Chapter - The Early Years
Christine Kinsey interviewed by Gilly Adams. (1999)
G.A. It seems incredible that we have both been working in the arts in Wales, in one way or another, for more than 30 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. As visual artists and writers we recognised the lack of facilities for communicating our art at that time. The Howard Roberts Gallery showed contemporary painting and drawing but there was no exhibition space for the diverse range of art that was developing through the 1960s. There was also an absence of affordable studio and performance space, so we planned a venue that could fulfil all these needs. Initially we considered setting up 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 then Visual Arts Officer at the Welsh Arts Council, to an advertisement in I.T. (International Times) inviting 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 Nissan 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 together with the Civic Theatre Trust. We looked at three disused buildings and decided that the 27,000 square foot of space on two floors at the old Canton High School was the most suitable. It had been empty for two years and was in a poor state of repair. Much of the electric wiring and many of the windows and lead water pipes were missing, but it was a much larger space than we had first envisaged and it was offered to us at a peppercorn rent. At this stage Peter Strevens, Geraldine Anderson, Richard Watson and Alan Saunders were invited to form Chapter's first management committee and they worked tirelessly to support the reality of a centre for the arts. It was Bryan Jones' idea to call the centre Chapter when Alan Saunders was creating the first limited company with charitable status. Members of Chapter were shareholders in that company, which is not something that happens anymore in arts organisations!. Throughout this time we were in contact with other artists of all kinds and 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 we moved into the old Canton High School at the end of 1971 our concerns were two-fold: to encourage 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 was that 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 working in a wide range of mediums. Amateur groups like the South Wales Arts Society, and Everyman Theatre joined us 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. We also began to run workshops for local junior schools in conjunction with the exhibition programme in the Gallery, as well as drama workshops, which were 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 and a summer school for Gypsy children. 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 big 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. Bryan and I had given up our teaching jobs and Mik had stopped being a journalist as 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 two 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 were very supportive for this new venture in endeavoring to find revenue funding, in applying for Housing the Arts monies for the conversion of the public spaces, and in offering 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 and, when Julie Flood, who joined us when we moved into the building, we 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. 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.
Geoff Moore and Moving Being moved into Chapter in the spring 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 until enough money could be raised to move it to a permanent place on the first floor. 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.
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 sentimental Valleys Opera Terraces, which paved the way for a lot of new writing in Welsh theatre. 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 English Arts Council commissioned a report called Three Arts Centres from their senior researcher, Robert Hutchinson. Chapter was one of the three centres which he looked at, and he took the year 1975-6 as the basis for his research. In fact he was quite critical of Chapter because he felt, perhaps rightly, that our administration left something to be desired, because of the rapid growth of responsibilities in other areas. Whatever, his review of the programme for that financial year makes amazing reading now. The theatre hosted 30 productions which included not only the residential 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 totalling more than 30,000. We usually showed 3 films a week and these were a mixture of commercial successes 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 and Karl Francis's early work was associated with this workshop. Meanwhile Chapter's Gallery programme included 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 more 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. Nothing like this had ever happened in Wales before. Robert: Hutchinson remarked in his report "Indeed Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Princess Margaret, Lord Redcliff 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. In this late modernist period, artists were reacting to the booming art market of the 1960s, which often expected artists to change in the same way as designers in the fashion industry. Many artists deliberately began to create unsaleable work. Movements like Fluxus and exhibitions like Fluxshoe highlighted ecological concerns and expressed social goals that became more important than aesthetic ones.
Avant-garde artists sought a new culture in which changing spiritual, moral and ethical values would be reflected. Now, of course, in the post-modernist era of the '80s and '90s the secularisation of art as a commodity has been re-established. In the 1970s 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 young Welsh artists in Wales.
G.A. It's astonishing that Chapter still exists as a centre for the arts in 1999 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 and it was his creative knowledge and empathy together with his financial expertise which rooted Chapter in the kind of financial systems which allowed it 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 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 creative people working together with a common goal, to produce the highest quality art and make it available both nationally and internationally to as wide an audience as possible, to explore and expand our understanding of the creative process and to respond to the Zeitgeist in a revolution of constant change.