GROUP 75 Art Exhibition Group (1975-2010): A History
The Motivation for Founding the Group
When I founded the Group 75 Art Exhibition group in 1975, I had been an art educator for a number of years, having been seemingly drawn into this world inexorably after art school. Like so many other fine art graduates, I had found that teaching had been, ultimately, the most practical way to make use of my degree, and it was rewarding work. In a range of educational institutions at junior, senior and adult level I had gained wide experience of how to instil the skills of art in others, how to encourage creativity, foster confidence and make young artists of students who might never have envisaged themselves as such. But enriching as this experience was, it gave me little opportunity to maintain and develop my own creative talent. I was aware of the paradox that successful art teaching – like all teaching - requires great personal skill and creativity and yet asks that so much of this be channelled into the cultivation of talent in others, leaving little time for the development of one’s own work.
There was also the issue of how the single ‘unknown’ artist was to find exhibition outlets, for even when one had gathered together a body of work to show, few galleries were able or willing to take on artists who were not freelancing successfully with the backing of an agent. Breaking into this world was difficult, and especially so when so much of one’s energies were already diverted towards teaching. I became increasingly concerned about this, and discovered more and more that other art educators felt the same. So often I heard the same story, that due to the paucity of opportunities in the freelance art world, promising and creative talents had turned to teaching, and there found themselves increasingly tied to the service of pupils and students. Where in a past age like the nineteenth century, one might have been able to work and support oneself professionally, by the late twentieth century this was a hopeless dream - impossible without independent support from family or other sources. And it was particularly unfortunate that opportunities were so scarce at this time, given the great influx of art graduates into the market in the post-war years, with so many new talents leaving the burgeoning art schools of the fifties and sixties.
Pondering this problem, I resolved to try and address it in my own area of North Wales and Cheshire, and in my own art education world, by creating a permanent exhibition group which would exhibit annually or biennially, initially in the local area and hopefully, in time, further afield. I kept in mind the basic principle that there was strength in numbers and that a body of artists, named and organised, and with a substantial amount of work to show, would be far better placed than any individual to break into the small and enclosed world of museums and galleries. I would approach selected colleagues and gather together a like-minded group of interesting professionals whose work needed exposure.
In the event, Group 75 worked more successfully than I could ever have imagined. Over a period of more than thirty years, we toured within Wales as well as further afield within Britain, took the group overseas to venues in America and South Africa, and combined the exhibitions with highly successful artists’ residencies and accompanying publicity material and catalogues. I am not sure how many other similar ventures have managed such a long and successful collective career and it was great regret that I felt the group had to close finally in 2010.
The Members of Group 75
The early group comprised members from the art education sphere of North Wales and Cheshire and included, apart from myself and Boris Tietze, Laurence Rostern(Cartrefle College of Education), Leo Sharratt(Wrexham College of Art) and Anna Adair from the North-East Wales Institute (the one-time Cartrefle) ,Malcolm Wray (Queens Park Comprehensive School, Chester), Rod Bugg(Newcastle Polytechnic), Gordon Field, (Industrial Designer,Chester); David Firmstone,( Educational Advisor, Chester); Trudy Graham (Cartrefle) andWyn Potter(Mold Alun School and Polly Dangerfield(Queens Park, Chester)…..Over the years, the numbers in the group have fluctuated, and there has been some turnover in membership, but nevertheless the membership has, on the whole, been remarkably stable. Of the very early members, …Gordon Field, Leo Sharratt, Richard Hore, remained until the group closed last year, while Christine Kinsey, Tracey Ann Williams, Lynn Bebb, and Gwenllian Beynon, all early recruits, were still exhibiting with the group when it finally closed. And while the original aim was to showcase North Wales and Cheshire-based artist/educators in particular, in time this geographical limit was extending far beyond the north-west with perhaps the most extreme examples being Leo Sharratt, who left Wrexham for Scotland, and Gordon Field who relocated to Somerset. Both continued to exhibit with the group for many years.
Making a Start
It was a piece of serendipitous good luck that in 1975 the new Wrexham Library had just been completed, with its own new in-house art gallery space. With my exhibition group now in the making, I visited the library gallery in February 1975 and asked about possibilities for staging group exhibitions. The response was positive: I was asked to make an application, and on submitting one for the new Group 75, was accepted. We were on our way.
