Chapter - The Early Years
Christine Kinsey interviewed by Gilly Adams. (1999, revised 2018)
G.A. It seems incredible that we have both been working in the arts in Wales, in one way or another, for almost 50 years. I don't want to indulge in nostalgia or risk talking about the past as though it were some kind of golden age, but the climate for the arts is significantly different now from when you started Chapter. I wonder whether it would be possible for a similar venture to flourish now. What was your original vision for Chapter?
C.K. Bryan Jones, Mik Flood and myself first discussed the idea of setting up an arts centre for Wales in Cardiff in December 1968 and so it will be 50 years, this year, since the inception of Chapter. As visual artists and writers we recognised the lack of facilities for communicating our art at that time. The National Museum of Wales occasionally showed contemporary art, some of it Welsh, The Arts Council gallery and bookshop which, was forward looking, showed a range of visual art including craft and the two private galleries in the city had limited space. The New Theatre had housed the Welsh National Opera since 1954 and presented a wide variety of other productions and the Casson Theatre hosted performances by amateur groups. The most exciting music scene was in Bute Town in Cardiff Bay which had a long established live music scene with modern jazz played by highly accomplished local musicians. John Silver and his Quartet played in the Ghana Club, which was a room in a terraced house that opened out onto Bute St. He also arranged for international jazz musicians who were playing at Ronnie Scott's Club in London to come to the Ghana Club, as part their tours. The lively jazz scene also included The Paddle Steamer and the Quebec pub, where Vic Parker played the guitar and sang, as the resident musician. The remarkable Globe Cinema in Roath showed a season of avant-garde Continental and New Wave films which influenced a generation of creative ideas. But there was an absence of galleries, cinemas, affordable studio and performance spaces to make and show the radical work that had been developing in the 1960s and so we planned a venue that could fulfil these needs.
Initially we considered converting a warehouse, at the City end of Bute Street, as an independent artist-run venue, but a response - the only one I may add - from Peter Jones, the Visual Arts Assistant Director at The Welsh Arts Council, to our advertisement in I.T. (International Times) which invited anyone who was interested in such a venture to join us, expanded those initial ideas. It was a time when anything felt possible, and, in the following 18 months we set up a pilot programme of events to generate interest in the idea of an arts centre. In 1970 we became involved in running a scheme called Pavilions in the Parks in Newport and Cardiff, under the auspices of The Welsh Arts Council. This was a month-long programme of events which took place in plastic pavilions shaped like Nissen huts. The programme changed weekly and visual artists, writers and performers utilised the spaces, which were free to the public. We also worked with Steve Allison (now Director of the Design Stage in Cardiff), to organise a 12-hour pop concert in Sophia Gardens, with Pink Floyd topping the bill and Black Sabbath and Quintessence in support. Artists from all disciplines were invited to take part in the afternoon's events. The objective was not just to publicise the idea of an arts centre but also to raise money to fund it. The concert was highly successful in attracting large numbers of people, but only just covered its costs. In addition we organised films in the Globe Cinema, symposiums in the Reardon Smith lecture theatre, and opened up an empty department store in Queen's Street for exhibitions and performance. Importantly, through this venue we were able to contact other artists and members of the public, for an open discussion about what they would want for an arts centre.
G.A. Oddly enough, I was involved in a Pavilions in the Parks scheme in Swansea in 1971 which was inspired by what you had done the previous year, but that did not lead to anything. How did you move the whole idea forward in Cardiff?
