A prize, an exhibition and an arts organisation increasingly focused on global issues and social change, Artes Mundi is based in Cardiff, Wales, but is international in scope and prestige. The £40,000 prize – the UK’s most substantial cash prize for contemporary art – is awarded every two years, with work by the full shortlist exhibited in a group show at National Museum Wales. Artes Mundi also administers the £30,000 Derek Williams Trust Purchase Prize, through which contemporary pieces from this exhibition can be purchased for the Museum’s permanent collection. Artes Mundi also co-commissions one additional project every year, usually by an alumnus or long-listed artist, building on some of the themes explored in the biennial.
Director Karen MacKinnon joined Artes Mundi in 2013 and leads a team of 4.5 FTE staff. (recently reduced from a staff of eight). The turnover across a two-year prize cycle is roughly £670,000, of which roughly £280,000 is received from Arts Council of Wales, another £80,000 from Cardiff City Council, and the rest raised through trusts, foundations and individual giving.
Mission: exhibiting some of the best international contemporary art while making art useful
The core purpose of Artes Mundi, says Karen MacKinnon, is to award, every two years, a no-strings cash prize to an artist whose work responds to the theme of “the human condition”. Over time this loose thematic has become more engaged with contemporary issues and work that comments on “what it means to live in the world now, from a social, economic and political point of view, and how art can engage with society in meaningful and useful ways”. This broader engagement with society has become increasingly important to the organisation in the wake of the EU referendum, with MacKinnon questioning “the usefulness and limitations of brilliant but hermetically sealed exhibitions in Brexit-facing Britain, where the rifts between our communities are very clear. Is contemporary art and its institutions part of the problem or the solution?”
While Artes Mundi will always play an important role in exhibiting some of the best contemporary artists in the world, MacKinnon’s preoccupation has been to bring “the themes, the provocation, the challenge, the dialogue and the passion” of the shortlisted artists outside the museum exhibition, to “people who are disengaged or alienated by the art system that we’ve created over the past few hundred years, which is basically built on bourgeois ideology about what art is”. An art prize might be “a capitalist model”, but MacKinnon argues that, since “nothing exists outside capitalism”, the point is to “use what you have in interesting and creative ways, to make a difference and, perhaps, affect social change.”
This happens through less visible projects, which express MacKinnon’s deep mission for Artes Mundi: “trying to build an ecosystem where we work in an equal way with communities and community leaders, to find out what’s most useful to people”. The ideas and preoccupations of each collection of shortlisted artists are the raw material for that dialogue: “We have artists telling stories about migration, centuries of racism, war, all of these political issues. And we have local communities who share those experiences – and yet they don’t come here. So we try to take the work to them, try to look at everything we do and think how we can make it more useful to this place and these people. If we focus on the themes and ideas, people forget that it’s contemporary art, and that it’s ‘alienating’, or that they ‘don’t get it’: people from all walks of life say, of course, it’s about my life.”
“We have artists telling stories about migration, centuries of racism, war, all of these political issues. And we have local communities who share those experiences – and yet they don’t come here. So we try to take the work to them, try to look at everything we do and think how we can make it more useful to this place and these people.”
Artists as catalysts for place-making
As well as the Biennial prize/exhibition, MacKinnon also co-commissions site-responsive and socially engaged projects that work to a longer time-scale. “It feels tokenistic to ask artists to work directly with communities in a short period. If we have a good rapport with an artist, we find something they’d like to work on, which is relevant locally, we raise money for it separately, and we invite them back.”
“It feels tokenistic to ask artists to work directly with communities in a short period. If we have a good rapport with an artist, we find something they’d like to work on, which is relevant locally, we raise money for it separately, and we invite them back.”
One example MacKinnon gives is the Ragnar Kjartansson work The Sky in a Room, funded by the Derek Williams Trust Purchase Prize. This durational work was created for the 18th-century chamber organ in National Museum Wales, to be performed by local musicians: as such, “it’s not just about the artwork, the final product, it’s also about giving people access to the process.”
That access begins with the right introduction. When artists meet local communities, “they go as visitors and friends: we have lunch with the community and just say, this is someone we work with. It’s about how you speak to people in the real world.” And when communities are brought to the exhibition, they are encouraged to follow their own interests, with longer-term projects built from there. For instance, a visit from Global Gardens, a Cardiff community allotment project, to Artes Mundi 7 (2016) resulted in a seed-sharing collaboration with the international collective FutureFarmers. What interests MacKinnon is “cyclical long-term engagement. It’s all about continuity, relationships and community.”
