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  • Writer's pictureVincent Jordan

Our Place: In Conversation with Julie Brown at The New Art Gallery Walsall

Walsall is an industrial town of the Black Country in the West Midlands, at the geographical heart of England. Though shaped by the prolific industries of the wider region such as coal mining, metalworking, and coking, it is perhaps best known for its leather industry (not least the Queen’s handbags were made there). It also happens to be the place where I was born. The New Art Gallery Walsall is one of the town’s most prominent landmarks. Situated on the waterfront, next to the canal, it is unmissable. Most days after school, I would stroll around its galleries, or sit in its coffee shop waiting for the train home. Many people use it this way—the ground level is intentionally designed to be open, spacious, and accessible. The gallery is, in a sense, an extension of public space.

The building was designed by the architectural firm Caruso St John to house the Garman Ryan collection (the GR), an internationally significant group of works amassed by Kathleen Garman (collector, and bohemian socialite), Sally Ryan (sculptor), and Jacob Epstein (sculptor). ‘Artists love it’, writes former director Peter Jenkinson, ‘because of what it tells them about the way that other artists think; children respond immediately to the rich array of animal subjects, landscapes and portraits; all who get to know the collection are enthralled by the story of Kathleen Garman, Jacob Epstein, and Sally Ryan.’ Garman, who grew up in the area, bequeathed the collection in the early 1970s, hoping ‘to improve in some way the cultural life of her native Black Country’. The gallery is noted for a strong commitment to its local community, but also housing a collection with international reach. ‘I feel we are dealing with dreams’, she wrote in 1973, ‘and are about to house them in a solid Midlands setting for posterity. How delightful.’


Above, left to right: The New Art Gallery Walsall, façade; Foyer on the ground floor (street level); Gallery as seen from the waterfront. (Photos: Vincent Jordan)


The Garman Ryan collection is captivating for several reasons. As Jenkinson put it, many are enthralled by its history, which has links to the Bloomsbury Group, the Freud family, and the broader bohemia of mid-20th century London, but it is also a collection of significant diversity, and one with overlooked stories of its own. Its relationship with the gallery building is now seemingly inseparable; the interior design of the GR galleries deliberately resembling the domestic scale of the London home in which it was formed. It is also a time of reinterpretation for the collection, with the current curation team working to draw attention to its hidden histories—their intention, encapsulated by the phrase ‘embedding diversity’, is to ensure the collections are reflective of the place in which they have their home.


I sat down for a chat with the current Collections Curator at Walsall, Julie Brown.


 

What do you do?


I’m the Collections Curator at The New Art Gallery Walsall, which is a local authority run gallery in the heart of Walsall. I’m responsible for the management and interpretation of the collection as well as promoting access to it. The word curator comes from the Latin curare which means ‘to care’, so first and foremost I care for the collections. I’m also interested in connecting people with the works, because it’s a publicly owned collection, owned by and for the people of Walsall.


Before we explore the locality and town, here’s a personal one: Which piece in the collection is most meaningful to you?


These are tricky questions [chuckles], I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that before. The work that comes to mind is Small girl reading book by Bernard Buffet. It’s a small painting, which could easily be overlooked; it’s also quite abstract. I think from the very first time I saw it I really liked it, because I like colour, I like abstraction, I like reading. This little girl reading a book is quite simple, very domestic in scale, like the majority of the collection. It just really spoke to me.


So you had an affinity with the subject would you say?


Yes, I guess you could say that. If I could sneak that back home in my bag and have it on my wall…


One of the things that’s always struck me about the gallery is the presence of windows. How do you think the natural light affects the collection?


Aside from the collections being environmentally controlled, light ties in with the inception of the building and GR. The GR was a personal collection, and many of the works were exhibited in the Epstein-Garman family home; this is represented in the gallery space. It’s like a home. It’s got an internal staircase and resembles a house in the middle of the building. The rooms, the ceiling heights…everything is on an intimate domestic scale and displays the ten themes that Kathleen Garman gave to this collection, which are broadly based on the themes of Epstein’s career. It’s like going into someone’s home, with the windows connecting you to the outside world.



