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‘Pretend art, meaningless, obscene’: How a radical gallery shocked 1980s Rochdale
It set out to end ‘the domination of art by a white middle-class male audience’ and it inspired devotion among fans and artists. But was the town ready for it?
By Fiona Whitty
Looking at it today, it doesn’t strike you as the type of place that was once at the epicentre of ground-breaking cultural shifts and local controversy. Built in 1903 as an add-on to Rochdale’s library, its grand building oozes Victorian charm and tradition, with tall, mullioned windows and intricate carvings of figures etched into its Yorkshire stone exterior. Sitting on the town’s famous Esplanade, you can imagine it being home to grand masterpieces hanging on deep shades of Farrow and Ball.
But visitors to Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s would have experienced a full-on overload of the senses, with cutting-edge live work alongside avant-garde paintings and sculptures. They would also have seen art by black and female and disabled artists that was considered radical for its time and which still stirs resentment today.
Prompted by an ongoing exhibition that looks back at the pioneering shows curated at the venue, I’ve been on a mission to find out more. How did the mostly white Rochdale of the time respond to this place? And what impact did it have on the art world?
During the course of reporting this story, I’ve heard from people who said it inspired their careers — and also from a local artist who still clearly begrudges the gallery’s decision to foreground work by marginalised groups. “They seemed to be there because they were black and women, not because of anything special,” the artist told me on the phone, a moment I found uncomfortable.
A letter to the local newspaper at the time referred to the “prostitution of the town’s Art Gallery,” describing its output as “pretend art, meaningless, obscene.” Was it?
‘Rochdale was just so strange’
“It made me feel that art could do anything,” enthuses Nicholas Blincoe. “It made me feel the world is made of ideas and if we can push these ideas we can do anything.” Blincoe is an author and screenwriter whose credits include episodes of the BBC TV series Waking The Dead. But today he’s talking to me about the art gallery he grew up with in the 1980s, the very one that spurred his creativity as a spiky-haired art student at the college next door. He loved it so much that he took a holiday job there.
As we chat on the phone I ask him what the job was. “Sitting on a chair,” he sniggers, then belly-laughs infectiously when he realises how daft that sounds. We’re not talking about Manchester Art Gallery here, or even The Whitworth — Blincoe’s inspiration came from the small provincial gallery in his hometown of Rochdale. And, according to an exhibition that’s currently on there — A Tall Order! Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s – the tentacles of innovation extended far beyond stirring a teenage punk’s imagination.
The woman responsible for Rochdale’s fresh vision was the forward-thinking arts and exhibitions officer Jill Morgan, who railed against the dominance of the “white, middle-class male” in the art world (more on this later). At the time Manchester Art Gallery and other mainstream venues were concentrating on touring exhibitions curated by the Arts Council, often featuring the same artists over and over again, while The Whitworth tended to rotate works from its own collections, with a heavy reliance on traditional drawings and textiles.
Morgan and her all-female team instead chose to tackle the thorny issues of the day that blighted the lives of Rochdale folk — social divides, racial tension, prejudice against the gay community in the wake of AIDS and the Falklands war.
Resident photographer Malcolm Glover documented Rochdale’s Asian community through a series of poignant images capturing their everyday lives. One showed a family sitting in their patterned wallpaper-clad living room, the three children around a table having tea in front of the TV while mum cleared up and dad watched on. It’s a scene that could have come straight out of any Rochdale family home, affirming the old adage that there is more that unites different communities than divides them.
Blincoe was spellbound, remembering, in particular, an exhibition by the American painter Leon Golub about prisoners being executed in Latin America. About four years ago, Blincoe recalls visiting an exhibition at the Anthony Reynolds Gallery in London which was billed as the first Leon Golub show in Britain. “I said to Anthony, ‘But I’ve seen him in Rochdale,’” he recalls. “I was so adamant that he researched it and was really astonished when he found it was true.” Blincoe adds: “It was only in later years that I realised that Rochdale was just so strange.”
How then did Rochdale manage to be so ahead of its time? Once one of the most productive towns in Britain — thanks to its booming woollen trade — the death of the mills had ripped the soul out of its workforce and, by the 1980s, Rochdale was already on the downward trajectory to becoming one of the most deprived areas in the country. Was art really so important to such a diverse population whose lives were blighted by unemployment and prejudice?
The Labour-led borough council, who partly funded the gallery, appeared to have given Morgan and her team carte blanche to show what they wanted. Perhaps this was because she was simply a forceful advocate of her vision — or perhaps it was politically motivated. A Labour Party policy document for Rochdale’s leisure services from the era points towards the latter, using culture as a way of railing against Thatcher’s government and its southern bedrock. “We see the role of socialist arts as being to raise awareness in people in Rochdale of the limitations inherent in capitalist centred attitudes,” it states.
