Does art matter? It’s a debate made especially relevant by the budget cuts taking place at councils up and down the country.
These are tough times and, with the search on for savings, the arts can be an easy target.
But while other local authorities reduce spending on the arts, Portsmouth City Council is bucking the trend.
It has just opened up space above the new Southsea Library in Palmerston Road, which is now called the First Floor Gallery.
The first exhibition is ORBIT by Southsea-based artist Katayoun Dowlatshahi, who was inspired by visiting a former cold war secret rocket testing facility on the Isle of Wight.
She believes the new space offers a lot to the artistic community.
Katayoun says: ‘It’s new and numbers were quite small at first, but they have been slowly growing. We had 45 people in the other day, which is pretty good.
‘The more people know, the more come and see it. It’s been set up as a gallery but it’s also a community space that people can use. It’s really versatile.’
Katayoun continues: ‘The council has been prepared to create a space for culture, which is fantastic. There’s a real sense of opportunity in the artistic community.
‘So many artists live and work in the city. There’s a big movement, but they always need places to display their work.
‘To have a new gallery is fantastic. Everybody I’ve spoken to has been very supportive.’
With a number of galleries across the city, Katayoun believes they’re not in competition. Rather, they complement each other.
She says: ‘It must help to attract more people into the city, which has to be a good thing. I say the more, the merrier.’
Councillor Lee Hunt, who is cabinet member for Culture, Leisure and Sport for the city, wants to put more money into projects like the First Floor Gallery.
Such enthusiasm seems to contradict a survey in The Times last year, which claimed Portsmouth was the second worst city in the country for culture.
As well as the First Floor Gallery, the city council has galleries at the Round Tower in Old Portsmouth and at the City Museum, plus it gave a revenue grant of £36,900 to the Aspex Gallery at Gunwharf Quays for the 2001/12 financial year.
Cllr Hunt says: ‘The creative industries in Portsmouth are in desperate need of more space to show their work.
‘So Portsmouth is creating more galleries and exhibitions while other areas are closing theirs.’
Lee believes that when it’s tough economically, that’s the most important time to invest in the cultural mix.
He explains: ‘It’s not only about the artists. Galleries create jobs and increase visitors. It’s incredible because such cultural outlets also increase people’s sense of satisfaction.
‘People love to see their city doing so well. This sense of optimism in the city is very good and, with the council working with volunteers and visitors, we’re bucking the trend.’
Steve Pitt, promotions manager for the Cellars music venue at Eastney, is also chairman of the Portsmouth Cultural Partnership, a group of businesses and organisations which seeks to promote culture and the arts.
He says: ‘I think it’s extremely important to put money into the arts, and often we don’t recognise the potential economic benefits of it.
‘I believe Portsmouth is trying to become a destination for breaks taken by people from Europe. But if we want to attract people here from other parts of Europe, we need to make sure we give them good things to do and look at. Art galleries play a key role in this.’
But it’s not only visitors that need to be catered for. Steve believes that art galleries have an important role to play in the local community too.
Many art spaces don’t simply run as galleries, but also offer educational workshops for the public.
Steve explains: ‘A lot of community work is involved in them. Aspex Gallery is a good example, as it runs a very good programme of activities with young artists and children. It’s vital.
‘My own sister did a fine art degree in Portsmouth and I know artists struggle to find places to put on exhibitions of their work.
‘I realise times are tough and that there’s a small pot of money to go round, but the arts are important and we need to protect what we have.’
The ORBIT exhibition at the First Floor Gallery runs until Saturday during library opening times. For more information, call (023) 9268 8999 or go to portsmouth.gov.uk/learning/21685.html
NEW FOCUS FOR ASPEX GALLERY
One of the biggest galleries in Portsmouth is the Aspex Gallery. Now based in the Vulcan Building at Gunwharf Quays, it has been operating in the city for more than 30 years.
But this year it’s going to move away from its traditional role as a gallery and become more involved in the community.
Director Jo Bushnell says: ‘We are hoping to connect with more people in the city. Supporting emerging contemporary artists will remain at the core of our progress, but we are most concerned to diversify what we do, and to have more conversations with the public.
She adds: ‘We’ve changed the way that we programme. We will focus on one question this season running through until May. We are asking: What next for culture in Portsmouth? All of our activities, seminars, events and education projects will ask this in some way.’
Jo is delighted to see the First Floor Gallery in Southsea open and believes it will help to get people interested in and enthused about art.
She explains: ‘I think it’s incredible to have a gallery space connected to the library, bringing in people that are interested in reading and people who are interested in literature and culture. That way they will be able to experience contemporary artists.
‘Portsmouth is often put down for not having enough cultural amenities, but I think we are quite well served.
‘It’s just that a lot of them are hidden away and we suffer from that. Many people in the city don’t know they are there.’
For information on the Aspex Gallery, go to aspex.org.uk.
MORE CITY GALLERIES
Above The Blue, Port Solent
Regularly hosts exhibitions of work by new and established artists, plus showcases the work of local art students.
Call (023) 9237 7099 or go to abovetheblue.co.uk.
City Museum Gallery, Portsmouth
This gallery on the second floor of the City Museum displays both fine and decorative art drawn from permanent collections. This includes paintings, prints, sculpture, ceramics, furniture, glass and textiles.
Call (023) 9282 7261 or go to portsmouthcitymuseums.co.uk.
Dress Circle Promenade, Kings Theatre, Southsea
A new exhibition space for artists, it is used during performances and as a standalone venue.
Call (023) 9282 8282 or go to kings-southsea.com.
Lodge Arts Centre, Guildhall
In the north west corner of Victoria Park, this centre hosts exhibitions and holds free community-based art workshops including printmaking, drawing, computing, collage and video.
Call (023) 9287 0880 or go to artful-lodgers.org.
The Round Tower, Old Portsmouth
Part of the historic defences of Portsmouth harbour, the tower has been opened up as a unique art and exhibition space. It’s an element of the ARTches project aimed at creating an arts and crafts quarter in the city.
Other art galleries in the Portsmouth area:
Art House 2, East Street, Havant
Call (023) 9247 9314 or go to arthouse2.co.uk.
The Fareham Gallery, West Street, Fareham
Call (01329) 281830 or go to thefarehamgallery.co.uk
White Dog Gallery, Milvil Road, Lee-on-the-Solent
Call (023) 9255 2255 or go to whitedoggallery.co.uk
Gouldart Working Gallery, Eastoke Corner, Hayling Island
Go to gouldart.co.uk
Pallant House Gallery, North Pallant, Chichester
Call (01243) 774557 or go to pallant.org.uk.