Above: The staircase in the Garman Ryan galleries; the domestic proportions are continued by the main staircase beyond the GR collection (right). (Photos: Vincent Jordan)

 

[Part of what makes the GR fascinating is that it’s a collection formed by artists. Its genesis took place in Garman’s home in Chelsea, before she moved to Hyde Park Gate and became Lady Epstein. Of the Chelsea house, their daughter Kitty writes, ‘the whole atmosphere was one of high bohemia. There was only one key to the house on a perilous string which hung inside the letterbox. Student friends, old musicians, and young artists from the nearby studio would simply fish for the key and walk in.’ ]

 

Julie continues: What was really important for them was that visitors can look outside and take in that natural light, which is quite different to a lot of galleries. Even Floors 3 and 4, where we are at the moment, have spaces which are often blacked out for exhibitions or have lower lighting or spotlights. The GR collection spaces feel more natural, with wooden floors. You go in and, of course, there’s a grand entrance with a double height ceiling and a balcony, but you do feel like you’re going into a house. I think there’s always been the idea of connecting with Walsall through the windows. It’s integral to the display.


Exactly. I think having the visual connection with Walsall is such a big part of it. That connection means, in a sense, that it can’t be anywhere else.


In the landscape and townscape room there used to be a work by the window which depicts a canal, and you can see Walsall canal directly outside of the window; I really like that. In fact, the meeting that I had earlier today was about a new project called ‘A Sense of Place’. That is about bringing local people into the gallery and rebuilding our relationship with town and place and nature, which changed during the pandemic, and this project is to encourage people to notice things on their doorstep. It’s different for you, because you’ve really grown up with this collection, but a lot of people maybe wouldn’t consider coming here, but they might, say, go to London or something. It’s all about looking at the buildings and places and collections that you own and coming here and exploring that. We’re trying to make links with real life for wellbeing and creativity, and I hope Kathleen Garman would have been pleased!


Above: Rooms and windows of the Garman Ryan Collection (Photos: Vincent Jordan)


You just used an expression, ‘that you own’, and I feel like there’s a lot in that…


These are publicly owned collections, so there’s a big responsibility in managing them. They’re for everyone and they’re owned by everyone. A few years ago it was the 125th anniversary of Walsall collecting, that is, having a collection, and what is interesting for me as Collections Curator is looking at how the collections are displayed. We talked about the GR which people associate with us and was donated in the 1970s. But we’ve been collecting since 1892, and we have about 3500 works in our permanent collection, so yes the emphasis is on the GR, but we have so many more works in storage. I’m always keen to find ways to display those. The building came to be because of the GR. We also have a commitment to contemporary and local collecting, and there’s an aim of showing Walsall through the decades.


A bit like a time capsule, then? Or a visual history?


Yeah, in a way.


I’ve got a few questions off the back of that. I suppose the main one is, who decides what stays in storage and what goes on display?


That’s a good question. For the anniversary of the permanent collection we did a people’s choice exhibition, and through the online collections portal, as well as voting cards in the gallery, people could vote for their favourite artworks. I got loads of stuff out of storage that had never been seen in this building before; we had a big Victorian hang on the main wall, we had a temporary exhibition on Floor 2, works integrated into the GR, and we showed so much of the collection. That was democratic, and it was showcasing that there’s more here than just the GR.


My favourite method of working is in co-production. As it’s owned by the people of Walsall, I have this responsibility (I’m like the custodian), so with great power comes great responsibility [chuckles]. I want to use it as an advocacy tool, or, rather, think about how I can make this relevant. I’m very values driven and values lead. For example, we did a ‘Scenes of Walsall’ exhibition in partnership with dementia specialists, dementia cafes and care homes, and works were chosen to promote reminiscence for those living with dementia. But also to promote intergenerational activity. We borrowed objects that related to the pieces, so it was a very interactive space. I want to democratise who decides, who chooses; it can’t just be my taste, or my decisions.


I’ve made a commitment that I want to embed permanent visible diversity in our collection displays. Historically collections have been dominated by a middle-class, straight, male, ableist gaze. So many collections are the product of this, on a director and curatorial level as well. We have these historic collections, but really there is diversity inherent in them, but the stories have been hidden over time, and it’s about representing those stories. I just really feel like I want people to belong and feel a sense of ownership, community, and belonging (which is particularly important in Walsall) so just looking at works from different perspectives.


