It’s taken a week for my thoughts on the new Kettle’s Yard to come to the surface. But having spent those two nights in very different company it’s become apparent that the gallery is about the people who visit as much as the design of the place, the artists, or the work on display. An art gallery is a testing ground for ideas and reactions. The new development has forced an honest discussion on the role of the gallery to the surface – between different visitor factions with seemingly contradictory demands. Talking to other party goers on both evenings visitors readily demonstrate their sense of ownership and a desire to protect and support the gallery – conversations quickly turn to the number of years spent visiting with a hierarchy of seniority assigned accordingly. Staff and management have daily obligations and responsibilities and feel a natural superiority born of their practical real-world understanding of the gallery and its needs. Trustees, friends and supporters may feel entitled to a *special* status by virtue of their financial support. In all cases the vision of the gallery and it’s role can be quite different. Visitors are split between those who want the gallery to remain unchanged, conserved museum-like, and those who see the necessity and potential in development. The practical limitations of running a gallery and challenges of curating significant shows in a relatively small space tend to put staff in a pro-expansionist category. “Friends” are sometimes mistrusting of any development and cynical of the progressive lobby and it’s motivations. The hopes and fears of these simplified contingents are equally valid – the gallery does need more space and better facilities to maintain, and remain valid to, a contemporary audience. But there is an obvious and very real risk that something might be lost in the transition. Change is not always for the better.
Jamie Fobert and the wider development committee really should be celebrated for keeping their ideas and ambitions appropriate in scale. The team has produced an enhanced gallery which retains the essence of the original. Both respectful and ambitious, the result is a space which now has the facilities to welcome a broader audience, and then offer them much more. Cultural organisations work hard to involve their audiences through seminars, workshops, performance and events – to extend the gallery through participation. Kettle’s Yard is now better equipped to do this and so build stronger relations with its audiences. As funding of creative subjects under the national curriculum endures sustained pressure the role of the cultural sector and galleries like Kettle’s Yard is crucial if access to the arts for all is to be maintained.
The new gallery succeeds in retaining much of the feel of the original. Feel is key to Kettle’s Yard. The new galleries feel like upgrades to the old ones – not an entirely new configuration. Visitors look like nervous homeowners returning to a much-loved property after its Changing Rooms style make-over. Despite the addition of a new learning studio, education wing, cafe, shop, offices and more, the surprise is how little has changed at Kettle’s Yard. The available space has been re-thought and re-organised but the impression is thankfully un-dramatic. New and improved, evolution rather than revolution. A tricky balancing act for management and architect but one that is not evident from the final results which feel logical and appropriate in ambition.
Many of the architectural themes of the old Kettle’s Yard are retained – the black wooden entrance, the use of pale brick and rough plaster. New materials are introduced in the same spirit – a black steel staircase, polished and formed concrete. The new design and architecture doesn’t shout and works in support of the exhibits. The gallery design follows some rules of convention with a spot-lit white wall contemporary vernacular but it’s always thoughtful and appropriate.
With the opening show ACTIONS: the image of the world can be different, the gallery continues to show new and less well know artists alongside the big names. An international group exhibition that re-asserts Jim Ede’s generous philosophy and makes a statement of intent for the future. The works are too many and varied to list, though Khadije Saye’s beautiful and poignant tin type photographs give pause for thought. Interventions in the house by Cornelia Parker and by Rana Begum in St Peter’s church feel very Kettle’s Yard in their inventiveness, fragility and accessibility.
As always, there is lots to see and lots to be excited about.
ACTIONS runs until 6th May 2018.