Harry Meadley: But what if we tried? at Touchstones Rochdale is billed as an ‘impossible task’, and one of the first things I encountered upon entering the exhibition was a video of a member of staff cautiously saying, “It might be that we can’t have everything at once.” This admission refers to the challenge posed to the gallery by artist Harry Meadley: to display the entirety of its art collection, around 1,600 works, in one go. Rochdale’s arts and heritage services have faced a funding crisis over the past decade, as the local authority grapples with its own impossible task of balancing the budget in the face of severe cuts from central government. With a reduced and overstretched staff, why would Touchstones embark on such a resource-heavy mission?
What might sound like a frivolous idea is a response to frequent visitor queries about why the gallery doesn’t display more of its collection. Through the resulting exhibition it reveals the inner workings of a civic art gallery feeling the strain of austerity. Documentary videos recording various parts of the process of realising the exhibition punctuate the gallery spaces. The concept might come from an artist, but the gallery staff are the protagonists in these films, debating at length in front of Meadley who acts as curious observer. There is a canny resourcefulness about their decision-making that will be familiar to anyone who has worked in a cash-strapped arts organisation. Practicalities take precedent over artistic intentions, as they search for ways to add value to the project; emptying out the stores is a great opportunity for a deep clean.
The outcome of Meadley’s proposition spans three galleries. The first room illustrates extreme ends of the spectrum of an artwork’s fate. Selected stars of Rochdale’s collection are displayed packed in their travel frames; a Vanessa Bell, fresh home from a UK touring show, stacked in front of a Stanley Spencer, in demand from international art museums. The gallery walls, however, showcase a range of conservation nightmares. Many of these works are discoloured by layers of dirt, their colours and sharpness merging into a murky jaundice. An 18th-century portrait by John Collier Jnr bears a sizeable hole in its canvas – repairable, but low down on a long list of priorities. ‘Gulf I’ and ‘Gulf II’ (1991) by Susan Hiller are large, yellowed paintings on children’s wallpaper. Their surfaces are gradually flaking away, and the accompanying label describes the dilemma of how, and whether, to halt the deterioration of works that the artist intended to become progressively cracked. There was something affecting about seeing these works up close, their frailty bringing me closer to the sense that once someone sat down to create them, not knowing what their fate would be.
The second space is dominated by recent acquisitions, so new they’ve not yet been displayed by the gallery. Shown in various states of crating and wrapping, a secondary art of packing is revealed. Susan Collis’s gemstone screws and plugs looking, in this context, like the fixings for a work rather than the art itself, are meticulously laid out in tiny cellophane packets on a neatly-inked paper diagram to indicate how they should be displayed. The thin, white porcelain wafers of Rachel Kneebone’s sculpture are supported with precision by plywood and foam, demonstrating the rigour and care of the art handler whose work is usually unseen. The works on display here are all by women, a curatorial statement of intent by a gallery keen to show it is trying to improve on the 8% of its collection that is currently by female artists.
The concept behind the exhibition indicates an abandonment of curatorial control and value judgements by choosing to show everything rather than a selection. This is supposed to come to fruition in the final and largest gallery space. The text panel proclaims it is ‘Warts and all’, but it is, in its way, just as carefully curated as the other spaces. Just over 200 artworks are presented here – an impressive display if still only a fraction of the collection – hung salon-style across every inch of available wall. The works are ordered by the date that they were accessioned, which leads to some curious juxtapositions. Somewhere around the 1970s we leap from the clean lines of Keith Grant’s monumental polyptich ‘Snow Drift, Clear Sky’ (1974), to an intricate 16th-century Flemish religious painting, to a 19th-century watercolour of Rochdale Bridge. Because not everything could be displayed, curatorial decisions have been made – about what will physically fit, but also considering which works tell stories, or best represent their genre. The first work to be acquired by a woman artist (accession number 14: a landscape by Alice Mary Havers) was a significant marker to include given the gallery’s current collecting remit, and there would surely be an outcry if the sentimental public favourite, Charles Burton Barber’s ‘A Special Pleader’ (c.1893), was omitted.
So, what is the value of trying to undertake Meadley’s impossible task? Though an inherently contrary concept, it is compelling watching the staff try to negotiate it – attempting to waive curatorial control whilst still, ultimately, asking us to trust in their judgement. The challenge to display everything the gallery cares for physically, has been transformed along the way into uncovering narratives in the life of the gallery; from unpicking a sometimes-cryptic collecting history, to bringing the hidden work of art handlers and conservators out into public view. Importantly it also lays bare the frustrations of its current workers and asks us to consider what is at stake when investment in our cultural heritage is chipped away at.
Harry Meadley: But what if we tried? is at Touchstones Rochdale, 2 March – 1 June 2019