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Portfolio NW Artists talking blog: Dr Katrin Joost

Portfolio NW is not only an interesting exhibition, but very much a valuable venture. This blog is a short reflection on the importance of such schemes, not only supporting the arts, but also furthering audience development. In this light, I will share some thoughts reflecting on the arts and the importance of audience development in Carlisle.

We all know and have read much about the problematic economical situation resulting in austerity measures affecting the arts. Times are difficult for artists and audiences everywhere. However, it could be argued that in a region like Cumbria with a large proportion of rural areas there is a less established culture of supporting and appreciating contemporary and challenging art.

Institutional support is limited - Carlisle is one of the few British cities, (perhaps the only?) without a publicly funded contemporary art gallery. The local museum Tullie House recently became a trust fund and cut staff, resulting in the loss of their contemporary exhibitions officer.

There is also, perhaps, a tendency in Britain, and more so in Carlisle, to view the arts as a luxury only a small section of the population is interested in. Of course, not everybody likes all art.[1] However, similarly not everybody is interested in sports. Sport too could be considered a luxury, yet, Carlisle manages to maintain comprehensive sporting facilities encompassing a football stadium, rugby ground, numerous tennis courts, a running track and swimming pool, etc.

So clearly there seems to be a perception that there is no audience for the arts in Carlisle. The independent cinema was closed several years ago, leaving only one small multiplex cinema, showing a limited selection of 3D blockbusters and animations. Yet, the alternative cinema club, which shows a small selection of art films once a week in Tullie House, is practically always sold out.

This understanding of the arts as an elitist interest which bypasses the majority of people is a common misperception. Frank Zappa[2] noted that more people visit art galleries and museums than football and baseball events combined. More recently (2006) the British museums report by the LSE states that “over 42 million visit... major museums and art galleries [each year]...more than the attendance at the Premier League plus the whole of the rest of league football. … 43% of the population visited a museum or art gallery at least once a year.”[3] 

I would argue that a healthy range of different arts facilities are vital for a thriving city; as evidenced in Gateshead (Baltic and Sage), MIMA in Middlesborough, Walsall Contemporary Art Gallery and the multi million pound development currently underway in Birmingham of a ‘Cultural Quarter’; not to mention Tate Modern. All these institutions become focal points allowing smaller artist led initiatives to develop and enrich the city.

There is a range of such small arts projects in the region. Carlisle has more of a piecemeal arts provision with a number of small projects, some remaining (c-arts, West Wall, Free Range Artists) others coming and going (Bank Gallery, Mill Gallery). More recent developments are the Crown Gallery and the Galley Gallery.

I am currently developing a new network - phire (Photography in Research & Education) promoting photography practice and critical thought. After organising the conference Visualising the Rural, bringing together artists and academics to rethink the meaning and depiction of rurality, I became acutely aware of the invisibility of artists’ networks and related events. The infrastructure for information distribution about arts events is very poor and phire will hopefully help to address this need in view of photography events. The second Carlisle Photography Festival (beginning to draw in national and international artists) has been more visible within the city and the council has taken notice and expressed the intent to support such events developing Carlisle into a city of festivals.

Hopefully, there is more of a will to consider the arts not as a drain on resources, but as a vital element in the life of Carlisle. The long-term institutional remit of the Bluecoat “to nurture both creative individuals and audiences … [and] for local groups of artists to share their work” is precisely what is needed in Carlisle along with a nationally (if not internationally) important venue. Whether the city rises to the challenge and the optimistic ventures of the Crown Gallery, phire and the Carlisle Photography Festival will survive long enough to shape the city remains to be seen. 

Dr Katrin Joost is a Lecturer at The University of Cumbria teaching undergraduate and foundation degree modules across the arts faculty.

[1]   And there is, of course, an ongoing debate about what falls under the umbrella of contemporary art I do not want to get into here.

[2]   Donn Menn, The Mother of All Interviews Part 1 from A Definitive Tribute to Frank Zappa (Best of Guitar Players 1994), available at

Image: Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle


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