C.K. Arts centres were a new phenomenon at that time, and as The Arts Centre Project Group, we were very conscious that we should not impose one view of how the arts were to develop through the centre, rather that we should respond to the needs which were being expressed. In fact the response to the idea of a centre was so enthusiastic that we decided to approach the City Council. The Civic Theatre Trust was a collection of amateur groups that included the South Wales Arts Society, Everyman Theatre, Cardiff Film Society and Cardiff Cine Society, they had been in discussion with the City Council about Centreplan70 which was part of the Ravenseft Properties scheme to redevelop the city. We had suggested that the art centre we were planning could be a blue print for the art centre planned for Centreplan70, but this scheme was abandoned in 1973 with the property market crash and the City Council changing from traditional Conservative to centre left Labour politics. The City Council offered us the possibility of renting three condemned, disused buildings, the Fire Station in Dumfries Place, a Junior School on Crwys Road and the Old Canton High School. We looked at the three buildings and decided that the 29,000 square foot of space on two floors at the old Canton High School was the most suitable. It had been empty for a couple years and was in a poor state of repair. Much of the electric wiring, many of the windows and lead water pipes were missing, it was a much larger space than we had first envisaged and it was offered to us at a peppercorn rent on a one year lease. Bryan, Mik and I moved into the building in late 1970 and by March 1971 we had managed to attract a wide range of artists from all disciplines to rent studio spaces. Alan Saunders, a solicitor, who was a member of the Everyman Theatre, had offered to advise us on how to form a management committee in order to make the art centre into a limited company with charitable trust status. Alan's support was crucial to us and he worked tirelessly for many years on Chapter's Board, as our solicitor, on a voluntary basis. At an evening meeting in Alan's office he said that to complete the legal forms we needed to choose a name, we hadn't ever thought about it, Bryan suggested Chapter, and with the urgency of the situation, Mik and I agreed, a decision I have never regretted. We had invited people who were renting space in the building, including members of the amateur groups, to apply to join the management board which held it's first meeting on March 23rd 1971. Over the years there have been so many people who have offered their skills as members of the Board, which has helped to maintain Chapter's development and success. When people joined as members of Chapter they became shareholders in the company, which is not something that happens anymore in arts organisations. Throughout this time we were in contact with other artists working in all disciplines and our ideas for the centre began to evolve.
G.A. What was the artistic policy for Chapter at the beginning and how did it develop? Was the focus on the artists or on the community which would receive the work?
C.K. From the outset Chapter's raison d’être was to establish an environment in which all creative disciplines could be housed, and to encourage, nurture and support the making of all forms of art under one roof through the provision of rehearsal, editing and studio spaces. The need to communicate these ideas formed the basis from which the galleries, theatres and cinemas grew. The way that these spaces developed was a response to the need of each creative area within the building. We all recognised that this was a unique opportunity to break down the barriers between disciplines and to open channels of communication between the different art forms so that links would be forged. The underpinning belief was that all aspects of the creative spirit would flourish in an atmosphere of understanding and co-operation.
When Bryan, Mik and I moved into the old Canton High School our concerns were two-fold: to encourage professional artists from all disciplines to move into the building to produce art and to ensure that the local community was encouraged to use the building as much as possible. The first area of the building to be used were a range of classrooms that had been designated for visual art studios. These were rented out on a square foot basis and within a short space of time there were painters, print makers, sculptors, ceramicists, musical instrument makers, and artists using a wide range of mediums working in the studios. Amateur groups like the South Wales Arts Society and Everyman Theatre rented space and Bryan Bull and the Cardiff Cine Society led the way in the conversion of an old cloakroom into one of the best small cinema spaces in south Wales. In tandem with this we began to convert classrooms into a Gallery, and Chapter's own cinema, furnished with equipment bought from the many cinemas which were having to close down in the Valleys at that time. We believed that the Cinema would be a key feature in bringing people into the building. Another way of linking Chapter with the community was through the Workers' Education Association which ran regular courses. Tutors in the W.E.A including Rhodri Morgan as a politician, as well as Paddy Kitson and the lawyer David Seligman as city councilors, supported Chapter in establishing a positive profile within the City Council which helped in encouraging other councilors to give us their support. We also began to run workshops for local junior schools in conjunction with the exhibition programme in the Gallery, which was a new concept at that time. We invited local mothers to run a nursery school, believing that if young children were involved in using the building they would grow up accepting the arts as a natural part of everyday life. This was in addition to Chapter hosting meetings for other groups like the Campaign for Homosexual Equality, Hari Krishna, a summer school for Gypsy children and a conference for Shelter. In 1972 Chapter's work in such areas was controversial and sometimes attracted hostile press coverage, but we believed that if Chapter could not relate to a wide range of community life and be instrumental in breaking down barriers between the artistic community and the wider public, it would fail. Sadly this was the fate of many other arts centres in subsequent years.