Agency and usership
Long-term engagement is the defining feature of the third, “social strand” of Artes Mundi’s work, focused on communities and individuals who don’t feel that art and its institutions are for them. For three years it has been producing It’s Art But It’s Not, one of seven regeneration projects within the Arts Council of Wales funding initiative, Ideas: People: Places, working with partners in the Rhondda Valleys, including Porth, Penycraig and more recently Trebanog – which is where MacKinnon feels the most meaningful work has taken place.
Trebanog is a small ex-mining community “let down by successive governments”, with high rates of unemployment, isolation, mental health issues and illiteracy. Artes Mundi began working here in February 2016, in partnership with community arts organisation Valleys Kids, and social housing organisation Trevallis. A number of artists have been brought to the community, including Nils Norman, Lucy and Jorge Orta, and Rabab Ghazoul, for projects and workshops designed to “inspire people to think about what they could do”. For instance, a set of brainstorming sessions focused on an area of land development led to community design ideas – including “amazing interactive pieces for the kids to play on” and “cloud sculptures, which are seats for people to view the landscape from” – being incorporated in what the housing association went on to construct.
Through its ongoing work with local artist Owen Griffiths, the community has also transformed a disused infants school first into a creative hub, and then a social enterprise. Titled Make One Keep One, it began with “making simple ceramic pieces for the centre – cups, plates – but they made one for the school and one for their house. And then we thought: we could sell them.” That now happens at fairs and festivals, and Artes Mundi has also curated a Make One Keep One selling exhibition of ceramics in Swansea. As MacKinnon says: “It’s about agency: not participation, but usership. Art is not a sticking plaster for cuts in social care: the more we work on this project, the more we realise we need the support of other organisations – working in mental health, and getting people back into employment. But the art world is part of the problem of maintaining the gulf between the rich and everyone else: it’s got to be part of the solution.”
“It’s about agency: not participation, but usership. Art is not a sticking plaster for cuts in social care: the more we work on this project, the more we realise we need the support of other organisations – working in mental health, and getting people back into employment. But the art world is part of the problem of maintaining the gulf between the rich and everyone else: it’s got to be part of the solution.”
While this strand involves working with new people in new ways, its ethos is shared throughout Artes Mundi’s work and how it considers its established audiences – “people who regularly visit art galleries”. The organisation is currently rethinking its “interpretation area” at the museum – what it is, who it is for, and “how can we make it a place not just for research and deeper understanding about the exhibiting arts but also for conversation, debate and contemplation”. MacKinnon also mentions Artes Mundi’s Live Guides: curators, artists, writers, art teachers, etc, who are employed to work during the four months of the biennial exhibition, leading special tours. “We encourage our Live Guides to rewrite the rules of engagement and come up with new ideas.”
Although MacKinnon can see advantages in being a small organisation – “we are constantly re-evaluating, constantly shifting and moving” – she is also noticing the limitations of not having a learning department, and the continuity of relationships enabled by dedicated members of staff. To achieve that, however, Artes Mundi needs “long-term funding, and to work with organisations and funders who understand the fluidity and transformation of a project like Trebanog – because it takes a long time to form relationships, and there’s no set-out end result”.
Another challenge lies in documentation and evaluation. MacKinnon believes in “evaluating everything so that we can share what it is that we’ve done”. Since most evaluation systems are still quantitative, she also questions how we tell the “diverse stories and experiences that arise from these long term, often very subtle relationships. This stuff is not about numbers: it’s about everyday lives, experiential testimonies, personal growth and social change.”
When thinking about how Artes Mundi might move forward with its three strands of work, MacKinnon calls on the image of the “rhizome: how one thing creates different threads that can pop up in different places – whether that’s a university or an ex-mining community”. She wants to create “clarity about these three sections of our programme, and an equality about the different things we do, so that’s it’s a flow between one thing and another”.
Alongside the biennial, Artes Mundi’s aim for the future is to work closely and long-term with three or four specific local communities. “We are continuing our relationship with the people of Trebanog, but we will also be working with BME communities and young women as well as many grassroots communities across Cardiff and beyond.” This includes working with local socially engaged artists, with alumni artists, and, on an organisational level, offering a wide range of work experience to local people.
All this work is underpinned by diverse partnerships within and outside the art world: “It broadens all of our ideas and brings together different ways of working – and if we all work together, we can radically rethink what art means and who has access to it.”
Rabab Ghazoul –It’s Art But It’s Not. Photographer: Michal Iwanowsk
A project led by Trevallis, Sparc and Artes Mundi, in and around Porth, Penygraig and Trebanog as part of Ideas: People: Places, an Arts Council of Wales funding initiative