A Year of Female Artists at Plymouth Arts Centre


Contributor Eve Jones met Plymouth Arts Centre’s Artistic Director Ben Borthwick, to discuss their year-long exhibition programme dedicated to female artists and curators.


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Plymouth Arts Centre’s 2016 exhibition programme, dedicated to female artists and curators, launched with the group exhibition The First Humans curated by Angela Kingston, followed by All Walls Are Interrupted, by Cardiff-based artist Kelly Best. TRUE TO SIZE by artist / poet Heather Phillipson was an Arts Council Collection 70th Anniversary commission. Katya Sander’s Publicness was a mid career survey of the Danish artist’s work. The year-long programme closes with a new commission by Megan Broadmeadow, Astro Raggi, which runs until 7 January.

This winter, Plymouth Arts Centre is alive with the extravagant lighting, shimmering costumes and altered states of the disco, with Astro Raggi, a new commission by artist Megan Broadmeadow. This the fifth and final show in the arts centre’s 2016 exhibition programme which has been entirely dedicated to female artists and curators, and Broadmeadow’s exhibition marks the end of an exciting year.

Artistic Director Ben Borthwick has had the overview of the Arts Centre’s programme of visual art since 2014. He previously ran Artes Mundi, an international art prize, and was a curator at Tate Modern. I ask why he has committed to a year long programme with only women artists? ‘Because there is a problem in the art world, across society’, Ben states with a simplicity that is hard to disagree with, ‘it seems like the sector privileges male artists instead of female artists. There are a higher proportion of female arts graduates, but as their careers progress, that ratio flips and you find a higher proportion of solo exhibitions are given to men. This was a way of declaring a position, saying “this is something we’re concerned about”, but I didn’t want it to be tokenistic. I’m not going to say we are changing the world with this program – we recognise our limits – but this is something we can do that is valuable.’ When asked how he selects the artist he replies ‘You try to create some kind of rhythm where even though each show is different there is some kind of pattern through which a programme will unfold.’

At this point Ben stops speaking and I am unsure whether he is simply in deep thought about this topical issue or our Skype call has frozen. Turns out it’s the latter and this gets us talking about digital communication and Heather Phillipson’s emoji-filled exhibition TRUE TO SIZE in which ‘every single sense and space was overloaded, perfectly echoing the way that we inhabit — and are inhabited by — digital communication’, he muses. ‘But then we also had Katya Sander’s Publicness installation, a survey of work made since the late 1990s about public space. One of her pieces is a badge that says “if you read this, I’ll give it to you (but then you have to wear it)” – it’s kind of like a proto-tweet. It is less than 140 characters, and by wearing it you take it out into the world and get responses from people you don’t know, you start a dialogue, exchange it, and sent it out into the world. Even though it’s an old piece, in a funny way, it has something interesting to say about social media. It didn’t when it was first made but, like all great artworks, it adapts itself to its surroundings and creates new meanings for itself.’

I ask how the public reacted to the exhibition: ‘With each of the shows this year there have been people who really loved what they’ve seen and others who were saying “call this art?!?” You hope that you will be stirring emotions and animating people enough that they are moved to put down an opinion. The worst possible outcome would be a completely blank comments board.’

What would you say to someone unsure about visiting the Arts Centre? ‘Well, we’re ending the year with a bang!’ The artist, Megan Broadmeadow, is a recent graduate whose first solo show is the last in the exhibition. ‘Her work has a ravey aesthetic’, Ben describes excitedly, ‘it pays homage to the King of Italian Disco lighting – very immersive and colourful’ – an admirable showcase of young talent. And does he have a favourite from the exhibition? He pauses. ‘My favourite is always the one that’s about to open — but this one really is going to be special!’

Megan Broadmeadow, ‘10022’ , 2016. Photo: Jan Vrhovnik. Courtesy of the artist.

Heather Phillipson,‘TRUE TO SIZE’, 2016. Arts Council Collection. Photo: Steve Tanner.

 Katya Sander, ‘If You Read This I’ll Give It To You’, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.