Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Organisational Development: Research Visit to Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

Rebecca Davies meets with Clare Charles, Director at Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

(Welsh Cake) Rebecca Davies, 2018.

I first met Clare back in 2014 when she bought my ice cream van for a hundred quid. I had put a callout on Facebook for someone to take this vehicle off me: "she’s a beauty and had a good innings as a library, maypole and rave venue, but her heart is slowing down (and my energy at the time trying to store her somewhere in London) and needs someone or a group to breathe life into her."

Clare got in touch.

Clare was working for Made in Roath at the time and the van went on to be a May Day float, bar and temporary space at Spit and Sawdust – a skate park and arts programme in Cardiff.

In the Spring of this year, I got in touch with Clare: we had seen each other a couple of times at workshops or events I had run in London since 2014. She was working as Project Manager with Metal, Southend. Given her experience working with Engage, Ffoto Gallery and on various projects in Wales, I was keen to link with Clare as part of my research for AirSpace Gallery. She responded immediately – but to say that she was leaving Metal and going to be Director of an artist led space, back in Cardiff.

So, on Wednesday 3 October, I made my way out to see Clare in Cardiff. Arriving at the station I was reminded what a bloody big city it is: the last time I had visited was for my friend Phoebe’s 21st – about twenty of us rolled in and out of a Wetherspoons pub to watch the rugby (and on that trip I think Cardiff graced me with two new experiences – rugby and snakebites).

I met Clare at Arcade, which incidentally is in a shopping arcade in the centre of Cardiff. Surrounded by a sea of commercial businesses, Arcade sits in the belly of a brightly lit metal and glass building. It’s main unit sits next door to New Look and opposite a hair salon. Directly in front are two massage chairs. "It takes me back to our unit at The Elephant, Clare!" I exclaim when I arrive. The music blaring from the salon competes with the muzak playing from the mall’s tannoy speakers. Clare had visited the project I ran for years with Eva Sajovic from the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre.

An exhibition is being installed, and Clare introduces me to the artist and walks me through the space. Out the back is an office (Clare’s mostly) and up/down some stairs there is a residency space (the annual residency is six months, the artist finally sharing their work in an exhibition). Clare leads us into another unit – Arcade’s second space, Campfa, which also has a show being installed. "What are your partnerships like?" I ask, "Links with the university are great – the Fine Art course use the gallery for their shows and treat it as their own space." Being the Director, Clare runs the space, leading on all the programming that takes place; she is supported by one part-time Producer and occasionally people volunteer their support (volunteers are associates and associates have an exhibition once a year).

Arcade is currently in its eighth year as an artist led gallery and residency programme. There is a new show every three weeks – which was first set out to ‘keep things fresh’. I’m a bit shocked, "but that must be exhausting Clare!" The two of us are pretty tired and hungry, so continue the conversation in the Wetherspoons round the corner from where Clare lives – walking distance from the gallery. We talk excitedly about work we’ve been doing over the last few years, projects that have been met with challenges, people who have supported us, institutions who have disappointed us and pitfalls we have had to overcome. The more we talk, the more I realise we’ve both needed this. It feels like support!**

**I keep banging on about this, but feeling like someone’s ‘got your back’ is really important to me. Personally and professionally. It’s about trust, and it’s about feeling like you’re supported enough in the work to take risks and be bold. This, I think, strengthens the artist led.

Everyone is trying to protect what’s important to them right now – that’s a standard result of a shitty social and economic environment. I am trying to protect and champion the arts, because I think it’s rad, powerful and can change shit for the better, if that’s what people want. And I think through doing this organisation development, we are trying to protect an arts space – AND the artist led.

Good arts spaces are permeable – to their locality and community.

This is something that Clare recognises from experience, but also wants Arcade to do more of – permeate. In February 2019, things will be a little different at Arcade/Campfa, in a bid to activate the space more and widen their community. "It’s been a remit of artists to be centred if people hover at the gallery’s entrance – it has always been up to that person to enter. But I’m trying to shift this." In addition to some great pre-existing activity, such as critiques for volunteers (often students) and volunteer socials, the plan is for the gallery to introduce something more permanent, that’s part of the space: a workshop and library. This programme would be curated by an artist, supported by Clare and the Producer. "There would be wifi and tables, and space for people to come and work." The residency would also use it as a space to share work and interact with people.

During my short stay in Cardiff, Clare arranged for meetings with Becca Thomas of Spit N Sawdust and the organisers of Made in Roath (Clare is also on the lead team for this great arts initiative/community and annual arts festival). Some great conversation ensues around being truly artist led, the notion of a gallery being ‘outdated’ but how a space can be used to help develop an organisation. We discuss operating as a space for people to be heard – keeping things small and helping to diversify a programme. But we also highlight how Arts Council England’s pressure for professionalisation of organisations is really just about turning organisations into institutions.

I sit with Clare at an outdoor cafe in the centre of Cardiff, about to get my train. And we reflect whilst drinking tea and eating welsh cakes. Clare has only been director of Arcade since April 2018, there’s a lot to be done – but dammnnn she’s on it. And damn we’ve got our work cut out. My first research trip has shown me this isn’t just research: this is an exchange of ideas and a rallying of support for the invaluable artist led.

With thanks to Clare Charles and Arcade + Campfa, Cardiff.

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Rebecca, Clare (on left) and the ice cream van.