Rochdale had a particularly radical Labour council, recalls Derek Horton, an artist, writer and academic who worked with Morgan in the 1990s in her next job at Leeds Metropolitan University (and co-curated A Tall Order!) “This cultural policy document is relatively hardcore even compared with something that might have come out of the GLC [Greater London Council] at the time,” he says.
Rochdale Art Gallery has since changed its name to Touchstones but remains in the same building. The title of the current exhibition looking back at the 1980s is taken from a letter Morgan wrote in 1987 to Salford City Council’s culture department, who were seeking advice on audience engagement in their own borough. This excerpt sums up her aims:
Our policy is to encourage new audiences for art, particularly women, black communities, young people, those with disabilities, and to encourage cultural activity for working class communities. Broadly, to change the domination of art by a white middle class male audience and producer. A tall order!
But what of the “white middle class male audience”? Did they agree it was time for change? Tony Smart, an artist who also taught painting at Rochdale College of Art throughout the 1980s, was unimpressed with what was going on in the gallery. The decade was a time of widespread racial prejudice and against that backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising — albeit uneasy reading today — that some of the old school resented the shift in emphasis.
“There was quite a lot of — what seems to be common these days — trying to promote black women artists and I thought, ‘why are they doing that? What’s that got to do with anything?’” Smart tells me. “How it came about that Jill Morgan could see an opening here in publicity or choosing black women artists, I don’t know. I couldn’t see that (the artists) were any better than anyone else and perhaps they were not quite as good as other people.”
Smart wonders if he is “sounding a bit grumpy about the whole thing,” but the nature of his critique is pretty clear. “I’d go and see the exhibitions and think, ‘I’m not sure they’re any good really’. They seemed to be there because they were black and women not because of anything special. They didn’t come to me and say, ‘can we give you an exhibition of work?’ I don’t know, had I been a black woman would I have got an exhibition? Perhaps I would have done.”
‘Rochdale wasn't ready for this’
The gallery gave a first chance to artists who would become big names. For example, Marty St James and Anne Wilson put on their first performance art show there — in the 1990s they were to go on to create critically acclaimed video portraits of actress Julie Walters and others which hung in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
Established figures were there too. The jazz singer George Melly gave a talk about surrealism. Laurie Anderson, the American artist and composer who had a hit single with the weirdly electronic O Superman, held her only show outside of London and Edinburgh at Rochdale. And pop artist Richard Hamilton, the man behind The Beatles’ White Album cover and Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry’s one-time art lecturer, also exhibited in the gallery with a series of artworks about the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Morgan was clearly on a mission to change the status quo in the art world. But I wondered, as I explored the ongoing exhibition, about the impact the gallery had. What, in the end, did it achieve?
For some, it was too much too soon. Blincoe’s mother Jenny taught art at a comprehensive in the town and has mixed feelings. In an email, she tells me how she enjoyed some exhibitions but not others, sometimes because she simply could not understand what they were about. “Teaching art to 15/16 year-olds in the 80s, I couldn't take them to exhibitions that I couldn't explain,” she says. While she accepts Morgan was ahead of her time promoting the work of women, black and gay artists she adds: “Rochdale wasn't ready for this.”
I get in touch with Horton’s co-curator Alice Correia, a specialist in 1980s and 90s British art with a focus on black and South Asian artists. Although too young to experience the radical exhibitions at the time, she later came to appreciate that Rochdale was “exceptional” in the diversity and inclusivity of the artists it showed. “Other institutions might have had one black artist on show, then nothing for five years,” she recalls. “Rochdale was (constantly) engaging with artists of colour, women artists, artists with disabilities.”
“There is a very heavy concentration on work by women, and men don’t seem to stand a chance.”
But not everyone was a fan and certainly, there was more than one Mr and Mrs Angry of Rochdale who railed against the gallery at the time in letters and articles in the Rochdale Observer and Manchester Evening News, with various exhibitions labelled “elitist and divisive” and “offensive”, with the gallery also branded “a laughing stock”.
An architect called Mr Berkeley Moir, a co-founder of the Friends of Rochdale Art Gallery, lambasted the gallery in an article for the MEN, claiming some of its exhibitions were “on the obscene side” and adding: “We just feel that the gallery has lost its appeal for the public.” In the same article, another unnamed member of the group went further. “There is a very heavy concentration on work by women, and men don’t seem to stand a chance. Another qualification to get an exhibition there seems to be to have a complete inability to do anything artistic.”
And in a letter to the Rochdale Observer, a reader calling themselves Simple Soul wrote: “It really is time that somebody did something about the prostitution of the town’s Art Gallery. The current exhibition, New Robes for Mashulan, is the best example yet of pretend art, meaningless, obscene, political, that we have had the misfortune to support with ratepayers’ money.” The writer finished by calling for a return to “real” art and an end to “political claptrap”.
