JONATHAN POWELL: The Elysium Gallery

(Editor’s preface: this new series showcasing independent creative enterprises begins with Swansea’s Elysium Gallery, for the good reason that over the years we’ve watched them grow and seen how much muscular effort, moral grit, good humour, adaptability and willingness to take risks they’ve brought to the task. Gradually, they’ve managed to sink roots into the Swansea cultural scene, not to mention the international art-scene, but they’ve retained their suppleness, their lack of pretention and their vital connection with grassroots practitioners.

Much of the following has been transplanted from the elysium gallery website, the address of which can be found below).

 

elysiumgallery is an artist led, not for profit, social enterprise comprising of 60+ studio spaces and a contemporary art gallery over 3 venues in Swansea City Centre, Wales, United Kingdom.

It’s now run by 3 directors; Jonathan Powell, Sarah Williams, Daniel Staveley and a dedicated core of volunteers.

 

Jonathan Powell says:

To begin with there was me, Dan Staveley & Ann Jordan. Both me and Dan ran Exposure Gallery 2003-2007 on College Street as a part of the Swansea Guild of Artists. Ann came on board as a director at the beginning of elysium, she exhibited at Exposure and i sort of knew her at Swansea College of Art.

elysiumgallery seeks to foster a collaborative and participatory experience creating a vibrant and creative community in Swansea. We aim to create the framework for a world of ideas and inspiration which will feed into the regeneration of Swansea City centre.

elysiumgallery strives to provide support for emerging and established artists and art organisations as well as encouraging pride and participation in local visual and performing arts in an environment that promotes experimentation, freedom and appreciation in all creative practices. This helps to bridge the large gap between emerging and established artists, whilst continuing to strengthen, promote and sustain the vibrant Welsh arts scene.

The gallery is a curated space, programmed through directed curatorial and panel selection. The organisation has a main programme of events but leaves gaps in its calendar for impromptu events and exhibitions (see gallery hire section). The studios form an artistic community that enable the artists and elysiumgallery to provide a supportive network.

elysiumgallery is not revenue funded by the Arts council of Wales. Revenue from hire of gallery and studio spaces directly funds our programme of activities and running costs.

We started in 2007 and were one of the first group of artists to tackle the lack of exhibiting and work spaces for the local artists. The city centre art university was attracting and churning out hundreds of artists every year and yet there was no reason for them to stay and work in the city, thats where we came in.

We provided people with spaces to work and we are now working in partnership with Swansea College of Art by providing studios for MA students and many of our studio tenants are former Swansea students… me included!

It has to be noted quite how much of a change Swansea has gone through in the past 10 years since elysium gallery started in 2007 on the then run down derelict High street. Heavily bombed during the war, it was rebuilt in the 1950′s but somehow turned into a no go area in the nineties and 2000′s dominated by crumbling empty buildings. The whole city centre was in a state of decline but the High street was at the centre of this. It had become a poor, sorry area where a once thriving artery of Swansea had been cut adrift from the rest of the city. Populated by extreme poverty, drug and alcohol problems, social housing and derelict buildings, like dry rot that takes root in a building and then spreads throughout; the root of Swansea’s decline seemed to emanate from there. The High Street: a place so unloved that in 2007 (when elysium gallery started life there) when the annual Christmas lights were switched on, only one festive red light bulb sneaked its way onto the end of the street!

So our audience at the time was the people who inhabited this area who felt abandoned by the city. They felt they couldn’t go to the other galleries in Swansea and this pushed us on into making the arts more visible and accessible to the people of Swansea….. and yes there was a hungry audience for it, and even more so now. It’s important not to become too grounded in a building or place. even though we do now have a permanent exhibitions space, this is just a hub for the wider activities we do in offsite locations such as the Beep Wales international Painting Prize which attracts artists from all over the world and has bought in thousands of visitors over the 3 exhibitions we have held in 2012, 2014 & 2016.

The contemporary art scene here in Swansea is now really blossoming. Gallery-wise in Swansea, apart from elysium, there is also the wonderful Mission Gallery which has been supporting professional and emerging artists alike since 1979; there is the Jane Simpson Gallery which opened a few years back and has attracted artists such as Peter Blake and Gavin Turk to Swansea; Volcano Theatre have an innovative programme of exhibitions and events; and of course there is the mighty Glynn Vivian which has made a much welcome return after years of refurbishment. In fact I would say Swansea has one of the most vibrant and varied arts scene in Wales. Artists, musicians, writers etc have really taken the bull by the horns in recent years and now there are galleries, festivals and activities popping up all over the place. There is a feeling that Swansea is a place where you can make things happen and is a city on the up. Culture is now seen as an important part of the revival of the city centre, with long term plans for sustainability within the arts and its continued growth always running alongside. Swansea has a growing creative community that now see the city as an affordable, viable, exciting place to live and work and people want to be here.

