Kwong Lee, Castlefield Gallery

Claire Walker speaks to Kwong Lee about Castlefield Gallery’s impact on developing the contemporary visual arts in Manchester.

[CW] How do you see Castlefield Gallery’s role in relation to the visual arts in Manchester?

[KL] One of our overriding aims is to have good artists working and living in Greater Manchester who work nationally and internationally. As our role is a developmental organisation for artists, we create partnerships with other organisations in Manchester who support similar aims. Naturally we work with the artist led scene and focus on artist development, not only supporting contemporary visual artists’ practice but also working within the different markets for their work, as it’s very important in developing the visual arts in Manchester.

There are two strands to our artist development; one area is ‘Platforming’ in which we give a platform for contemporary artists and art both within the gallery and outside, sometimes as partnerships. The other is artist training which takes the form of; workshops, peer to peer critique, networking and brokership between established artists and emerging artists or curators. Partnership really works when we can broker between other organisations, curators and the artists we want to support.

[CW] How does this link with the development of the North West visual arts?

[KL] When we do partnership projects we work with a variety of North West organisations, from our recent partnership with the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal to organisations in Liverpool. We did a series of three events of artist development working with an artist led pop up space Model in Liverpool with the Royal Standard Group, and then we hosted one in Manchester at Federation House. When we do projects we try to create links with arts organisations and artist groups. Really it’s about the art ecosystem, we believe if Manchester is to continue developing artists to be high quality and prolific, we need to have pathways and a strong infrastructure here; from studios to project spaces for artists to test ambitious ways of working, so they are able to launch themselves on a national platform. We also have Contemporary Visual Arts Manchester which is a network of arts organisations and artists active in the arts scene. We work together with Merseyside Visual Arts in Liverpool and North by North in West Cumbria and Lancashire, we create projects between the groups which is an example of organisations working to drive networking that spans outside of Manchester.

[CW] Your main focus is to promote artists in key stages of their career, how important is this in developing not only the artist but the visual arts scene in Manchester?

[KL] When we discuss artists in key stages of the career it’s not just emerging artists but also later career artists who maybe want to develop a new approach; so we work with emerging artists right up to mid career artists, and therefore we support artists over a number of years as they develop. A good example of this is one of our artists Hilary Jack who we have worked with for fifteen years, and as well as exhibiting her we also brokered her relationship with the Tatton Park Biennial. By training artists and seeing artists’ studios we look at the best timing to intercept an artist’s career. What we are trying to do is distinguish ourselves from others that work with a smaller group of artists and bigger institutions that don’t often support emerging artists. Our Head to Head exhibitions demonstrate this as we  put together an emerging artist with an established artist in the same show, such as our exhibition Head to Head- Hayley Newman and Emily Speed (1 March -7 April 2013). This created a long lasting relationship between the artists that unlike the exhibition which is time limited is long lasting and both artists gain from exhibiting together. It also creates credibility, relationships and press coverage which is increasingly important for artists.

[CW] You have created a CG Associates scheme which supports artist development, how did this come in to fruition and in what way does it develop artists?

[KL] CG Associates developed over two years ago, we previously gave advice to artists informally and had one off events that dealt with different aspects of artist development such as; fundraising, self promotion and self publishing. These were stand alone events so we put these artist development activities together under one umbrella and called it CG Associates. This is an annual membership scheme which we want contemporary artists to join, in addition to independent writers and curators as we wanted to look at the art scene holistically. We have 160 members who have mentor sessions and set access to monthly events which could be peer to peer critique, experts coming to discuss relevant subjects or practice. There are two big areas that need addressing in artist development; the what and the how and the why which is the more critically engaged area such as theory, contemporary dialogue and social engaged issues. CG Associates can also apply for Launch Pads which is a platform opportunity that are 2-3 times a year where CG associates can submit a proposal for a show. They are short so they can also be an event or publication and are quite responsive and the associates so far have responded by proposing solo and group shows. The proposer has to be a CG Associate but others involved don’t have to be; this is good as it’s not a closed group as it can expand away from the contained network of associates to their peers involving a wider variety of artists. Members also have a wide geological range that extends further than Manchester itself with artists coming from Merseyside, Cheshire, West Yorkshire and Blackpool.

[CW] Why do you think CG Associates has attracted such a broad geographical range of people?

[KL] We were actually surprised who joined and who didn’t as we expected more emerging artists, but there actually is a wider range of different career stages who wanted to join a network of artists. We also addressed with CG Associates what didn’t work well in other areas, for example CG Associates attracted artists who didn’t feel part of an artist network within their own area, as they didn’t have that peer group and wanted to reconnect with the art world.

[CW] Outside of CG Associates what do you do in terms of developing artists’ practice and the visual arts within Greater Manchester?

[KL] We still do other things for artist development outside CG Associates such as portfolio sessions. We work with other directors and curators to deliver these four times a year and work in partnership with Creative Industries Trafford and Brewery Art Centre in which events are open to everyone.

We also have the New Art Spaces in which we are working with landlords to use shops and office facilities as project spaces; by that we mean they are time limited production and presentation spaces. So artists can use them for studio spaces but also for certain purposes as we’re not trying to create studios as there already are studios in Manchester, and we wanted to look at the gap in Manchester for more ambitious work. Artists therefore don’t have to open the space to the public, they can use them to experiment or test an idea and document it, as it’s about developing things they couldn’t currently do. There has also been critical dialogue in the New Art Spaces not just artist production, again we are trying to see it holistically so there has been seminars and talks to engage the university sector and curators. In our ambition were are trying to build exchanges within our next space so we can import and export artists not just nationally but ultimately internationally. It would be great if we could send Greater Manchester artists out to other places and also host artists from elsewhere; to create this exchange hub where there are more residencies rather than exhibitions, so hopefully the space will have more of an impact to artists who are based here.

Claire Walker is a writer based in Wigan.

The latest Launch Pad at Castlefield Gallery was ‘It Was a Dark and Stormy Night’ 28 August – 6 September 2015. The next exhibition at Castlefield Gallery will be ‘Melanie Manchot: TWELVE’ 18 September – 21 November 2015.