Another piece of good fortune around this time was my meeting with Steve Brake. Shortly after Group 75’s inception, Steve had become Director of the new Wrexham Gallery and was additionally responsible for directing all the municipal galleries in the Clwyd area, including another important venue, Theatre Clwyd in Mold (now Clwyd TheatrCymru), opened in 1976. Steve was enormously helpful to us, both with his positive attitude to exhibition venues and with his practical advice. The latter was vital, since running an operation such as an art exhibition group involves quite complicated logistical and administrative issues whose management are essential to its success: issues of funding (public and private), of insurance, of travel and storage logistics, and the question of good practice in the application for venues.
Learning the Logistics of Managing an Exhibition Group
Application forms(to the Arts Council of Wales for example) had to be completed for both funding and venues, of course, and they proved something of a bane of my professional existence as the years went on, becoming more and more lengthy and detailed. And in the early years, of course, they were completed without the help of a computer. It was lucky that in these years they were correspondingly modest in their demands. Later they became monstrous, as if punitively growing in response to the greater speed with which they might potentially be completed on a computer. As an example, the one-page application form from the Arts Council of Wales (ACW) in the early 1980s had, by 2008, metamorphosed into fifteen pages of text. Many arts associations began hiring staff specifically to complete these forms and I could understand why. They were seriously time-consuming and one also had to understand the required ‘language’ in order to have them favourably considered.
An additional problem was that these forms were often designed more for applications from theatrical than art exhibition groups – with questions on audience numbers, ‘footfalls’ , staging costs etc. It required expertise in itself to understand how to deal with these discrepancies. But while the bureaucracy increased seemingly in proportion to the technology available, in another way the computerisation of this application process made things very much simpler. One example was the provision of images of artists’ work, accompanying applications to funding bodies and exhibition venues. Initially this required photographic slides, time-consuming and expensive to have produced. I relied heavily on an excellent specialist shop in nearby Chester. But in time digital images took the place of slides and this area of the application process was speeded up and made easier.
Funding and the management of finances were vital issues to get right. These were linked to the question of the status of the group. One of the first things to do after the group had been formed was to draw up a constitution and have it approved by the members, with the requirement of occasional group meetings, for which there had to be a quorum. A bank account had to be opened in the group’s name and its accounts were circulated to the members.It had been agreed that the members of Group 75 should pay a yearly membership fee of £38.00, but this was, even in the early days, far too small a subscription to cover our costs. Considerable supplementary funding had to be motivated for from other sources and this involved appeals to both state and commercial bodies. The Arts Council of Wales was a major supporter from the outset and the group could not have flourished for so long without its generous assistance over the years. But as we began to take the Group 75 exhibitions overseas, other funding bodies were drawn on too. The British American Arts Association was generous in its help with an American tour, while private firms provided aid too. One example in the early years was Griflex Co., makers of plastic tubing products and a firm that was at that time based in Wrexham. They enabled us to send our exhibition crates of artwork over to America with a consignment of their goods bound for Philadelphia. It was a generous offer which saved us much in transportation costs and was one of a number of instances of private commercial help in the early days. Sadly, this involvement from the business community diminished somewhat over time, and in later years their support seemed to be given more to the performing than the visual arts.
Other vital practical issues to familiarise myself with in the early days were those of transport and insurance. When the exhibitions toured, one had to be precisely aware of the timing of the exhibitions and the geography of the venues so that transport of works to the venue, setting up of the exhibition and packing after its close all proceeded smoothly and safely. Certain points were vital to bear in mind. For one thing, it was necessary to avoid a long interval between exhibition venues, when the work was touring from one to another, as safe storage of the artworks involved high insurance costs. Other unpredictable variables always raised their heads. In winter, the weather could cause problems and on one occasion the van containing our work overturned in a snowstorm from Inverness on its way back to Wales. Fortunately no damage was done, but it was a reminder of the potential dangers when valuable work is in transit. With each touring exhibition and each stage of transit, I lost sleep over the possible dangers that lurked ahead, but remarkably throughout the many years of Group 75’s existence I only ever had to make one insurance claim, for damage to a large wooden sculpture by Christine Kowal Post, incurred during the work’s transport back from the States.