 

Our History

Exposure Gallery, 9 College Street (2003 – 2007)

The story of elysium gallery (EG) starts in 2007, but it is in 2003 it can first trace its roots. At this time the city only had 2 art galleries, & these were largely inaccessible to the majority of emerging artists being taught & graduating in the city centre art University. Exposure Gallery was set up by a small group of art students and self-employed community artists. Its main objectives were to create a space for emerging artists to work, exhibit and learn valuable skills. The building was supplied by local property tycoon Roy Thomas who was sympathetic towards artists and the city’s needs and made available a 2 storey former Indian restaurant and shoe shop at 9 College Street in the city centre.

So in July 2003, Exposure Gallery was born & during its 4 years held over 60 exhibitions and events. These ranged from David Garners critically acclaimed ‘FACT’ exhibition, Andrea Liggins ‘Uncertain Terrain’ to the international New Artists and Designers competition and the annual Welsh Graduate showcase. In 2005 during the Welsh Graduate Showcase, Exposure was listed in the top 5 galleries to go and see in Britain by The Times newspaper. These sorts of shows were juxtaposed against the many community arts projects and exhibitions also held at the gallery. Curatorial wise every nook and cranny in the building was used in an attempt to give every emerging artist in Swansea and the rest of Wales a platform to showcase their work.

Nearly 300 artists had exhibited in Exposure Gallery during its tenure. Looking back, Exposure was definitely a space born out of a frustrated environment of artists starved of a place to exhibit in a city that was failing to recognise the potential of its local cultural community it had at its disposal. This was reflected in the chaotic and crammed nature of the shows.

By February 2007 though, the writing was on the wall for Exposure, the building had taken a battering by the elements and rowdy clubbers from the infamous Barons nightclub across the street. The financial limitations of the gallery were laid bare by one unfortunate incident when an installation consisting of hundreds of packets of rich tea biscuits was smashed up by an angry visitor. He was completely enraged by the sight of thousands of biscuits gently tacked to a gallery wall and displayed as art….. so proceeded to smash the exhibit up and had to be escorted out by 2 rather bemused police officers. The biscuits had to be replaced to the tune of £250 and then it was realised they were the wrong brand and so (on order by the artist) more biscuits had to be bought. A shortage of funds combined with a disintegrating building and spiralling costs of exhibitions left the organisation needing to proceed in a different direction.

Elysium Gallery, 41 High Street (2007 – 2010)

In 2007 Roy Thomas once again came to the rescue and made available a small 2 storey building on Swansea’s then run down High Street, many of the original instigators from Exposure Gallery had moved on to paid jobs & starting families, so the remaining few decided that a slightly new approach was needed with the new space. The name was taken from the mediaeval Elysium field’s cemetery that used to occupy the site and the old Elysium theatre that was opposite the gallery. It was decided to concentrate on smaller group shows and solo exhibitions with the focus still being on emerging artists and a stronger curatorial control over the shows. The building consisted of an atmospheric brick walled basement space ideal for films and installations, with the ground floor as a more traditional clean white walled exhibition space. Community group exhibitions and the shop were dropped and with the new focused direction, the quality of the exhibitions increased dramatically. The new gallery began to make its make its mark on the cultural map of Wales featuring artists such as Rosemary Edwards, Mr & Mrs. Clark, Alex Duncan, Jonathan Anderson, Kim Fielding, Andrew Cooper, Naomi Leake, Mike Murray, David Marchant, Fran Williams, John Abell and many others.

It was at this time the financial climate was rapidly changing, the ‘New Labour’ funding bubble had well and truly burst and the looming spectre of the 2012 Olympics loomed threatening to suck all funding from the arts. All the galleries suddenly had to find ways of becoming sustainable. Artist led organisations were closing down all over Britain, Arts Council funding plummeted and so the remaining galleries began to squabble over the scraps. Arts council money was diverted into the more established galleries to safe guard their future, whilst at the same time cutting adrift grass roots organisations. This though was not such a problem for the new EG, like its predecessor it had been run on a shoe string budget, received very little funding, but begun to thrive.

It has to be mentioned that during this period the High Street area of Swansea had reached a low, it was regularly labelled as Britain’s worst High Street in the press. It was a place dogged by decades of building decay, social problems and had become a no go area in the city despite essentially it being the gateway to Swansea when stepping out of the train station. The audiences visiting the gallery changed from people who shopped in the city centre to the people who inhabited the High Street. Elysium became a place that was accessible to people who felt unable to visit the larger more established galleries… an audience who up until then had no interaction with the visual arts.

