During the first UK lockdown of 2020, the artist Grayson Perry brought us together with his Art Club TV programme. Each week, he hosted a show from his studio. He invited all-comers; artists, non-artists, celebrities, and members of the public (from Sir Antony Gormley to Harry Hill), to submit works on a theme.
When lockdown ended, Perry teamed up with Manchester Art Gallery to exhibit selected contributions, as revealed in a ‘behind the scenes’ episode. Perry had to choose 87 pieces from over 10,000 submissions, and the curators had only seven weeks to bring it together.
Unfortunately, the respite was brief. The show, which was due to open in October last year, was scuppered by the second wave of gallery closures. Fortunately, MAG has extended the end date to October 21. In the meantime, their website features images of several works and a recorded curators’ tour.
Grayson’s Art Club is an amazing achievement. As Perry put it, “a glimmer of hope.” Many of us tuned into it last year, finding our spirits lifted by quirky and creative responses to strange and unsettling times. At the heart of the show were the stories behind each artist and their work. Several of these are discussed in the tour. From a teacher’s portrait of a school leaver missing out on ‘last day’ rituals, to a young woman fighting to prove her citizenship status during the pandemic. From the parts of an artist’s face that she’s relieved to hide behind a mask, to a multicultural scene of neighbours clapping for the NHS. It’s a snapshot of the diversity underlying our ‘national Covid story.’
Alistair Hudson, Director of MAG, is right to say that “Art Club’s ethos chimes with that of Manchester Art Gallery, as an art school for everyone and the promotion of art for the health of society.” At 45 minutes, the livestreamed tour is a commendable effort. It gives a sense of the exhibition space and insights into the curatorial choices behind it. By focusing on pieces not featured in the TV show, it broadens our perspective.
The view from our windows
I can’t help feeling that more could be done. Even now, this exhibition could be opened up to all of us who can’t visit. It’s a shame that a project with democracy and accessibility at its heart has been left out of the public’s reach for several months. Consider the lengths to which recent online exhibitions in Manchester, including smaller institutions, have gone to, offering navigable 3D tours, high-quality images of all the artwork, and artist commentaries.
As our only available means of seeing the exhibition at present, the tour gives a tantalising and frustrating glimpse. Only a small sample of artworks are featured. This is either in the tour, or as viewable images. Presumably due to social distancing requirements, we aren’t treated to close-ups of some of the featured works. And yet, the video quality is such that we can’t appreciate them otherwise. For example, one of the curators lovingly describes the landscape patterns on a ‘radiotherapy mask’ sculpture – only for the tour to cut away before we see it ourselves.
If an exhibition goes up in a forest…
This is not meant as a criticism of the curator’s tour itself. It is a well-choreographed livestream. But a pre-recorded tour does not suffice as an online exhibition experience. It needs substantial editing to let us be there, ‘in the room’, with them.
Nor is it my intention to undervalue all those who worked so hard to bring it about. And also those who are part of a sector that is, more broadly, struggling for survival. I believe that a more imaginative approach to opening up the exhibition might avoid those efforts going to waste. It should help sustain public engagement with MAG when it is needed most.
That said, the exhibition arguably serves a purpose beyond making these works available to the public. In the series’ last episode, we saw the contributors giving socially-distanced private tours. There was a strong sense of the exhibition as a ritualised ‘thank you’ to the artists from the public. So, even if the exhibition is never able to open to us – a prospect thankfully less likely, given its extension – it has more than justified itself.
Want to get involved? MAG invites people to upload their own artworks to Instagram with the hashtag #MAGartclub. Check the website for February’s theme. Selected participants will have their work shared on a live screen in the exhibition and online.