Park Street, seeing a sign to Arnolfini and being intrigued by its name. The dockside was rougher round the edges, no cafes or bars, no bridge across the harbour, just a few power boats. I don’t remember a great deal about that day except that I heard sculpture sing at Arnolfini.

It was weird; not like anything I’d ever seen before. I read the black-and-white leaflet from cover to cover on the train home. This wasn’t just a Bristol exhibition but part of something called TSWA-3D happening across the country, where art had been commissioned for different locations across Britain and Northern Ireland. I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I guess it was that chance encounter at Arnolfini that was the beginning of my curiosity for art in unexpected places and for rethinking what public art might be.


In my first 50 days, I’ve heard many stories – like my own – of the role Arnolfini has played in people’s lives. From painters and sculptors, dancers, musicians and film-makers who remember their first encounters with radical new ideas or breakthrough moments for their own work when still raw and untested; to those whose horizons were changed through an encounter with Arnolfini:

  • bearing witness to Alastair MacLennan’s 54-hour continuous performance in the galleries and across the city in ‘88;
  • discovering Bridget Riley’s mesmerising paintings in ’73;
  • watching Rosemary Butcher dancers being rowed across the harbour mid performance in 76’;
  • hearing Michael Nyman and Peter Greenaway battle it out in conversation in ’79;
  • Keith Khan’s extravaganza over at the Lloyds Amphitheatre in ’91;
  • the impact of Sunil Gupta’s Disrupted Borders for INIVA;
  • the first Inbetween Time Festival in 2001.


The stories are always about discovery, of a place in which the unexpected happened. Being a safe place for radical ideas has meant historically Arnolfini has been a place of gathering: for Bristol’s punks in the late 70s; for protestors against Clause 28 in ‘88.

But throughout my first 50 days, I’ve also been struck by how many of these stories are in the distant past. Like many cities across the UK, the harbourside is no longer that edgy dockside but instead the heart of a city at leisure. Back in 1987, when I took my first steps into Arnolfini, you had to locate a department store to buy a cup of coffee.


During my first week at Arnolfini, I sat on the dockside and watched as people moved around the harbourside. I watched as they checked their phones and took selfies by the Cabot statue and wandered into the galleries or bookshop and out again, or rushed past on the way to work or home to other parts of Bristol so different from this place – to Easton, or Stokes Croft, or Hengrove, or Bedminster.

And I wondered what the future could be for this 56-year-old Centre for Contemporary Arts. Gone are the punks, the protestors and the radicals hanging out in the bar. What would make Arnolfini feel like Bristol’s own now – how might it be more than an option in the menu of cultural distractions – rather a vital organ in the body of the city’s culture?


This year The Sunday Times named Bristol as the best place to live in the UK. Rough Guides recommend Bristol as one of the 10 world cities to visit in 2017. There is no doubt that this small city of independents is culturally rich, but Bristol is also a divided city where the lived culture of different parts of the city is not fully recognised or invested in; where opportunity is not equal; where audiences for, and participants in, culture remain largely distinct from one another; and where the diversity of stories being lived across the city risk being silenced in the rush to promote ‘lifestyle Bristol’.

So the old model of a city-centre arts organisation being engaged in ‘outreach’ seems ill-fitting - considering the question of where, how and by whom culture is produced is open to all.

Bristol is a city of originators and so it seems appropriate that we might ask: how might Bristol’s Centre for Contemporary Arts do things differently?

Across the UK, new models of arts organisation are emerging. They respond to the new ways in which art is being produced, shared and consumed and seek to address growing inequalities of opportunity and social isolation. The Gulbenkian Foundation recently released a report on the civic role of arts organisations – identifying a growing number of visionary cultural leaders who are placing social purpose at the heart of museums, galleries, theatres and performances spaces.

Alistair Hudson of Mima in Middlesbrough has suggested: a new form of ‘useful’ Museum doesn’t ask people to ‘join the art in the museum’, but asks the museum to ”join in with what’s happening in the world, demonstrating how art can contribute to resolving some of the social problems that we have”.

In this podcast series, we’ll hear from some of the visionary artists, directors and producers who are spearheading a new movement of arts organisations which are playing active civic roles in their home towns and cities. And, we’re starting a public conversation about what the new rules for a new kind of centre for contemporary arts might be.

