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Mark Doyle says that a clear sense of purpose has encouraged leading artists to participate in an ambitious programme of contemporary exhibitions in Rochdale.

Photo of dancers on stage
Rachel Kneebone's The Dance Project

Len Grant

Two years ago, Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery embarked on an ambitious programme of contemporary exhibitions, commissions and projects, attracting the work of leading artists. That this has happened in Rochdale, a former industrial town, 14 miles from Manchester and over 200 miles from London, might surprise many.

Local people deserve to see nationally and internationally important art on their doorstep

Having a singular mission has to be one of the most important factors in making great things happen in smaller galleries, away from the capital cities. It’s critical to set your stall out and communicate exactly what your strengths are and what you intend to focus on as an institution. Ultimately, it’s about what sets you apart from the rest.

In our case, Rochdale has a depth of industrial, political, social and visual arts history that has been a source of intrigue and inspiration for artists of all disciplines for over a century. I always recall a speech by the then Head of Sculpture Studies at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, Lisa Le Feuvre, delivered to collectors and philanthropists, in which she spelt out in no uncertain terms what the institute existed to do. Her message has stayed with me ever since. Nobody else can be sure about your identity and reason for being if you’re not absolutely clear yourself – and doubt can be more contagious than faith.

Focus on female artists

The core resources, both financial and human, available to regional arts organisations like ours are hugely restrictive, and you just can’t cover everything. You have to accept limitations and try and make a mark where you can. Reviewing the exhibitions and acquisitions policy for the gallery in 2016 with such limitations in mind, we reached the decision that just three key areas would be our focus for our Contemporary Forward programme: women artists, northern talent and contemporary craft.

Throughout its history, the gallery has taken a lead on showcasing female artistic talent, but especially so during the 1980s and early 1990s when it was at the forefront nationally of feminist, and issue-based, practice. With subsequent changes in personnel there had been a lull in this activity in the intervening decades, but it made complete sense to rekindle this pioneering programme and explore the conceptual concerns of a new generation of female artists. All of the artists we’ve worked with have been receptive to, and inspired by, this mission. They want to be a part of something with a consistent and clear purpose and with which they can personally identify.

We’ve also been open-minded in our approach to, and relationship with, artists. There are certain practical and institutional obligations we need to fulfil, but the emphasis has very much been on providing them with the space and support to take risks, try something new and help them move their practice forward. Perhaps smaller, regional galleries have an advantage in this sense. Why not aim to become a playground for new ideas?

As a consequence of our strategy over the last three years, the majority of exhibitions have been solo presentations featuring newly commissioned work and installations. And though it is by no means conditional, we’ve also invited artists to research and respond to our rich history, communities and permanent collections (fine art, museum and local studies).

Clearly, this way of working doesn’t come cheap. The generosity of the artists, and where applicable their commercial galleries, has helped, but critically we’ve also successfully attracted the support of a wide range of external funders such as Arts Council England, Art Fund, Foyle Foundation and the Henry Moore Foundation. Like the artists, they’ve bought into our clear strategy.

Local audiences

While we want to connect with the broader contemporary art world, we’ve been very clear about our commitment to local audiences.

Within a year of starting, Lisa O’Neill-Rogan joined us as the Creative Learning and Participation Manager. Part of the new post’s remit was to embed our work more deeply within local communities, particularly those currently not engaged. From the outset we’ve been working closely together to look at how our exhibitions and collection can effect real change in the lives of the people who live in the locale.

Rochdale has high levels of socio-economic deprivation and low cultural engagement, but we collectively believe that access to the very best in art and cultural experience is an essential human right, regardless of your circumstances. Local people deserve to see nationally and internationally important art on their doorstep and artistic excellence is not something we’re prepared to compromise on.

For us and arts organisations like ours, this element of our work must not feel like an after-thought or an add-on to the main event. We’ve been transparent about this with the artists and it’s formed an integral part of the discussions at an early stage. Without exception, all of the artists have embraced this approach, and I think it has increased their desire to work with us.

Sculpture and dance

We were immensely proud to produce and premiere The Dance Project with artist Rachel Kneebone. When Rachel first started talking to us about exploring the strong sense of movement of her practice through a new body of work for exhibition at the gallery, she also proposed realising a long-held ambition to collaborate with a choreographer to develop a piece of contemporary dance theatre in response to her sculptures. Furthermore, she wanted the performers to be women from our local community.

Over a period of six months an inter-generational and multi-faith group of women drawn from across Rochdale worked with Rachel and acclaimed choreographer TC Howard to share their personal stories and begin to express them through the medium of dance.

On the opening night of Rachel’s exhibition, the group performed the final piece in the grand setting of the historic great hall at Rochdale Town Hall to a packed audience. It was the culmination of an intense and amazing journey, enriching for the diverse range of people professionally and emotionally connected. But we don’t intend that to be the end of our journeys together. We know it’s important not to invite our communities in and then when the exhibition is over, leave them out in the cold. Developing that sustainable relationship may be the greatest challenge facing organisations like ours.

Direction and determination

Contemporary Forward, as a funded and time-specific project, will reach its conclusion next summer. However, it’s set the blueprint for our future direction and there’s determination to sustain this level of consistent excellence and ambition for Rochdale.

This is dependent on a range of factors, not least the continued support of external funders and our long-term partnerships. It is these partnerships that are perhaps the defining achievement and the pivot around which our success has been possible, each one making us hugely positive about the future.

Mark Doyle is Art Gallery Curator & Collections Manager at Touchstones Rochdale Art Gallery.
Tw @ContempForward

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Photo of Mark Doyle