It was often daunting to imagine how we were going to raise the money not only to convert such a large space but also to fund a programme of events. In the first year the City Council charged us a peppercorn rent of £1000 and we were awarded a grant of £2500 from the Welsh Arts Council to cover the rent and some basic costs. Bryan and I had given up our teaching jobs and Mik had stopped working as a journalist which caused us significant personal financial difficulties. But the enthusiasm and the energy of the people around us and the exciting possibilities we could see ahead, carried us through. It was our intention from the very beginning, that once Chapter was up and running we would pursue our own artistic work. Of course, this did not happen because there were too many other things to do, but nevertheless I think that we all felt that those years were extremely creative. As new artists joined us the building developed organically and I often thought of Chapter as an enormous installation like Kurt Schwitters Merzbau, although we were working with live art in actual time. The Arts Council officers, Peter Jones, without whose support Chapter would not have survived the early years, and Bill Dufton who was also very supportive for this new venture, endeavored to find revenue funding and Housing the Arts monies for the conversion of the public spaces; and they also offered moral support. Receiving a capital grant from the Gulbenkian Foundation for the refurbishment of the cinema enabled us to show a much wider range of films and have Pearl and Dean advertisements like a "proper" cinema. We did much of the conversion work ourselves with enormous assistance from the architect Ian Grant Roberts, who not only drew up ingenious designs for the conversion of the public spaces but also participated actively in the actual building work. The cinema began to generate income at this point, as did the bar which was used for folk music, jazz and poetry readings.
G.A. How were artists involved ? Did you give priority to any particular art form?
C.K. We knew that for Chapter to be successful the building had to be a place where artists produced work as well as presenting it. The energy generated by that creativity was what helped to sustain the commitment to the ideas and the philosophy during some of the most difficult periods in the early years. We were dedicated to giving equal space both physically and in programming terms to all disciplines. In practice, this was not always possible but it was always our intention. At the beginning Bryan, Mik and I programmed the gallery, theatre and cinema, co-ordinated the administration and raised funding. When Julie Ward (Jules) came to work with us she set up an administration office and was joined later by Liz McPherson. Jules continued to play a very important role in the development of Chapter. Bryan, Mik, Jules and I also projected films, sold tickets and ice cream, lit and stage-managed theatre productions, hung and invigilated exhibitions, attempted to keep the public areas clean and managed and served behind the bar. Although the work load was very demanding there were many friends of Chapter who willingly gave their support and skills, some of the most valuable help coming from people who had got to know Chapter through the Workers Education Association including Big Jim Fletcher who 'adopted' us. Jim had been made redundant from East Moors Steel Works and was following a WEA course, so he had the skills we needed to help with the conversion of the building into usable spaces. The music programme was organised by Judith Serota, whose enormous efforts introduced audiences to both rarely heard early music and contemporary composers. In 1975-6, for example, 13 concerts were organised on a budget of £1200 and these included the English Consort, the London Gabrielli Brass Ensemble, John Cullis and Rhian Gwynfryn Evans, a Welsh National Opera workshop on Albert Herring and Schola Golliardica, who played twelfth and thirteenth-century music on copies of authentic instruments to a full house.