So, in the spirit of inventing new rules, I set about thinking what our first new rule might be at Arnolfini.


I directed an organisation called Situations for fifteen years which had its roots in Bristol but grew arts projects in unexpected places across the UK and overseas.

A touchstone for me throughout those years was a quote by Brian Eno:

“Sometimes the strongest single importance of a work of art is the celebration of some kind of temporary community.”

At Situations, I saw the emergence of temporary communities around newly commissioned public projects which grew out of the spaces of everyday life. Our challenge at Situations was always to make those experiences count amidst the noise and distraction of the public realm, where an encounter with contemporary art might be last thing on your mind.

This experience of thinking about why and how art should matter in a culture of distractions is fundamental to thinking about a more relevant arts organisation for Bristol – that vital organ in the body of the city’s culture.

Two years ago I stood in the ruin of Temple Church off Victoria Street in Bristol and saw something unexpected come to life. It was the first time Situations had worked in Bristol for many years - the result of an invitation to the Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates to come to Bristol as part of the European Green Capital cultural programme.

This is an artist known for his remarkable transformation of the South Side of Chicago – a charismatic social activist heralded by the international art world. But Theaster was adamant that he wouldn’t simply transplant a work from his studio to Bristol or replicate his mode of working to revitalise a ‘beleaguered’ part of Bristol – parachuting in and out of the city.

Instead he asked me what was missing here and we talked about the disparate cultural enclaves that fuel its independence but also entrench a sense of a divided city; and we talked about Bristol’s past – what poet Miles Chambers has referred to as:

a place still haunted by the ancestral ghost that echoes the historical hangover that yet sobered us up to what time hasn’t changed.”

Theaster was drawn to the bombed out remains of Temple Church – a protected English Heritage site right in the centre of the city – and created there an inner sanctuary – Sanctum - using discarded and dormant materials from former places of labour and religious devotion across the city. Bristol’s histories collided in the materials of Sanctum:

  • roof joists from a sugar warehouse just a few feet from Arnolfini;
  • Bristol-made bricks from the Salvation Army’s citadel in St Pauls;
  • a gym floor from a school in Filton;
  • the doors from a chocolate factory.

But had Theaster just created an installation in the church, that might have been an interesting sculptural exercise, but he was as interested in the lived reality of Bristol as he was in its past. He was as Eno suggests intrigued to see what temporary community Sanctum might build.

From the moment Sanctum opened its doors a continuous programme of music and performance was sustained 24 hours a day for 24 days. Working with MAYK, one of the city’s most dynamic festival producers, we involved over 700 performers from across the city – some of who were resident, some were visiting during the 24 days of Sanctum’s life.

Sanctum was the sound of Bristol – from spoken word artists to musicians, bands, singer-songwriters, live artists, theatre and choirs. Capacity inside was limited to 50 people at a time, creating a real sense of intimacy, and the programme was kept secret in order that visitors never knew who they were going to hear. You could come any time of day or night.

For those 24 days a kind of secular congregation formed around Sanctum. You couldn’t select or book what you were going to see. There was no live stream so you had to come to Bristol to experience it. Storytelling became fundamental to the way in which you engaged or heard about Sanctum. But most importantly Sanctum was Bristol – in the colliding of histories in its fabric, in its spirit of mash-up and provisional nature, in its generosity and independence. It was catalysed by an international artist – but it couldn’t have occurred any where else.

Despite the differences between the variety of places in which Situations worked over the years across the world – one single principle of success emerged. That a connection and resonance with place in its complexities and complications must be at the heart of what you do.

So if we are to embark on imagining the new rules for a centre for contemporary arts that’s where I would start – with Place.

Rule No. 1

Begin with where you are. Ground everything you do in place and then grow the unexpected from there.


Thank you for listening to Imagine New Rules.

All the podcasts in this series are available for download at

Ensure you are notified of future episodes by following Arnolfini on Soundcloud.

The 'Imagine New Rules' podcast is recorded by Tom Mercer.

What would your #newrules be?

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Sunday 08 December 2019, 13:00 to 16:00


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