Sophie Dishman

An Interview with the NGCA Presents Organisers

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The second NGCA Presents open mic night happened on Thursday October 22 with over 25 people attending. The event which was hosted by the National Gallery for Contemporary Art was held at Holmeside Coffee gave people the opportunity to hear about what creative people are doing in Sunderland and allowed people to network with other professionals. 

Sophie Dishman went down to the event and spoke to the organisers – George Vasey and Kathryn Brame.

S: Can you both introduce yourselves? 

G: I’m George Vasey and I’m a curator at the Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art.

K: I’m Kathryn Brame and I work at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Arts and I’m also an artist.

S: Why did you set up the event? 

G: We set up the event to really work to see what was going on in Sunderland, so with the programme, I work with a lot of international artists, I spend a lot of my time travelling around Europe, we work with artists all around the world but I think it’s also the responsibility of cultural organisations to support what’s happening locally and I thought an open mic night would be the simplest way of creating an open submission, so that anybody can talk about anything they wanted to and I think you know I learn a lot from the process of hearing people talk about their work.

K: Myself and the curator George Vasey; we run a monthly series of events called NGCA Presents and basically it means that we can present anything, so we can do artist’s film screenings or presentations or performances. But one of the things we really wanted to do was provide a platform for local people, local creative people to meet each other and talk about their work because that was something that was missing in Sunderland.

The first one we did was in May this year and we did it in association with the Caravan Gallery who were exhibiting with us at the time and we had about 12 people presenting, 70-80 people in the audience and it was great. It highlighted the need in Sunderland for creative people to have a space to get together and the idea is that anyone creative from any background at all, whatever level you are, can speak for 10 minutes about their practice, a project, something they’re interested in and share it with the group and then have a bit of a networking kind of session afterwards but keeping it really informal. Because these things can be intimidating and a bit stressful, so the idea is just to everyone just to have a drink and then afterwards just have a chat and just get to know each other and then hopefully it’ll inspire kind of collaborations between different people and maybe exciting work can come from that and exciting partnerships, so yeah that’s kind of the aim.

S: What is the feedback like from this type of event? 

G: It’s been really fantastic. We’ve done this event twice. I mean, we do a lot of events in Sunderland – we do reading groups, we’ve done screenings, we do openings and the open mic night we’ve done twice and it’s by far the most popular project that we do. Obviously because you know, everyone that comes tells their networks and people advocate for it on social media so it’s really a way of kinda…I think of it as kind of diplomacy – you know working within with city and trying to draw links and partnerships with people I’ve not met before so it’s always really positive.

K: It’s been really good. I mean we’re really pleased with the turnout tonight and the first one we did had great feedback – people said we need more things like this in Sunderland and it’s been really positive – we’ve had loads of people sign up to our mailing list this evening which has been lovely and hopefully they’ll come back again and…I think especially with the City of Culture bid coming up…that things like this at a real grassroots level is really important because this is where it starts if you want Sunderland to become City of Culture 2021 then you know you’ve got to have everybody involved from whatever background.

S: Why do you think there was a market for this type of thing? 

G: I think Sunderland is a small city and I think the audience for cultural initiatives is quite small but obviously an organisation that speaks about what’s happening in that place, like whats happening in Sunderland – you’ll always get a bigger audience for that but I think that’s important. So I think there is a small market but I think it’s a dedicated and good market.

K: I think there’s a need for it. There’s a lot of creative activity in Sunderland and   a lot of creative people – whether that’s kind of musicians, artists, architects, designers – there are a  lot of really interesting people here and it’s just a great thing to celebrate then really. So I think there is a need and a desire from the people that live locally to kind of create more of a buzz and create opportunities.

S: With the launch of the City of Culture bid – how important is it to showcase the arts in Sunderland? 

G: I see my job as to connect what’s happening locally to what’s happening internationally so it’s about creating the context for art in Sunderland but often the best way of doing that is showcasing the very best in the international art. So I think there’s a lot of talent here but a lot of what I do as a curator actually is completely invisible. It’s about recommending artists in Sunderland to other curators nationally.

K: I think it’s really important, I think sometimes Sunderland gets overlooked by Newcastle…and Gateshead especially as a huge cultural kind of hub in the North East but there’s a lot of exciting things coming out of Sunderland. It’s got a great music scene but then also you know the National Glass Centre, Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art which was the largest contemporary arts base in the North East before Baltic and MEMA – so you know it’s got a history so I think it’s important for people to know that really.

S: What are some of the highlights for you as an organiser? 

G: All of it. I’m just super interested in talking to people that I’ve never met before, hearing about what people are up to. But one thing I’ve really enjoyed about this event is students like yourself  come and it’s maybe the first time they’ve ever talked about their work and it’s such a massive learning experience for them because I remember when I first had to do a public talk and it’s terrifying but that’s how you learn. So that’s really I think the best thing about an event like this.

K: I’m really pleased with the turnout tonight and people have stayed to chat afterwards and people that we’ve never met before or that we haven’t seen at the gallery before have come tonight so they’ve obviously seen it advertised and thought that it was a beneficial and you know an interesting thing to come to and yeah we’ve had some nice feedback so that’s always good so hopefully people come back again.

S: Do you think there any challenges with organising this kind of event? 

G: There are always challenges. I think that we have to work incredibly hard for our audiences. You know there’s been 25 people here tonight about that and I think it’s a shame…you obviously want more people to come to events. We don’t have any money for marketing so a lot of what we do is word-of-mouth…getting people to events is the hard part.

K: Initially we had more people due to speak this evening but two people dropped out at the last minute so that’s always kind of an issue but then I think the length of time like we had tonight was just right – it’s like an hours worth of content and time to sort of chat afterwards which is enough I think.

Another challenge is also kind of getting people to come – we don’t really have an advertising budget so we do a lot of things on social media, on our website and local press so there’s always the worry that you know you’re not going to get a great audience. I think that’s probably the biggest worry.

S: What other events do you have coming up in the future? 

G: The NGCA Presents is an ongoing thing so this open mic night is anybody can contact me – my email is on the website or come to my office which is next to the gallery and say that they want to present their work and then they can participate in the next open mic night. And of course, I’m working on exhibitions for the next two years so I have a programme that goes through till 2017. We’re going to be initiating a Turing exhibition next year that’s going to Cardiff and London, so that’s what I’m working on at the moment. People can get involved in anything, they can come to me with ideas and energy.

K: Well our next event is our next exhibition preview which is next Thursday the 29th of October from 6 until 8 and that is a chance for people to see the exhibition for the first time – so it’s open to everybody and it’s free – we’ll have a bar and afterwards we usually go on somewhere else in Sunderland and sort of keep the conversations going. This time we are also doing a curator and artists walkthrough from 5 o’clock so you can find out more about the exhibition – you can come at 5, have a tour of the exhibition with the curator and some of the artists and then stay and chat to people that come, so that’s our next event.

After that, we’ve got an exhibition in the project space called Bookshop and it’s where we’re turning the project space into a bookshop because this year, 2015 is the 20th anniversary of the NGCA and we’ve invited CIRCA projects who are an artist led initiative to programme – well to look back at the NGCA’s history and to when it was Culbreth Press and Arts Centre so way back – it used to be a printing house and arts centre and gallery so CIRCA projects are looking at the history and collecting material from that time and books and presenting them in the project space along with sort of more contemporary books and with that every Saturday that the exhibition’s on – there will be an event in the project space which might be a reading or a presentation or something like that so there’ll be a lot of events coming up.

You can find out more about the NGCA on their website.

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