Moving Being, a multi-media theatre company, founded by Geoff Moore moved into Chapter in the summer of 1972 and immediately this creative input of professional actors, dancers, artists and designers became the driving force in establishing a proper theatre. Peter Mumford, who was then Moving Being's resident designer, initially designed a temporary space on the ground floor, which included a steel structure to support raked seating, made by the musician and craftsman Lynden Lewis, who also made the existing stair case to the first floor. The lighting control box, which was suspended over the corridor between the Gallery and the Theatre was also designed by Peter Mumford and built under the guidance of Peter Clark, a structural engineer. By 1974 we were able to raise enough money to move the theatre to a permanent place on the first floor, which was opened on 15th January 1975 by Joan Littlewood, followed by Life Masque, a specially commissioned work by Moving Being. Some of the most exciting and innovative theatre in Britain was being created at this time by Moving Being and a symbiotic relationship developed between the Company and Chapter which was mutually beneficial. Other companies such as Cardiff Laboratory Theatre, Keith Wood Productions, and Paupers Carnival took up residence in the building and the enhancement of the theatre space made it possible for Chapter to receive most of the important small-scale theatre companies who were touring Britain at that time, so that Chapter was a real focus for both theatre artists and audiences. Chapter's first birthday party in March 1973 was an extravaganza of colour and sound. Charles Byrd's Magical Machines whirled and twirled exuberantly in the gallery, Bruce Lacy and Jill Lacy performed with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band and Peter Kuttner made and presented multicoloured, red, blue, green, spaghetti bolognese, bread and five enormous cakes, including a birthday cake, which to the delight of the audience was served to all who braved the visual appearance. The Bath Theatre Workshop created clouds of brightly coloured billowing smoke in and around the very large crowd who came to celebrate Chapter's first year of operation.
As the programme of events developed we needed to advertise. I knew that it was essential to project Chapter to a wider world as an organisation that aimed to promote professional creative artists through high quality publicity. We talked to Peter Gill, at Design Systems, who generously agreed to sponsor Chapter by designing the initial event sheet and then the series of event sheets and posters during the first year. Which set the high standard for design and print and presented a professional image of Chapter to the public. Over the following years there were also posters and flyers for the events and productions we were organising, as well as, brochures, invitation and membership cards, which Bryan and I designed, in between our other work. These graphics show the cultural and social history of Chapter as it developed during the early years.
G.A. In what feels like a lifetime of theatre going, some of my most vivid memories are of performances in Chapter like Pip Simmonds' promenade Woyzek, which used the whole of the building or Alan Osborne's seminal Valleys Opera Terraces, which paved the way for the new writing in Welsh theatre into 80s. The touring scene in Britain has been so reduced, as has the overall subsidy in real terms, that it's difficult to imagine the richness of the programme which Chapter was able to offer in all art forms in the 70s.
C.K. The Arts Council of Great Britain commissioned a report called Three Arts Centres from their Senior Researcher, Robert Hutchinson, Chapter was one of the centres he reviewed. He spent two weeks in Chapter and he took the year 1975-6 as the basis for his research. The other two art centres he included in his report, were South Hill Park Art Centre run by Bracknell local authority and the Gardner Art Centre which was based at the University of Sussex. Hutchinson criticised aspects of Chapter that didn't fit into the research criteria that had been set. He did not understand or appreciate how Chapter, as an artist led organisation, had grown organically by responding to the requirements of the artists in the building, or how, without being totally funded by a local authority or an educational establishment, we managed to organise the programme and the administration on a very limited budget with so few members of staff, or how we relied on the good will of volunteers to support our work. However, his review of the programme for that financial year makes amazing reading now. The theatre hosted 30 productions which included not only the resident companies, but performances from companies like 7.84, the Gate, the Bush, Nola Rae, Pip Simmons, Birmingham Arts Lab, Foco Novo, Paines Plough and Inter Action. In the same year the cinema showed 150 different feature films to audiences totaling more than 30,000. We usually showed 3 films a week and these were a mixture of commercial successes, New Wave and Continental films with the former supporting the showing of the less popular work. The success of the cinema led to the