Monday, 25 February 2019

Organisational Development: Visit to NN Contemporary Art Northampton

Selina Oakes met up with Emer Grant, Artistic Director, Laura Farrell, Operations Manager, and Freddy Blackman, Gallery Assistant, at NN Contemporary Art Northampton on 22 February 2019.

"We work with artists at all stages of their careers to present an international programme of contemporary art and multi-disciplinary events." - NN Contemporary Art

Number Nine Guildhall Road is an arresting four storey building, poised in the middle of Northampton's Cultural Quarter. It's red-brick exterior houses a Gallery, a Project Space, Artist Studios and an artistic community under the umbrella name of NN Contemporary Art Northampton (NN). As part of AirSpace Gallery's Organisational Development, I visited NN to learn about its development and transition from artist-led to NPO.

This was my first journey to Northampton – located between Rugby and Milton Keynes it's an hour and a half train journey from Stoke-on-Trent. Admittedly, I knew very little about its history or narrative, but I'm quickly informed by the NN team that it's known for its shoemaking and leather industries heritage. In speaking with Emer, Laura and Freddy, I learn that Northampton is not so dissimilar to Stoke-on-Trent – a place which also grabbles with narratives of industrial nostalgia. Like Stoke-on-Trent, Northampton exists in proximity to larger conurbations – notably, its big-city neighbour, London.

We chat and have tea in the Gallery space and, later, upstairs in the Office. Laura talks me through NN's early days as Northampton Arts Collective (NAC), which began back in 2003. The group became more established with a more permanent site at The Fishmarket, given to them on a temporary lease. From 2006-2011, NAC produced a series of contemporary exhibitions and also ran events and a cafe from within the vast Fishmarket site. It also became more structured with the recruitment of John Simpson as General Manager and a curator, Catherine Hemelryk, who later became NN Artistic Director.

When The Fishmarket became earmarked for demolition, NAC was a 'roaming' project for six months before the Borough Council provided them with a new home on Guildhall Road. NAC Limited Company became NN Contemporary Art (a charity and now an NPO) and received a significant amount of funding (£50k) from a now obsolete funding body, WNDC, to renovate the then empty building. I'm told that NN will be moving to another building – provided by the Borough Council – in 2019, but will remain on Guildhall Road. 

Emer stresses the importance of partnerships, collaborations and working together: without strong relationships with local councils, universities and fellow artistic groups, it can be difficult to grow, develop and become a sustainable entity. She also speaks about 'Place-Making' and the value in knowing your surroundings – for example, connecting with craft narratives is important. For Northampton, its shoes, for Stoke-on-Trent, its pottery – both have unique histories which can enable you to tap into other disciplines and support, while maintaining your contemporary focus and artistic integrity.

Early on, we walk and talk through Quickly Moving, NN's biennial Graduate show. NN, too, has large windows which, the team says, has its perks but also its challenges. The light that shines through the ground-floor windows (it's a clear, sunny day) illuminates the graduates' works, making them visible from the street. Some visitors are intrigued and enticed to come inside; others become wary of something which is unfamiliar to them. The hand-stitched wallhangings by Sophie Neville, pitched against a Yves Klein Blue, grab my attention; as do Abbie Schug's immaculate hyper-realist portraits. The show is an invaluable platform for recent graduates from art schools outside of London: the 2019 edition, too, is a poignant compilation of six female artists' works.

Installation view, Quickly Moving, Sophie Neville
Installation view, Quickly Moving, Abbie Schug

We speak about Northampton University, and the close relationship that NN has built with the institution – many of its volunteers are third year students. Volunteers are typically engaged on a 10-week Volunteer Programme, where they provide gallery and social media support. In return, volunteers are provided with a platform to discuss their own practice and also gain access to the Project Space. It's a two-way relationship: Emer describes an upcoming module which she is due to deliver at the university on Digital Cultures – in-kind and as part of the partnership agreement.

NN is conscious of its new commitments to its NPO-status. But Emer's focus as new Artistic Director is less on numbers and more on sustained engagement with a smaller group of visitors. This reflects NN's care and consideration of its audiences, and the long-lasting impact it wishes to make. In maintaining a sustainable, small yet reliable audience, NN has a strong base from which to grow and expand further. Something which Emer hopes to incorporate in the new building is a more visible Project Space, one which the artistic and local community sees as an accessible resource – at present, it is slightly concealed on the third floor.

I ask about Northampton's artistic community and learn that there are multiple artist-led spaces and artist studios in the town – Intersession, The Artist Sanctuary Studios, Burns St Studios to name a few. Northampton also has a dedicated Arts Council to “support and nurture the arts.” There appears to be a strong, supportive artistic network in the area, and NN plans to expand this network further by refreshing its Public Programme and by using the town more as a gallery in the future.

We finish on how to promote the value of an arts organisation – whether it be an artist-led collective, a charity or an NPO. Emer puts it simply: economic regeneration through culture – and this is what councils should be looking to support. We touch briefly on engaging with your audiences and collating feedback: again, Emer has honed her evaluation to one, focused question, for a set period – she asks her visitors, “Why do you come here?”

NN Contemporary Art, Number Nine Guildhall Road, Northampton, NN1 1DP

Quickly Moving runs until 23 March 2019.

With thanks to Emer, Laura and Freddy at NN Contemporary Art.

This activity has been funded by Arts Council England.

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