Exhibition Venues and Tours
Our first exhibitions were held in Wales (at the Wrexham and other local galleries. These venues were followed by exhibitions at galleries in Scotland (Edinburgh) and England (Carlisle, Newcastle upon Tyne , Salford,Somerset, Birkenhead and London). We received support and encouragement from Steve Brake in all these ventures.
In one of our early tours I worked with Jonathan Levay at Theatre Clwyd to put together a programme called ‘Celtic Connections’ which travelled to galleries in Wales and Scotland. We had hoped to secure venues in Brittany but were unsuccessful here. I think a greater fluency in French could have been helpful in persuading bemused French gallery officers of the potential of the show! What had germinated, however, was the idea that we might travel overseas and exhibit the work of Group 75 far more widely.
Family connections were a factor in deciding the other international venues. With relatives in America and South Africa, I probed the possibilities of exhibitions in these two countries and both came to fruition. The first was an international exchange exhibition with the Muse exhibition group of Philadelphia. Under the arrangement, the Muse artists were given an exhibition opportunity at Theatre Clwyd while we were provided a venue at the Muse Gallery in Philadelphia and at the Payne Gallery of Moravian College in Bethlehem. Group 75 member Christine Kinsey and myself accompanied the exhibition to the Muse Gallery in Philadelphia. Christine gave a very successful opening talk at both galleries. The Muse artists were very welcoming and showed us great hospitality. The exhibition received a good deal of public attention, particularly from Philadephia’s Welsh Society. My husband Boris and I had a venue at Bethlehem’s Payne Gallery which was similarly successful in advertising the aims and work of Group 75, and again profited from the existence of active Welsh societies in Bethlehem and nearby Easton. Meanwhile, out of these visits came long-standing Welsh-American artist contacts, including that of photographer Gabi Russomagno of Philadelphia who maintained links with Group 75 for many years and did an artist’s residency at the gallery of Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead,for a later programme.
In the case of South Africa, we had a long-term association with the Association of Visual Arts (AVA) Gallery in Cape Town and through this link, invited South African artists to be guest contributors in themed programmes which had venues in both the UK and South Africa. The Welsh connection was not a drawcard in these South African ventures as it had been in the American ones, but there were plenty of other connections that could be made, and three very successful tours, in South Africa and the UK, came out of this collaboration. A number of South African artists were involved, and some of the South African artists had residencies in Wales. I gave talks at the South African venues in Cape Town and Stellenbosch.
In Estelle Jacobs, chief curator of the AVA gallery in Cape Town, we were again very fortunate, as she was able to offer valuable help and advice from the South African side. We had an excellent working relationship. Estelle introduced me to South African artists and advised on potential exhibitors and inspirational artist-communicators who would offer stimulating residencies at UK venues. Another helpful adviser on this was Mario Pissarra who ran a visual arts school in Cape Town where aspiring African artists could attend and learn basic techniques of drawing, painting and printing. The school, the Community Arts Project (CAP) was based just outside the Cape Town city area. On my visit to the school, Mario was very helpful and recommended one or two artists whom I later met. From these I selected three. ThembinkosiGoniwe, a talented screen printer, was one of these, and he was able to take up a residency to accompany the exhibition in Wales. He was a natural communicator and the residency was a great success. Thembi exhibited with us in two further collaborative programmes, while VelileSoha , another young artist whom Mario recommended, was offered a UK residency on another occasion. Other guest artists from S.Africa were NkoaliNoha , Donovan Ward and MgcineniSobopha. Our guest artists from South Africa quickly established an easy and happy relationship with pupils of all ages. Children were interested in hearing about their artistic, educational and social experiences and responded noticeably to their warmth and liveliness. Pat Fenn and Jill Trappler , two Cape Town-based artists, also were also important contributors to these collaborative programmes.
My role as director of Group 75 was deeply rewarding and satisfying. Looking back, it seems astonishing that the exhibition group existed for as long as 35 years. I like to feel that it made its mark on the arts world through the variety and quality of work in the exhibitions. I know that the exchange of ideas between contributing artists, along with the friendships developed, were invaluable. We were fortunate that those years provided such a favourable climate for the arts; in these more financially stringent times it would be much more difficult to maintain such a group. A big ‘thankyou’ must go to the Arts Council of Wales for their support, and to gallery officers locally and further afield.