The Art Schools of North West England/ Instituting Care/ Studio Me, Bluecoat, until 10th March 2019, free
The Bluecoat’s new season is three exhibitions which work together like parts of a jigsaw puzzle. In a jigsaw, you often get pieces like sky. Plain, not integral to the main picture, but without which the puzzle would be noticeably incomplete. These galleries are a bit like that: all important to the picture, but not necessarily in their own right.
The impetus of these exhibition seems to be to consider the nature of arts education – specifically, what we are losing with its disappearance. This is the main concern of The Art Schools of North West England, a documentary series of – well, what it says on the tin. How many could you could count now, across the North West? John Beck and Matthew Cornford have looked back in time and counted loads. They really have found a school in every town of any reasonable size, from Chester to Accrington. Except now, most of them aren’t art schools. Some of them aren’t even there – the photographs document new-build developments, or razed areas of ground.
I’m not entirely sure I’m convinced by this as an exhibit. It’s definitely spread too thinly, taking up three whole rooms when it could have made as strong a point about the scale of the loss by being piled into one. Also, I can’t say that I really enjoyed looking at it aesthetically – there’s only so many photos of Victorian municipal buildings I’m interested in.
But…there’s a point here. Yes, some of the departments these buildings housed have simply moved premises, but having seen first hand what’s happening to arts education at the present, I feel the shock of the ubiquity of these art schools in a way I shouldn’t really. Really by now weren’t we all meant to have access to opportunities to follow our talents and ambition? This series is proof of the regression of that idea, that many of these opportunities have been shut down. With the disappearance of the tangible reality comes hand-in-hand the disintegration of potential. These are things we need to be thinking about if we want to step in and reverse the decline in opportunity.
But then again…the potential of arts education has already been explored far more freely at the start of the galleries. Studio Me gives Gallery 1 over to Joshua Henderson and Veronica Watson, established members of the Blue Room inclusive arts programme. The space feels lively and and welcoming, a happy reflection on a Blue Room that gives a space to artists who may otherwise lack the structures and support to explore the full potential of their creativity.
And then there’s the space to feel the emotions for yourself. The biggest area is given to Jade Monserrat’s Instituting Care. You may be aware I’ve spent my fair share of time in Bluecoat’s galleries as a volunteer over the last couple of years, and I’d say I’ve never felt so comfortable in one of their spaces. From the quotations on the wall to the sheltered central space, it’s a space for taking time out to contemplate and think, maybe taking time out with one of the books. It’s a space for living what education should be – not just learning, but taking time to think about how it can be applied and interpreted. It’s this process, after all, that makes art possible.
So overall, and even with some thinking time, I’m afraid I’m still not sure what to conclude about this set of shows as a whole. From a start which feels very real and uplifting, in parts it feels like it’s trying too hard to be ‘worthy’. Whilst undoubtedly raising important issues, I’m not convinced the balance is always right between the talking points and the artistic appeal.