setting up of the film production work-shop, which was the only one of its kind in Wales at the time. Karl Francis' and Chris Monger's early work was associated with this workshop and later Red Flannel, set up by Carole White and Michele Ryan, supported Women Film Makers. Chapter's Gallery programme opened to the public in March 1972 with a commissioned work by the sculptor and performance artist Peter Dockley and performance artist John Hart. They created the first installation in Chapter, that included the artists working on wax figures which induced a process of disintegration. It was a sensation and people still talk to me about it now. The Gallery programme continued to include happenings, performance, concrete, conceptual, minimal and kinetic art, painting, prints and sculpture as well as featuring the work of the 14 artists in residence in studios in Chapter and documentary exhibitions. Chapter was also able to offer new opportunities to women artists: in May 1976 there was a month-long Festival of Women in the Arts, that concentrated on professional women artists in theatre, dance, music, poetry, film and the visual arts, who created, presented and performed their own work. The growth of the Magdalena Project pioneered by Jill Greenhalgh, supporting Women In Theatre, is a prime example of how creativity can influence society and change peoples lives. Nothing like this had ever happened in Wales before. Hutchinson remarked in his report "Indeed, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Princess Margaret, Lord Radcliffe-Maud, John McGrath, The Marchioness of Anglesey and Bruce Lacy have at least one thing in common - they all visited Chapter in 1975-6."
G.A. As a visual artist you must have had particular interest in programming the galleries?
C.K. Chapter's two galleries were intended to be windows on Wales and a doorway into the world of contemporary art. We tried to show a good proportion of the art which was being produced in Wales but we also had a responsibility to reflect the major changes which were taking place in the wider art world. Radical artists throughout the 60s and 70s were making art that did not have any commercial value as a reaction to the art market dominated by a few gallery owners who controlled what was being seen in America, Britain and Europe. The many artists who deliberately began to create unsaleable work needed new spaces to show their art and Chapter was able to offer those spaces. Movements like Fluxus and exhibitions like Fluxshoe highlighted ecological concerns and expressed social goals that became more important than aesthetic ones. Of course, in the post-modernist era of the late 20th and early 21st century the secularisation of art has re-established art as a commodity. In the 1970s avant-garde artists sought a new culture in which changing spiritual, moral and ethical values would be reflected. We acknowledged this new development in visual language but felt that it was also essential that artists involved in a more traditional language could have their work shown in Chapter. We were equally determined that we would be able to offer studio facilities and exhibition spaces to keep emerging Welsh artists in Wales.
G.A. It's astonishing that Chapter still exists as a centre for the arts in 2018 and that, in itself is a major tribute to what you and Bryan Jones and Mik Flood achieved. To me it feels as though the development of Chapter is a kind of sociological document, which is a testament to the way that the arts have had to struggle for survival against increasing bureaucratisation over the years. I wonder what you feel when you reflect on your original vision and the way that Chapter functions now?
C.K. I left Chapter in August 1976 at a point when I recognised that Chapter was in need of different management and renewed energy to take it forward into a new era and the desire to concentrate on my own work as a visual artist had become more and more of a necessity in my life. Paul Chandler had come to work in Chapter in 1975 and it was his creative knowledge and empathy together with his financial expertise which established the financial systems which allowed Chapter to become an ongoing success. Of course there have been many changes over the years, but it seems to me now that it is of crucial importance for Chapter to respond to the political changes taking place and to encourage the Welsh Assembly to involve artists from all disciplines in the policy making which will affect the people of Wales. It is also essential for its future success that Chapter continues to prioritise its support for artists from all disciplines living and working in Wales, as well as supporting work from other cultures.
The evolution of Chapter as a catalyst for the arts in Wales has been based on the ethos of professional creative artists working together with a common goal, to produce and present the highest quality art and make it available both nationally and internationally to as wide an audience as possible. As well as to explore and expand our understanding of the creative process and to encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to be creative, and to respond to the Zeitgeist in a revolution of constant change.