Venture Arts and Castlefield Gallery: ‘Thumbs Up’ to making galleries more welcoming

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Thumbs Up, by Castlefield Gallery and Venture Arts is an exhibition by artists Michael Beard, Frances Disley, Harry Meadley, and Leslie Thompson. Responding to the physical spaces of the gallery the artists have developed the scale, materials, and methods of their work over a seven-month development period during which they worked alongside each other using Studio 53 at Venture Arts. Thumbs Up is at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester 24 January 2020 — 8 March 2020. Letty McHugh went along to see the work and speak to some of those involved.

Series of colourful, scratchy artworks on a gallery wall

Michael Beard, Airport London series. Photograph: Annie Feng

You know something different is happening when you arrive at a gallery and are offered a hot Vimto to drink from the specially made drinks cart. It featured the drinks the artists usually enjoyed at the start of their meetings in Studio 53. Everyone at the gallery was excited about this drinks cart.

Alongside the ‘Thumbs Up’ exhibition there was a tour with the artists and a panel discussion with Frances Disley, Harry Meadley and academics from the University of Salford, whose work informed the show. Officially the exhibition is all about making art galleries more welcoming spaces. Unofficially the theme seemed to be ‘Art galleries could stand to lighten up a bit.’ A sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.

Before the tour I had a quick look round, the pieces that stood out were on a large wall as you come down the stairs, a series of drawings of animals in ink and fabric dye. This work is by self-titled ‘Superstar Artist Drawer’ Lesley Thompson, inspired by a trip to Chester zoo and a life-long fascination with animals. These colourful paintings are striking and capture your attention, a few were overworked and visually cluttered. Others really pop and help bring a sense of fun to the show, especially the giraffe on a large stretch of yellow fabric and the American buffalo on brown fabric, both capture the joy and excitement of an encounter with an animal.

Collection of drawings of zoo animals

Leslie Thompson, Various works pictured in double height space. Photograph: Annie Feng

During the artist’s tour, Meadley and Disley both spoke about their desire to make art a less selfish endeavour. Meadley said, “We set out in this show to make art that was less about the artist’s ego and more about giving something to the viewer.” With that in mind, they had transformed the gallery and made artworks designed to physically reward the viewer for their time. Meadley continued, “People in the art world always think you’re trying to be clever, but we are just being sincere.”

In Warm Breeze by Disley, SAD lamps are installed inside artworks to help fight seasonal affective disorder. Warm Breeze was a nightmare for me personally, I have a scar on my retina that makes me sensitive to light and it hurt my eyes. Physical pain aside, I was not enamoured with Warm Breeze, I like the idea, but you need to stand in front of SAD lamps for 30 minutes to get a benefit and most people would be bored (I’d have migraine). Disley’s work Hurley Chill was better, she’d painted calming colours directly onto the walls in abstract forms breaking up the harshness of the gallery’s white walls. This made the space feel much less stark and stuffy. It cheered me up more than the SAD lamps.

My absolute favourite piece of work, Whoam by Meadley is a photograph of Studio 53, which doubles as a super high-tech heating system, warming you up as you stand in front of it. The part of the picture featuring the radiator gives off the most heat. I like work like this, it made me say to the person next to me “Ahh, this is so cool, the radiator is hot.” I like to be excited in art galleries. I like to be having fun. This whole exhibition is a lot of fun.

Ceramic artwork with plant inside it

Frances Disley, Beneath the boundary layer (2019). Annie Feng

I enjoyed Meadley’s story of a drawn-out debate with the gallery over whether non-service dogs should be allowed into the show, the gallery declined his request. Perhaps with their aloof and intellectual nature, cats would have been a better choice.

Between the artist’s tour and the panel discussion, I had a chat with Amanda Sutton Director of Venture Arts and Helen Wewiora Director Castlefield Gallery. We spoke about the pressure on disabled artists to always be making a political statement with their work. I should declare that, in my other life as an art maker, reader, this has happened to me. As far as it ever is possible to divorce art from politics and theory, it is doubly hard for disabled artists, because our very existence in these spaces requires so much activism. Sometimes you don’t want to make work about your right to exist, sometimes you just want to paint a really good picture of a buffalo and that should be okay.

Having said that this exhibition is radical. In an art world where we are made to feel attempts at cleverness are more important than attempts to make genuine connections, sincerity is radical. Trying to create gallery spaces where people feel included is radical. Any attempt to make an exclusive space inclusive is fraught with politics.

Gallery wall with mural and seat with cushions

Frances Disley, Hurley Chill (2020), wall mural and Joy Ride Dual Run (2019) textiles. Photograph: Annie Feng

During the discussion, the panel agreed they felt intimidated in gallery spaces. This made me wonder, if the public feel uncomfortable in galleries and artists feel uncomfortable in galleries and honest-to-god professors feel uncomfortable in them, who is the current gallery system set up for? This show crystallised for me, a thing I’ve been feeling for a while, which is that white box galleries are old fashioned, and it’s time we embraced the future of art galleries. Castlefield now has an opportunity to do that. When I asked Wewiora whether she felt this show would change things at Castlefield, she said, “It’s early to say, in a way we’ll have to see what happens next, but we are probably going to keep the hot drinks cart.”

I’d love to visit in Castlefield 12 months and find them using sky blue as their ‘neutral’ wall colour and have all their shows invigilated by artistic, intellectual cats. I understand that’s not going to happen, galleries are of course operating in a world of restrictions just like the rest of us, but I do think it would be a shame if the only thing they kept from this show was the hot drink cart.


‘Thumbs Up’ is at Castlefield Gallery until 8 March. There will be two lunchtime Vinyasa yoga sessions led in the gallery spaces during the exhibition programme on Wednesday 5 and Saturday 22 February 2020.