Above: Part of the temporary exhibition space, shown here exhibiting 'Breaking the Mould: Sculpture by Women since 1945' (on 21st October 2022 - 16th April 2023). Note one of Walsall's most prominent landmarks, the Town Hall, visible through the gallery window. (Photo: Vincent Jordan)


Could you tell us a bit about how you’ve started doing that?


You’ve probably seen, we started off with an LGBTQ+ theme, with the ‘Here and Queer’ exhibition. The reason why I started here was because the GR was co-founded by Sally Ryan, who was a very wealthy and well-travelled sculptor, but she was also an openly gay woman at a time when the working-class public couldn’t be; she dressed in a masculine way and was markedly different. You have an overlooked queer person at the heart of the Garman Ryan and I wanted to put her at the start and heart of the exploration. We lacked lived experience within our internal team here, so I felt it was important, not for me to speak to that community and tell them ‘this is how you’re represented’, so I got together with Jon Sleigh, who’s a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and Jon helped me reach out and we developed a community panel. They’ve created this project, ‘Here and Queer’, with their reflections on the collection, so it’s all about relating to artworks in a very personal way.


I think this encourages everyone to do the same, no matter what their background or lived experience is. You don’t have to have an Art History degree to relate to an artwork. I’ve learned so much through it and I’m continuing to promote the community panel, so if there’s anyone in the West Midlands interested to join the panel get in touch! It’s definitely growing in an intersectional way.


I was going to ask about that!

 

[‘Here and Queer’ is strictly a project, not an exhibition, though there is a temporary exhibition connected to it. This means that its interpretations are integrated into the GR collection, where they are marked by stickers on the ground and small labels next to the artworks. The visitor is able to follow the trail booklet around the permanent collections.]

 

This is more of a statement than a question, but relates to what you said earlier about your passion for democratising. Take the ‘Here and Queer’ exhibition, the democratic element is clear from the start of the exhibition as you are greeted, before you ascend the stairs to the gallery spaces, by a TV featuring those voices. The visibility is immediate.


The thing I’m clear about is that this is not a tokenistic, one-off project. It’s about making these things permanent. We have produced a trail guide that goes through the GR and will always be available. (There is also a temporary exhibition.) These guides will make a series, for instance there’ll be one on class, and disability, so these things will always be there. And the fact that they highlight personal connections is itself a document in line with the collection’s ethos.


In addition to these aspects of display and presentation, I think there’s a diversity intrinsic to the GR, in part due to the way in which it was amassed as a personal collection.


Yes, it is diverse and eclectic; but at the same time you have all these ‘unnamed craftspeople’ or artisans who aren’t named.


But do you think that they could have been named? That that could have been found out when the collection was amassed?


A lot of the works are centuries old, but I think yes, that was the way wasn’t it. These traditional craftspeople and sculptors weren’t considered artists or recognised so in terms of us now, it’s not possible. But obviously that wouldn’t happen today, so it is interesting reflecting back as you’ve done. An intriguing part of the GR is that there are only about two minor works by women, especially considering it’s a personal collection that was amassed by two women. Also in terms of people of colour, certainly Epstein’s models are very diverse, so there’s visible representation there, but as you say with the world objects there’s not much recognition there.


As in, named capital A Artists?


Yeah.


I’ll ask you a final question because we’re almost up on time. This is a tricky one…


Well, I got asked the other day ‘if you were a biscuit what would you be’ so try me.


If you could only give one reason for somebody to visit the New Art Gallery Walsall what would it be?


For me, I remember feeling that coming into a gallery was a bit of a sanctuary, a quiet space away from the busy world where you can escape from the day to day. So, I’d encourage people who don’t think an art gallery is for them to come, pause and reflect, even just to look at one thing and find an affinity or see something in it. So come to the gallery here in Walsall because it might be a bit of a refuge from the outside world.


 

Julie will be giving a public tour of the galleries as part of the Here&Queer project on Saturday 26th November 2022 at 2pm. Tickets are bookable here.


The Community Panel mentioned above is also expanding, with an emphasis on intersectionality, and enquiries are welcome from a wide range of communities. Anyone interested and based in the West Midlands can contact Julie via email here under ‘Collections, Archives and Art Library’.

 

Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space


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Further Reading:



All above quotes are included in this 1999 volume, which also provides an overview of the collection and the story of its development — Honer, J. (ed.) 1999. A Shared Vision: The Garman Ryan Collection at The New Art Gallery Walsall. Merrell Holberton


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