Set alongside Cardiff, its ancient rival, Swansea wins no prizes. Or so it seems.
Political and financial power has long been concentrated in the capital. Cardiff’s economic magnet increases its force year by year. As a shopping centre Swansea has steadily lost ground – even Carmarthen has more to offer these days. Jobs tend to be low paid, and if large-scale steelmaking ceases in Port Talbot things will get much worse. The centre of the city has still not recovered from the Three Nights’ Blitz of 1941, despite successive plans of the Council and buckets of European cash (the county voted in favour of Brexit). Without the European Union Swansea University would never have opened its new Bay campus, one of the few big recent gains for the region. It lies not in Swansea but just over the border in Neath Part Talbot, and in other ways too the University’s historic ties with the city’s people and industries have slackened.
Jacks can still point to superiorities, of course. Swansea City Football Club is known all over the world, thanks to the ubiquity of the Premier League. And who would swap the great sweep of Swansea Bay for the fetid artificial lagoon called ‘Cardiff Bay’, with its vanished birdlife and floor of dangerous metals?
And then there are more hidden advantages. I’m writing this on the second floor of the Grand Theatre Arts Wing, where there’s currently a remarkable exhibition of works by artists from Swansea or working in Swansea or associated with Swansea. The show and auction (on 29 July) has been organised by the Friends of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery to raise money for the Gallery as it prepares to reopen its fine building, after five long years of modernisation and extension.
The Friends invited about 100 artists to donate. The response was overwhelming – over eighty of them submitted works. Almost all are professional artists. Some, like Tim Davies and Helen Sear, have international reputations. Others, such as Glenys Cour, are long established and cherished in Wales and the rest of the UK. Others again are emerging talents, some of whom have long and successful careers ahead of them. The works are almost all wall-hung (there are a few sculptured and ceramic pieces), with a view to buyer appeal, but taken together this is a collection of such excellence and variety that few centres in Britain outside London and Glasgow could match it – a wonderful snapshot of a city’s visual imagination.
There are good reasons why Swansea should be a dynamic centre for the visual arts today. The Glynn Vivian has provided not just a building and a large collection since 1911, it’s always had strong links with contemporary artists, and energetic outreach and learning programmes. Across the road is the Swansea College of Art. It had its origins in 1853, as the first art school in Wales, and for many years it shared a director with the Glynn Vivian. While other art schools in Wales have declined the College still offers many excellent courses, including fine art, illustration, design, and, a Swansea speciality, stained glass.
As well as the Glynn Viv and the School of Art, Swansea has several other spaces to show contemporary artists’ work, including the Attic Gallery, the Mission Gallery, Galerie Simpson and the Elysium Gallery. The enterprising owners of Elysium run three groups of artists’ studios (62 studios in all). One of the effects of central Swansea’s economic depression is that it’s cheap to convert and let studios for rents that are affordable to impecunious artists. Many graduates of the College have stayed in the city to practice. Specialities and clusters flourish: printmakers have gathered for many years in the Swansea Print Workshop; open air artists have responded to repeated invitations by Locws International to plant their works in the centre of the city; photographers like Eva Bartussek, Ryan Moule and Paul Duerinckx continue the long tradition of Swansea photography begun by John Dillwyn Llewelyn and Calvert Richard Jones in the 1850s.
The Grand Theatre show’s so diverse that it’s not easy to pick out any consistent threads, beyond an inclination by many to respond to Swansea Bay’s environments and common culture. The remnants of its industrial past attract artists such as George Little and Carolyn Little, Jonathan Anderson, Carys Roberts, Alex Duncan and James Isles. The older, natural geological folds of Gower and beyond find an echo in works by Glenys Cour, Elliot Mudd and Kate Bell. Literary and artistic predecessors include Dylan Thomas (there’s a lively screen print by Jane Jones of Dylan Thomas) and W. Grant Murray (Swansea for pleasure II by Penny Hallas). Maybe another common link is a concern with the look and feel of the works, with their physical media. This show bobs on all kinds of waves, at a long distance from the arid shores of conceptualism. Quite a few artists look very closely indeed at the thinginess of small objects and landscapes. Andrea Liggins and Sarah Tierney, at ground level, peer at plants; Sigrid Müller subjects a single kiwi fruit to detailed interrogation. No one can have shown the lippiness of lips better than Soozy Roberts. Eve Bartussek has given a wonderfully Gothic assemblage called Refurbishment, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, a photo that almost comes with its own film soundtrack. Selene, a crescent moon in Portland stone by Sarah Tombs, sits apart, its puckered surface leading to a cool, knife-sharp curve. Another, more disturbing sculpture, by Mandy Lane, equips a small sleeping child with projecting nails, like a nkisi object made by the Kongo people of central Africa.
There’s lots of humour here too. When I get you I’m gonna eat you! says Alan Roberts’s poppy robot. Richard Higlett’s paintbrush paints itself, and Paper scissors, by Angela Maddock, are exactly that. Hannah Downing’s birds-eye view reduces her Lego figures to microscopic scale.
And then there are works that are so beautiful (a term long banished from art discourse): Christine Jones’s impossibly elegant ceramic Blue vessel, a glass work with a richly blue base called Landscape and memory by Nikki Cass, and Vivienne Williams’s painting Blue jar with yellow crocus. Swansea art has its transcendentalist as well as its gritty side.
No visitor to this exhibition could fail to find fine and acquirable works. Or to realise that Swansea is lucky to be home to so many good artists, from their teens to the nineties. The reopening of the Glynn Viv will restore a physical focus to art and artists alike; it’s an event eagerly awaited by very many people. But the Swansea art scene’s already alive and buzzing, especially among younger artists.
What’s lacking is any attempt to promote and market the city as an outstanding centre for the visual arts. The Council, preoccupied with cuts, seems uninterested, and the Swansea Bay Partnership is a disappointingly narrow grouping with no obvious appreciation of the economic significance of art. Maybe the way forward is for a consortium of interested organizations and people to come together, pool their ideas and resources, and work together to develop a real Swansea City of Art?
The Friends of the Glynn Vivian Summer Exhibition is on at the Grand Theatre, Swansea until Friday 29 July. Images of the works are available on the Friend’s website. The works will be auctioned, in aid of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, from 7:00pm on Friday 29 July in the Grand Theatre.