So, EG between 2007 & 2010 became one of the few positive strands of energy in that street bringing people back to the area for the first time in years. This was before all of the activity that dominates the street today and was the beginning of EG’s relationship with the High street that is still strong to this day.

Mark Houghton 2008

Mark Houghton 2008

 

John Abell 2008

John Abell 2008

 

Rosemary Edwards 2007

Rosemary Edwards 2007

 

Disruption 2, High Street

Disruption 2, High Street

 

Beep 2012

Beep 2012

 

Peter Blake visiting Beep 2014

Peter Blake visiting Beep 2014

 

 

Elysium Gallery, 96-97 Mansel Street (2010)

Over the years the one subject that kept cropping up when discussing what artists needed in Swansea was studio spaces and the severe lack of them. Swansea Metropolitan University was producing many talented artists and yet there was no reason for them to stay and work in the city. What artist workspaces there were in Swansea were notoriously hogged by people who just used their studios as cheap storage space. So after nearly two and a half years; March 2010 saw EG move from its High street home and into an old 3 storey huge maze of a building in a dilapidated state at 96-97 Mansel Street.

This building had been amongst other things a department store in the 1940’s, a mod café in the sixties named The Café Macabre (with coffins for tables!) and more recently Swansea’s premiere brothel. The building was dominated by its 1970’s flocked wallpaper running from the entrance and up 3 flights of stairs and the old department store lift. Layers and layers of years of different types of wallpaper, paint and damp decorated the main ground floor exhibition space walls and ceiling. The new space offered an escape from the confines of a white cube space and tantalizingly the chance for 20+ artist’s studios on the top 2 floors with extra communal and exhibition spaces.

Things started promisingly with various successful funding application bids, all the studios being snapped up within days of advertising and a wide variety of events such as the 24 Hour poetry marathon, Welsh Artist of the Year 2012 winner Gemma Copp’s: Bound within a hidden space and the epic After the End. This exhibition featured 80 artists and performers inhabiting every space in the building. The event was the biggest of its kind in Wales, attracted an audience of thousands throughout its 4 week run and demonstrated that there was a huge demand for such a venue in Swansea. Unfortunately it was not meant to be; the building began to deteriorate at an alarming rate, Swansea Council health and Safety officers muscled in on every opening night and finally our long term supporter Roy Thomas became a victim of the ever worsening economic downturn. After 9 short but eventful months the keys were handed over to the creditors and the building stood empty and deteriorating even further for a couple more years.

Gemma Copp 2010

Gemma Copp 2010

Elysium Gallery, 31 Craddock Street (2011 – 2012)

Once notice was served at 96-97 Mansel Street the next venue was quickly snapped up. Over the 2010 Christmas period a small old sewing machine repair shop situated just across the road from Mansel Street was quickly renovated in time for its first exhibition at the beginning of January 2011. This building was once a part of the old Albert Hall Hotel and restaurant in the 1870’s and legend has it that a doctor who resided there in the 1880’s moved to London and became a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders!

The exhibition space at 31 Craddock Street was relatively tiny compared to Mansel Street, but importantly, offered 13 office spaces above the gallery which were transformed into artist studios.

This smaller gallery focused more on providing support and debut solo exhibitions for Wales’ new graduates. One being Swansea Metropolitan University’s Lucy Read which featured a house made entirely from bread, in her show ‘House of the Lovely Dark Summers of my Childhood’. Other artists exhibiting at the gallery included Tiff Oben, Helene Roberts, Philip Cheater, Elizabeth Waterhouse, Richard Monahan, Dalit Leon, Hannah Lipsey, Beth Banks, Mary-Ann Kokoska, Huw Andrews & Kelly Gorman.

Due to the size limitations of the Cradock Street gallery space it made sense for EG to create various off-site projects. This included an annual presence in the beautiful setting of the Salem Chapel in Hay-On-Wye alongside the Poetry Jamboree, a festival of experimental poetry functioning as unofficial fringe to the International Hay Literary Festival, which resulted in the film festival Bus stop Cinema in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the exhibition From Purgatory to Paradise was a site-responsive installation in the chapel and featured Craig Wood, Tim Davies & Jake Whittaker.

In 2011, EG took over a gallery space in Venice during the Venice Biennale, where Vending Machine: An Installation featured over 200 works from 106 artists from Wales. Artists were invited to make small pieces of work alongside their contact details to fit inside a vending machine which were then bought by visitors to the gallery. These works made their way across the world with many of the artists receiving replies from the buyers

The first ever Beep: Wales International Painting Prize took place during July and August of 2012, the theme being Through Tomorrow’s Eyes and featuring 45 national and international artists. The exhibition took place in the Volcano Theatre arts space in Swansea High Street and celebrated contemporary painting on a grand scale which addressed serious subject matter. The exhibition took advantage of the fact that there was no serious appraisal of contemporary painting in Wales, the opening night was a huge success with over 400 people attending with many more visitors during the exhibitions duration. The main prize was won by Welsh artist Hannah Downing.

