8 February 2016
The Attenborough Arts Centre’s new gallery space officially opened on 29th January 2016 with an exhibition by Lucy + Jorge Orta. Liz Porter attended the launch and the exhibition, assessing both from a visually impaired perspective.
The newly opened Attenborough Arts Centre’s gallery set in the heart of Leicester has huge potential to support the organisation’s ongoing agenda based around access, diversity and inclusion.
It was a significant statement that the inaugural exhibition Art, Life, Activism, which unofficially opened the gallery late last year (read DAO’s review here) brought together acclaimed artists who make artwork informed by the politics of disability.
For the second exhibition, the internationally acclaimed Lucy + Jorge Orta present artwork that questions the social and ecological sustainability of our planet. The subject matter explored climate change and migration provoking audiences to engage with and consider impact and consequences.
I particularly enjoyed the audio installation. Set in a dimly lit room was a cacophony of bird and animal sounds interjected with musical elements representing forests and the weather. This was accompanied by a static spiritual body of half-human, half-animal figures dressed in brown, each with a head representing a different endangered species. They seemed to be almost waiting to leap back into life with dance. This was a sculpture I wanted to touch, but this was not on offer.
Hearing Sir David and Michael Attenborough (Lord Richard Attenborough’s son) speak was truly inspiring. The entire family come across with genuine humanity and with passionate commitment to the Arts Centre and Leicester University.
Michael Attenborough is now trustee of the Arts Centre. On asking him how we can push forward the agenda around access for artists and audiences, his response was that the organisation and event managers need to be the most welcoming hosts possible to enable the broadest conversations to happen. Conversations between the artists and community, between the amateur and the professional, is what needs to happen on an ongoing basis:
“There is no magic formula but there are some quite intimidating borderlines between the artist and the public, and places like this are there to invite people to join the party and to enable dialogue to happen.”
I could have listened to them talk all day, fantastic storytellers, Michael’s anecdotes about his father’s love for collecting art and ‘rubbing shoulders with Picasso and Laurie’ were flying – I hope someone picks up on this and collects an oral history. Fascinating and relevant stuff.
They seem to have made some headway around diverse programming. Sam West, the Visual Arts Officer told me they are in discussions with a number of key disabled artists to programme work in the next couple of years. Provocative work, which stimulates debate is what they seem to be aiming for.
Access for audiences is important too, and I think they’ve still got some way to go here, especially around developing Deaf access. I was surprised there were no BSL interpreters at the launch. But developing good access takes years and is expensive.
I was pleased to hear that the Cambodian company Epic Arts are currently on a two-year residency based at the Centre. Epic are known for their approach to inclusive arts practice (having presented a strong showcase at DaDaFest, Liverpool in 2014) and will be cascading the learning throughout the organisation.
I tried out the basic audio trail, a first for the staff who put it together. I got a sense of each piece on display, the vivid use of colour and texture, the reoccurring theme of people in sleeping bags. Hung on stretchers on the walls there were small bottles filled with different bits and pieces, one sculpture seemed to have a house with empty windows and a boat with many bottles underneath. I could guess the meaning, but it was at times difficult to grasp, and the connections weren’t obvious. So next time I hope they will include more context behind the art described.
A ‘multi-sensory suitcase’ has been designed for children with complex impairment needs and will be available for general use and in targeted family workshops. It had a map of the world on top and material elements to represent aspects of the exhibition inside: bits of material, a bottle, a life jacket, a mask from one of the bird figures etc. A lovely idea, but again it needs a bit more info for parents to know how to use in self-guided visits.
They have two year’s funding from Children in Need for this work, so they are on a forward-looking journey and will actively engage diverse audiences of all ages in conversation as part of this process. As we know, it’s extremely difficult to make everything accessible to all every time; gathering feedback from users will inform new developments.
Clearly the centre is gaining recognition, on 3 February, VisitEngland announced their finalists for their Access For All Awards and the Attenborough Arts Centre is in the top 5.