To aim to ‘reflect the current arts scene’ of a region through a single annual exhibition may sound like quite a responsibility, but it’s one taken on by galleries across the country in the form of open submission exhibitions. To create space for local creativity, to offer equal opportunity to artists at varying career stages and different practices, is an important way in which regional galleries can validate themselves as meaningful centres of creative community.
It’s a responsibility that Birkenhead’s Williamson Art Gallery & Museum has been taking on since 1962, with The Williamson Open 2023 being just the latest instalment in a now-cherished lineage. Having worked with the gallery in various ways for five years I’ve had the chance to become familiar with the characteristics of The Williamson Open, and the 2023 edition is typical of what makes it such a highlight of the calendar every year.
The Williamson has long been a focal point for many Wirral creatives, with the Open consistently being a highlight of the annual exhibition calendar. This year’s call for entries attracted over 550 submissions, one of the highest totals in recent years. To curate this into an exhibition requires some difficult choices and heated debate. Curator Niall Hodson explains the process: ‘We just tried to make an exhibition that fits together, that has a vibrancy. Something that feels interesting to walk around. So it’s not solely on quality – it’s that the works have all got to gel together in these two rooms.’
Exhibitions Officer Kirsty Hill has gathered the works into small ‘mini-exhibitions’, sets of five to six works: portraits, sea views, sculptural objects and townscapes are grouped together to complement each other thematically. Rather than drawing away from the distinct qualities of each work, this format makes it possible to enjoy the exhibition more fully. Divided into small moments, the viewing experience is a leisurely one, which mutes the overwhelm which large and eclectic exhibitions such as this can otherwise foster. Viewing the paintings in these small groups creates more space to enjoy each work on its merits within a defined context.
Each year the winning artwork is purchased for the Williamson’s collection – a detail which means that alongside this year’s show, the gallery is also running a retrospective of winners from across the last sixty years. Open submission exhibitions will always require a balance between reflecting a true picture of the current regional arts scene, the preferences of the artists who submit, and the tastes of the selectors. Out of this mix emerge a few overarching trends, creating threads through the decades – a tendency towards representation, particularly landscape, is one that can be felt. But it is also noticeable how timeless the works are – in very few cases can an attribution be made to a specific date on first glance. Seeing works from across the decades brought together for this retrospective just emphasise that it’s quality, rather than style, trend or subject, which unites these winners.
Maintaining this reputation for quality was therefore important not just for the overall curation, but also for the specific selection of an overall winner for 2023. Between Hodson, Hill and external judges Jacob Gourley (2020 prize-winner) and Jazmine Linklater (Corridor8 editor), there was a great deal of passionate discussion in the process of selecting Lucy Elizabeth Jones’ painting ‘Marginal Shift’ (2023). A richly accomplished abstract, Jones has taken inspiration from ‘the interplay between control and unpredictability… a place that inhabits a moment of transition from one state to another’. It places us on a tantalising precipice between the now and unknown, and there’s something distinctly relatable in this. Jones’ comments about her success encapsulate why the opportunities for recognition inherent within open submission exhibitions are important: ‘It’s hard to put into a few words how this made me feel. We don’t make art to seek validation, but to think that my work caught the eyes of the judges is immensely heartening, and indeed confidence building. The thought that my work is now part of the collection alongside the calibre of artists it already has is just astounding.’
There’s also a prize for photography, which this year was awarded to Les Weston. ‘Mermaids Purses – Back to Source 1′ (2023) looks down a tunnel which leads out onto Wirral’s coastline. The shores which surround three sides of this peninsula have always been a source of inspiration to artists, and this piece shows that there will always be new perspectives and innovations to be taken from it. And as artists who live between these shores continue to express themselves, the Williamson Open will continue to celebrate and showcase local talent.
The Williamson Open 2023, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, 5 – 29 April 2023
Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool.