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Diary: November Apollo

21 November 2014

New Contemporaries is the longest running exhibition of work by emerging artists from UK art schools. Begun in 1949 as Young Contemporaries, the organisation turns 65 this year. It has helped to launch the careers of scores of artists, from David Hockney to Damien Hirst to Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. With this year’s edition of the exhibition about to open at the ICA, London, it affords an opportunity to ask whether its current form and approach is still what ‘new’ artists need.

When I joined New Contemporaries as director in 2009 everyone had a story to tell me. John Stezaker remembered having been to the exhibition, though he could recall no specific details other than a fire; when Sandy Nairne worked on it, as director of exhibitions at the ICA in the early ’80s, he had to negotiate Mona Hatoum’s plan to have a video camera in the lavatories live-feeding into the gallery; Pablo Bronstein spoke about it in venomous terms, having applied on every possible occasion but having never been selected. Everyone also had an opinion about the organisation’s role and what it should be doing.

As part of thinking about the potential future of New Contemporaries, I explored the archive. It revealed little change in responses to the exhibition: ‘[I]t is a little melancholy to see such a profusion of budding talent when one society offers a decent living for only a small number of “pure” artists…Whatever their abilities, the young artists themselves are in no doubt about their vocation. They bear all the signs of dedication – corduroys, red shirts, long hair and as many beards as would keep them all in paint brushes for a life-time.’ Though written by a critic about the first show and antiquated in tone, the description of employment prospects and the proliferation of beards resonates today. In trying to promote New Contemporaries I frequently encountered a sense of ‘we’ve seen it all before’. Indeed, by 1959 patience had already worn thin, with one reviewer writing that ‘perhaps after ten years the public would hardly miss the disappearance of these shapeless hugger-muggers, though a few dealers might’.

The catalogue cover for the 1989 New Contemporaries exhibition, which featured Damien Hirst’s fifth and sixth ‘Medicine Cabinets’

The exhibition has always had a strong relationship to the market. In 1949, the then Queen bought two paintings from it; Hockney’s Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style and The Third Love Painting were in
the 1962 exhibition, now both in the Tate Collection; Hirst’s fifth and sixth ‘Medicine Cabinets’ were in the 1989 iteration, bought by Charles Saatchi. Now, with galleries picking up younger and younger artists, gallerists are always among the first through the door.

Though the show might mark ‘success’ for included artists, failure is a defining feature of the organisation’s history. For long periods administered by students prone to exhausting funds, causing floods, and offending venue staff, time and again Young/New Contemporaries was run into the ground. Yet whenever the organisation collapsed, invariably a group would mobilise to pick it up again.

In 1989 it was definitively ‘picked up’ and ‘professionalised’ with support from Arts Council England, and an ‘administrator’ and board of trustees were appointed. Intended to stabilise the organisation, this was not the result. Still it lurched from one crisis to the next via sponsorships from British Telecom, individuals, and, latterly, Bloomberg: while these have been beneficial, they are also a reminder that the organisation has no stable funding model.

Historically, the show has often been judged most successful when led by students. In 1968, The Guardian wrote ‘The dominant virtue of this year’s Young Contemporaries is that it is not at the Tate. Last year’s was…Now we are back with the usual thing, with a lot of mutually discordant works squeezed into a limited space…No matter; quantity and variety are more important here than professional display. If the result is kaleidoscopic display this honestly reflects the variety of interests and ambitions prevailing in the art school today.’ The following year was pivotal as ‘the students decided to take over selection themselves’; selection had previously been undertaken by more established artists, as it is now. As Andrew Lambirth writes, ‘This controversial move was the logical if belated reaction to establishment colonisation of the YC’.

The cultural landscape is radically different to what it once was. In the UK there are thousands more art students studying from all over the world as well as dozens of emerging artist shows and competitions.
What makes New Contemporaries different and necessary? Though the organisation is at the core of post-war contemporary art in the UK, it cannot rely on its history in defining its future. New Contemporaries
must be boldly rethought and as part of this process the organisation must be allowed to fail – as ever – as much as the artists within it.

Bloomberg New Contemporaries is at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London from 26 November–25 January 2015.

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