Of course, angry letter writers like Simple Soul didn’t speak for Rochdale as a whole. Susan Lord, another former art college student, recalls Rochdale’s town centre throbbing with young people and different subcultures, from punks to mods to rockers. Festivals regularly took place outside the town hall, bands played at the college and football ground and the famous Cargo Studios attracted the coolest bands of the day to record, including Joy Division, The Fall, The Charlatans and The Stone Roses. “It was a poor working-class town and interesting things come out of poor working-class towns, don’t they?” she says to me. “It’s escapism.”
“It really is time that somebody did something about the prostitution of the town’s Art Gallery.”
Sculptor Juginder Lamba was one of the artists Morgan featured. Born in Nairobi to Indian parents, he’d been sent to boarding school in the Himalayas before the family settled in London when he was 14. By the time he was shown at Rochdale, in an exhibition of wooden sculptures called Relics, he had been practising for around 10 years, with several shows at regional venues.
“If I approached some of the more mainstream galleries in London they just didn’t want to know,” he recalls. “You felt marginalised. I found that most of the galleries in London had a very narrow way of looking at art which was tied entirely to art history in the west — mainstream institutional stuff. They did not look closely at all at artists from different cultural backgrounds who might have brought different kinds of sensitivities into their work, who might be addressing different kinds of issues, who weren’t necessarily completely embedded in the western art tradition. Jill was actually quite unique.”
I ask Lamba what the impact of the 1985 Rochdale exhibition was — whether it elevated his career. “I’d like to say yes but the truth is no because not many other curators or galleries were singing the same tune as Jill,” he mulls. I perceive a hint of sadness, disappointment. “You could say Rochdale Art Gallery was ahead of its time,” he continues, “but that implies that what Jill was on about was then taken into the mainstream later on. But it hasn’t, not in the same way. She brought to the front artists like myself who were relatively invisible otherwise and gave them some degree of exposure.”
John Hyatt was a relatively new artist in 1984 when Morgan gave him a break by putting on his Art Wars exhibition. As a result, he was selected for the 1985 British Art Show, with a painting entitled Art Wars: Division and Design being used as the image on the catalogue cover and in publicity. “This was radical,” he tells me. “I was very young and very out there. The art world of that time was relatively staid and the artists were mostly old men.”
Certainly, several other emerging artists featured at Rochdale went on to become big names in art, like Keith Piper, a co-founder of the influential BLK Arts Group, an organisation of artists, sculptors and painters of African and Caribbean heritage. Nowadays his work — often centred on digital effects or installations — is exhibited globally. Lubaina Himid had several exhibitions at Rochdale but her work was largely overlooked for years before finally being officially recognised in 2010 with an MBE and then a 2017 Turner Prize. I suppose it’s an anomaly that the once-marginalised then become mainstream.
Morgan has since retired and I get the impression she is publicity-shy, preferring to let the work of the artists speak. I can find out little about her and am unable to reach her; I hear she may be abroad. However, Bev Bytheway, who was assistant exhibitions officer at Rochdale in the early 1980s — Morgan’s deputy — is happy to talk.
Fresh out of college, it was Bytheway’s first job and you can only imagine how exciting it was to be sucked into this radical way of working from the off. “It wasn’t like there was a model you could follow,” she tells me. “You were constantly discussing and talking and debating and asking questions. You felt like you were part of something much bigger than us.”
But I’m still seeking to discover whether the gallery’s work really had a tangible effect on Rochdale itself. I speak to Stu McKenzie, another former student at Rochdale College of Art who went on to become an artist, poet and member of the band Wild Daughter (who supported Primal Scream on a tour) as well as work for Vivienne Westwood. He still recalls the impact the Laurie Anderson show had on him, describing a bizarre exhibit where sound reverberated around different parts of his body from pads on his elbows plus a telephone which, when picked up, relayed a message which said something like “hear what you say, say what you mean”.
“I was very self-conscious and shy back then like you would be at 16,” he adds. “Going to all these exhibitions, when you’ve got all these feelings inside you that you can’t express, [gives you] a way of expressing them through touch and interactive multimedia.” Stu feels strongly that the art gallery embodied Rochdale’s psyche, that a lack of money and prospects among its people actually fuelled its inventiveness. “If you only have three sweets left in a bag, you savour them,” he says. “So if you savour your creativity, your ideas, you put them to good use. It makes you challenge things, not accept the status quo.”
So did the gallery’s 1980s revolution make a dent on the mainstream? Alice Correia, the co-curator of today’s exhibition, is adamant it did. “What Rochdale did needs to be celebrated and shouted from the rooftops,” she says. “It’s very easy to be dismissive of Rochdale being a backwater town — it’s not Manchester or London. But it offers us a glimpse that there is no reason why great art cannot be seen in small towns.”
So what was it? “Prostitution of the town’s Art Gallery,” or a place that blazed a trail and opened new doors? It’s rare that you write about an institution and receive such starkly divergent views — from ugly resentment to unadulterated praise. But perhaps that divergence shows how unusual this gallery was — how risky and how radical.
A Tall Order! Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s is on at Touchstones until 6 May. The gallery is open from 10am until 5pm today and from Thursdays to Saturdays every week.