Are the Art Galleries in Bristol Forgetting Their Bristol Roots?

November 1, 2017 • Culture, Featured, Opinion • Views: 181

Words by Adam Costen

Walking into the Spike Island Exhibition Space or Arnolfini today, you will see they are homes for exploration and exhibitions. They push the boundaries for new and groundbreaking art.

Currently at the Arnolfini is Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever!

Over at Spike Island is the works of Kim Yong-Ik and his collection entitled I Believe My Works Are Still Valid.

Take the chance and head down to these exhibits. Both are wonderful exhibitions full of unique and well-executed works, provoking ideas and visuals and yet…

Loving The Art

[Credit: Rob Brewer]

I’m fairly new to Bristol, an import if you will, since October 2016. An avid lover of the arts, I have seen multiple exhibitions in both Arnolfini and Spike Island and am consistently impressed by the work on offer.

These exhibitions have ranged from Giant Clay Cars (Hedwig Houben, O thers and I , 1 October to 11 December 2016 Spike Island). Audience members as artworks (IBT17: Come As You Are Alex Bradley with Bill Leslie, Thursday 09 February 2017 to Friday 10 February 2017, Arnolfini). Pink L-shaped concrete blocks (Tessa Lynch L-Shaped Room 8 July to 17 September 2017, Spike Island). As well as life size, plaster horses corpses (Daphne Wright: Emotional Archaeology, Friday 30 September 2016 to Saturday 31 December 2016 Arnolfini).

Each time, the work featured is an up-and-coming artist who has been given a chance to make a splash at a major exhibition space. Make no mistake, these are both major spaces.

The founding ethos of both Spike Island and Arnolfini is to be a home for new work by young artists who can shine.

A New Era

[Credit: Thomas Guest]

Arnolfini was founded in 1961 by three people, Jeremy Rees (a graphic designer), Annabel Lawson (a textile artist) and John Orsborn (a painter).  The aim was to “run an arts space committed to showcasing new, experimental and underrepresented art work”. This is it’s overwhelming history of support and direction.

Spike Island was founded in 1976 (then Artspace LTD) by a group of Bristol-based painters, sculptors and printmakers. The founders were inspired to create a space for working artists in the heart of the city. To this aim, Spike stays true. It is home to over 70 different artists at various stages of their careers. Spike Island is also home to the studios for UWE’s fine arts program.

These are two amazing spaces that have developed over the past 40 years and call Bristol home. Many artists dream of being able to utilise this kind of space to make a statement. Yet the landscape of Bristol is changing. The Arnolfini moved to the Bush House in October 1975, and Harbourside was a very different place.

Watershed didn’t exist, M-Shed didn’t exist and there wasn’t a three story Weatherspoons just across the water from a beautiful bridge. On a little side note, it was actually Arnolfini who proposed that an artist should be invited to collaborate with the engineers on the design. Irish sculptor Eilís O’Connell was selected for the job.

Harbourside was a rough, smelly area full of run down old buildings and empty warehouses.

It isn’t that now.

You can’t throw a rock without hitting a swanky coffee shop or new restaurant. Beautiful boats dot the water and colourful ferries take people from here to there.

How Has This Affected The Exhibition Spaces?


Say what you want about Grayson Perry as an artist, but his quality is difficult to dispute. A deserving and talented person, he is the artist who just this year. won the Turner Prize. He was also the first visual artist featured on Graham Norton. Not to mention he is also a best-selling author. He is categorically not underrepresented.

Spike Island has no such explicit goals within their program. In fact, it is a bit of a mystery as to their selection process for who will be the next artist asked into the space. While we might not know Kim Yong-Ik in this country, he is one of the most successful Korean artists of his generation.

It must be said that this is his first major European solo show and Spike Island is working with a sister exhibition at the Korean Centre in London. This is a major step for his career. Previously his work has featured at Art Basel and high level galleries in L.A and New York.

Perry and Kim present two of the best exhibitions I have seen at Arnolfini and Spike. There is a completeness and crispness to the works presented, which is refreshing and impressive. These are two exhibitions that people will want to see.

Gone Too Far?


Bristol is in a new position as a centre of the arts. It makes sense that both Arnolfini and Spike want artists who can deliver and impress. Particularly now the busy season of students returning from their yearly summer exodus is back upon us. It is now becoming more and more difficult to acquire funding for art spaces in the UK. This is due to national cuts to spending for Art and Culture. It isn’t surprising to see both these exhibitions opt for more established and proven artists. 

Where does that leave those local artists who need the spaces to show off their talents? Where do they turn to be given a chance? The Arnolfini started as a hub for up and coming artists. It’s entire ethos is based on this. Why did they choose a conservative approach in choosing their artists?

Unfortunately a lot is to do with money. Just look at house prices in Bristol now compared to the 70’s when these spaces sprung up. To be fair, while Perry and Kim are both from minority groups (transgender and South Korean), they are not underrepresented individuals. 

Bristol is changing. Art spaces like Arnolfini and Spike have always been trailblazers for leading change and these two exhibitions are no different. As the money involved in rent and running costs rises, the funding available is shrinking. These spaces have less freedom to take risks on new artists and unknown projects. What this means for the city remains to be seen. While it is nice to see great work in beautiful spaces, we unfortunately need be aware of the cost.

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