Christabel Howdon-Bancroft

Interview: Alistair Robinson, curator of NGCA

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The Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art, situated in the centre of Sunderland, has long been a top art-hub in the North East but their curator, Alistair Robinson, now hopes to spread the art they promote to every person in the region with the North East’s “can-do spirit.”

Alistair said: “I work with a team to try to bring artists to the North East who haven’t shown before and to Britain who haven’t shown before, and to give people new opportunities, to give people things they wouldn’t usually see, particularly round here to promote artists who are based in the city and region and to give them public platform for their works and ideas.”

The work that is chosen for the gallery is always varied and viewers can often be surprised to find the diverse styles and mediums that create art.

“Myself and the other curator George Vasey go and see exhibitions, we talk to people, we go to artists’ studios, we read magazines, we read books, we look online, we go to degree shows, we travel and find out what’s the most exciting art that’s being made or the things which attract our attention because it is people doing something which hasn’t been done before.” Alistair added.

Sunderland is not somewhere that screams art central of the North East and especially with having such big galleries such as The Baltic nearby, the NGCA has to make themselves stand out among the crowd.

Speaking about this Alistair said: “Interesting things can happen anywhere as long as you have the right people to put it together, a vision and a little bit of money.

“I moved here not really having set foot in the North East, aged 28, and I had no real idea what to expect necessarily, but I could see with my own eyes that it was a very beautiful part of the world in aspects, a very diverse part of the world. It terms of certain bits of the city centre of Sunderland, Newcastle and Durham and in terms of the landscape and the coast there was a lot going on here which people didn’t necessarily know about because it hadn’t reached the so called national media, by which people mean London-based media, those two terms are kind of equated.

“There was a big history of people doing incredibly innovative work here right back, but certainly in the 1970s and 80s to the present day in various forms, people were doing things here which they couldn’t have done in any other part of the country such as taking risks and not necessarily following the crowd, but follow their own vision both artists and curators.”

Robinson credits the local universities for promoting the art of the region. Having thousands of students within thirty minutes of the NGCA means they can bring in local artists and show their skills within photography, fine art, performance and other forms of media despite Sunderland not being a main city: “We’ve had people come from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Cambridge and London for particular shows. We’ve had critics travel from London and ask where is Sunderland? even though we’re in the days of the internet. People don’t necessarily expect things that grab attention because of where we are.”

In the North East, there seems to be some forms of art that come out most popular among residents: “One strand of work that appeals and that we’ve done is asking the big questions such as who we are? How we relate to one another? How do we do that in terms of status, class, ethnicity, gender and these things that people construct. The way people imagine others and view them, the word in that is imagine and they can always be re-imagined. If you look back over time you will see pretty swiftly that people have had very different imaginations about those big things, about the way they treat people and see them especially when they have slightly different characteristics.”

Currently in the NGCA gallery and smaller project space are two very different shows: “The first is The Decorator and The Thief which is a large show exploring how artists view craft and adopt techniques and ideas from the domain in craft. Also how crafts people have used artistic strategies which have subsequently influenced fine art.” People visiting can expect a variety of pieces, from enormous wall hangings to small sculptures and video pieces. The second, featured not just in the project space but across the building and in a special pop-up shop on Fawcett Street is The Caravan Gallery. As Robinson says: “they spot the things some of us see all the time and all of us see some of the time, but they have created a vast compendium of the eccentricity which is almost a part of British life.”

What’s interesting about the NGCA is the way the public interact with the exhibitions and leave their views. The gallery has specifically opened up a your views section for people to say what they like and dislike, and this is what helps the curators see what works with the people of Sunderland.

Find the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art on the top floor of the City Library building. The Decorator and The Thief runs until May 16 in the main gallery and The Caravan Gallery is in the project space until May 1. All exhibitions are free to attend.

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