More off-site events continued with DISRUPTION which consisted  of a series of performances by a team of ‘POSITIVE DISRUPTORS’ and took place on the city’s main shopping area Oxford Street in 2011 and on the much derided, run-down High Street in July 2012. This demonstrated that a series of breaks from the daily routine can have a positive impact and make the environment in that part of Swansea a better place in which to be. It involved storytelling, random acts of kindness, communication, mass participation, performance and song – something that changed the daily routine of that day for the people of Swansea.

In 2011 elysium also set up Artawe: Arts Resource Swansea – an artist-led online resource for anyone interested in the Arts in Swansea. This enables Swansea artists and arts organisers to share news and views

Lucy read 2011

Lucy read 2011

 

Mary Ann Kokoska 2011

Mary Ann Kokoska 2011

 

Elysium Artist’s Studios, 2 Mansel Street (2012 – present)

Past successes in helping renovate and create positive attention to long term derelict buildings enabled EG to take over the nearby former office block at 2 Mansel Street at the beginning of 2012 to renovate into artists’ studios.

Opening in January of that year to great fanfare, the building consists of 13 studios on the top two floors of a three storey building. All studios benefit from large windows which allow good light, there is 24 hour access and broadband. There is also plenty of corridor and wall space to display works and currently houses 15 artists.

Elysiumgallery & artist studios, 16 College Street (2013 – present)

Midway through 2012 the gallery was once again on the move and it was back to College Street, exactly opposite where Exposure Gallery began nearly 10 years before.

16 College Street is the sight of the notorious old Barons nightclub (famously featured in the film Twin Town) and was transformed into a new gallery space and 13 artist studios. The premiere exhibition ‘WHAT ARE THEY BUILDING DOWN THERE’ opened in the summer of 2013 and used the studio spaces for the show before the tenants moved in. This was a group show of established and emerging artists including Peter Finnemore, Kim Fielding, Andrew Cooper, David Marchant, Becky & Jason, Jonathan Anderson, Kapspike & Goebells, Philip Cheater, Gordon Dalton, Eva Bartussek, Helene Roberts, Denise Kwan, John Abell and Barnaby Dicker. The crowds of people who came to attend the opening numbered in their hundreds and filled the building and over spilled into the streets.

There has been a continuing programme of shows and events since such as celebrated Chinese performance artist Yingmei Duan in October 2013 also Pascal-Michel Dubois, Michelle Dawson, Daniel Trivedy, Huw Alden Davies, Maria Pask, Sean Vicary & many more. International links have been forged through the University of Colorado. Having hosted the work of Colorado University Professor of Drawing, Mary-Ann Kokoska at our Craddock Street gallery in 2011, Elysium & CSU set up a major Wales & U.S cultural exchange which resulted in two major exhibition of drawing featuring over 300 pieces of work by over 100 artists in Swansea & Colorado.

The College Street Gallery continues to run a varied and exciting events programme which acts as the focal point to all of EG’s activities in Swansea.

Ying Mei Duan 2013

Ying Mei Duan 2013

 

Sean Puleston 2015

Sean Puleston 2015

 

Steph Goodger and Julian Rowe 2016

Steph Goodger and Julian Rowe 2016

Elysium gallery High Street Studios, 27-29 High Street (2015 – present)

In July 2015 Swansea’s creative community was given a huge boost with the news that elysiumgallery were opening up an extra 36 studio spaces in the city centre.

The studios situated on the top floor of the old Iceland supermarket building also houses the IS THIS/THIS IS project space, a communal library, research areas & an artist residency programme.

EG currently provides over 60 studio spaces for over 100 artists (including the Swansea College of Art MA course) over three venues in Swansea city centre for a wide range of practitioners including visual fine artists, photographers, film makers, illustrators, designers, writers and performers. The EG studio project fosters a collaborative and participatory experience creating a vibrant and creative community, creating the framework for a world of ideas and inspiration which will feed into the flourishing Swansea arts scene.

In 2017 EG will celebrate its 10th birthday. We would like to thank all of our past & present gallery helpers, sponsors, artists and friends who have helped make Elysium gallery a success and an integral part of the Wales arts scene…… Let’s see what happens next!
www.elysiumgallery.com

www.beepwales.co.uk

www.jonathanpowellartist.com

 

 

 

LEAVE A COMMENT

From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

GLASFRYN, LLANGATTOCK, POWYS NP8 1PH
+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK