Arnolfini | A Brief History
Image: Annabel Lawson (later Rees), Jeremy Rees and John Orsborn
in front of a painting by Peter Swan
Arnolfini opened on 3 March 1961, above a bookshop on the Clifton Triangle. More than 200 people crowded in to the simple, white-cube gallery on that first night, to see the inaugural exhibition of paintings by Josef Herman and Peter Swan. The founders, Jeremy Rees (a graphic designer), Annabel Lawson (a textile artist) and John Orsborn (a painter), none of them older than 25, had each contributed £100 to secure the lease to the space.
Their aim was to run an arts space committed to showcasing new, experimental and underrepresented art work, and though initially there was insufficient funds to install a telephone line, Arnolfini quickly established an innovative programme. Early exhibitions showed strong regional links, regularly featuring artists of the St. Ives School (Peter Lanyon, Paul Feiler, Roger Hilton) and those involved with the pioneering art college at nearby Corsham Court (Howard Hodgkin, Gillian Ayres, Michael Craig-Martin). In addition, and unusually for the time, Arnolfini was from the outset cross-disciplinary, with poetry, play-reading, jazz and talks all included alongside visual art – Allen Ginsburg visited to perform in 1965. In this sense Arnolfini looked both to the example of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which would become a partner for touring programme; and also the Bridgwater Arts Centre in Somerset, the first Arts Council-funded institution in the country which was co-founded by Rees’s mother in 1949. Other early initiatives included the Picture Loan scheme, which enabled businesses and schools to subscribe to a lending library of art works; the city-centre New British Sculpture exhibition (1968), one of the first examples of art works being sited in public spaces as temporary interventions; and national open competitions for painting and jewellery design.
Ambition would be underpinned by financial support after Jeremy and Annabel were introduced to the Somerset-based artists and collectors Peter and Caroline Barker-Mill in 1963. Their patronage and enthusiasm was to help sustain Arnolfini – along with several other major arts organisations in the city – for many years. Peter was elected Chair of the Council of Management, which was founded in 1966, and established ‘Arnolfini Gallery Ltd’ as a registered charity shortly afterwards. Support from Arts Council England and Bristol City Council followed.
Inevitably, the expansion of programme that this enabled resulted in a search for new, larger premises. As early as a 1968, the idea of moving to Bush House, the large derelict 19th century warehouse on Narrow Quay, was being mooted. Concerns over a trunk road proposed to cut through the corner of the site delayed plans however. Instead, two short-term leases in buildings nearby were taken. The first of these was on Royal Oak Avenue on the corner of Queens Square, where Arnolfini would be based between 1970 and 1973. Here a more extensive music programme was established, which launched in 1970 with a concert of music by Michael Tippett with the composer in attendance. Arnolfini was one of only three UK venues to host Steve Reich in 1972, and would both inspire and then become one of the main touring partners of the Arts Council’s Contemporary Music Network.
The Arnolfini bookshop was also opened at Queens Square, and has been one of the leading specialist arts bookshops in the country ever since. The second temporary venue was the W-Shed on Bordeaux Quay, better known today as home to The Watershed, who moved in in 1982. The extra space available there allowed for the building of a 106-seater cinema and the addition of a new film strand to Arnolfini’s programme.
Arnolfini Film would launch with Alain Tanner’s Salamander, and announced itself as presenting films ‘engaged in an ideological critique… a running commentary on ways of seeing, which are produced, reinforced or negated in the changing relationships between audiences and films past, present and future’. Notable exhibitions from this period include Beyond Painting and Sculpture (1974), including Victor Burgin, Gilbert & George and John Stezaker, and Artists Over Land (1975) with Marie Yates, Phillipa Ecobichon, Hamish Fulton and Richard Long (the first of several exhibitions Bristol-based Long would go on to have at Arnolfini).
By 1972, the possibility of moving to Bush House became clearer. Planning consent was granted to the pioneering design and build studio The JT Group, on the understanding that they refurbish the warehouse for mixed use, with Arnolfini occupying the lower two floors, and separate office space being created above. After a period of extensive building work which necessitated the complete gutting out of the interior while keeping the grade II listed external structure intact, the building would eventually open as Arnolfini’s permanent home in October 1975. The development received widespread critical acclaim – William Feaver, the Observer art critic, called it ‘the grandest arts centre in the country, and probably the best appointed.’
By this point, Arnolfini was recognised as being amongst the leading contemporary arts centres in the UK. Its increasingly full and ambitious programme was being featured regularly in national media, and drawing acclaim and attention from further afield. Its dockside surroundings, however, was in state of dereliction. Industrial activity had relocated downstream to Avonmouth (the last working shipyard in the Floating Harbour, Albion Yard, closed down in 1977), leaving the area as something of a large no-go zone in the heart of the city. Arnolfini pioneered an alternative use, along with the Industrial Museum that opened in 1974, with other organisations slowly following. This model of regeneration, an arts centre moving into a disused industrial district and setting off a process of renewal is now familiar, through the examples of Guggenheim in Bilbao, Tate Liverpool, and Baltic in Gateshead. Arnolfini preceded these by 20 years.
One recent report describes the ‘opening of Arnolfini in the refurbished Bush House [as] iconic in the true sense of the term. Its radical ambition and blurring of creative disciplines combined with exciting public spaces hinted at a moment of important change’. Regarding the direct economic impact of this, another study calls Arnolfini’s relationship with the harbourside ‘one of the first examples in the UK of the arts being used for encouraging inward investment and economic regeneration leading… to a likely total investment in the site of £600 million and the creation of over 3,500 jobs’. This status would be commemorated in 1984 through the inclusion of Bush House in a series of Royal Mail postage stamps celebrating urban renewal projects.
By 1980, Arnolfini was receiving 150,000 visitors per year, rising to 200,000 in 1983. Key programme around this period included On Site (1977), an exhibition of site-specific works and proposals responding to both the natural environment and urban locations in and around Arnolfini; a collaborative film screening and performance by Peter Greenaway and the Michael Nyman Band (1979); the 1st British Art Show, Dance Umbrella Festival, and Women’s Images of Men (all 1980); and an early solo exhibition by Paula Rego (1982). Reflecting an ahead-of-time recognition of the importance of the newest of art mediums, a Video Art library opened in 1981, while the long-term commitment to education and community activities was expanded to include more workshops with schools, and regular Saturday workshops for children.
In common with many other UK arts organisations, the 1980s was a period of financial strain as government funding was scaled back. Largely as a result of tensions arising from this, Jeremy Rees resigned in 1986 after 25 years in post, to be succeeded in 1987 by Barry Barker, formerly the Exhibition Officer at the ICA. Naturally, programme output was reduced. But nevertheless, when Richard Long exhibited in 1990 having won the 1989 Turner Prize, all 3 of the artists he had been shortlisted with – Richard Wilson, Giuseppe Penone and Paula Rego – had all also recently shown at Arnolfini. (Rachel Whiteread, whose Ghost was shown in 1990 would win it in 1993). Other notable events of the decade included the first exhibition of graffiti art in a mainstream UK gallery; the Lesbian and Gay Creativity event, including a screening of The Times of Harvey Milk in 1985, in the middle of the darkest days of AIDs paranoia; and the opening of the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail (1986).
Tessa Jackson took over as Director in 1991, joining Arnolfini from being Visual Arts Officer for Glasgow City Council, during its highly successful 1990 City of Culture year. The growing influence of post-colonial thinking on the arts was shown through two important exhibitions– Trophies of Empire (1992), a collaboration between Arnolfini, Bluecoat Gallery, Liverpool and Hull Time-Based Arts, in which 15 artists working across media explored issues such as the Atlantic Slave Trade, Third World exploitation and the diaspora of black communities; and Disrupted Borders (1993), a primarily photographic exhibition bringing together artists from across Europe, Asia and North America to question Eurocentric ideas and assumptions.
Arnolfini’s long-standing commitment to experimental performance was pursued through Shobhana Jeyasingh’s New Cities, Ancient Lands (1991) which bought together experimental choreography and bharatanatyam tradition; Bobby Baker’s How To Shop (1993); and a retrospective from major Chicago-based performance company Goat Island (1994). When a footbridge was being planned by the City Council to join the Watershed and Arnolfini sides of the quay, Arnolfini proposed that an artist should be invited to collaborate with the engineers on the design. Irish sculptor Eilís O’Connell was selected for the job, and the opening of Pero’s Bridge in 1999, decked with its large metal horns, marked a final confirmation of the harbourside as a cultural quarter.
The starkness in contrast between Patrick Heron’s Large Paintings and the touring show Minky Manky (including Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst) both presented in 1995 demonstrated the shifts that were taking place at that time, as the so-called ‘Young British Artists’ injected a bold and at times shocking, irreverence in to the international art scene, establishing London as an art world capital in the process.
Some five years later, a countertrend was in evidence in Arnolfini’s programming of a series of ‘cross disciplinary projects with an intellectual dimension, featuring established artists who are under recognised in Britain… who emerged in the 1960s and 1970s’, consisting of exhibitions by Michael Snow, Vito Acconci, Eleanor Antin (all 2001), Victor Burgin and Gina Pane (both 2002).
These were initiated by Catsou Roberts, who came to Arnolfini as Senior Curator in 1999, the same year as Caroline Collier joined as Director, having just managed a major restoration project at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-On-Sea. She would in turn oversee the lottery-funded renovation of Bush House (2003-2005), which would see Arnolfini’s spaces increased to include a double height gallery on the first floor, the conversion of former office space on the second to flexible studio spaces and a study area, and a new café bar designed with artist Bruce MacLean (who had also collaborated on the bar design in 1987). These were situated around a large, airy central circulation area that Collier described as facilitating linkage between different aspects of the programme, ‘a layered programme which allows you either to use all the spaces for one project, or as with John Cage’s idea for his music circus, to allow for simultaneous but independent activity’.
A selection of highlights from recent years might include Mark Titchner’s exhibition IT IS YOU (2006), on the basis of which he received a Turner Prize nomination; Port City (2007), a cross-art form response to Bristol’s long heritage as a centre for international trade networks, curated by then-Director Tom Trevor; Neil Cummings’ Arnolfini Self-Portrait (2011), which celebrated the organisation’s 50th anniversary with a timeline installed around the stairwell, aligning moments from Arnolfini’s history against broader socio-political events, and stretching far in to an imagined future; the development of In Between Time out from Arnolfini’s biannual festival of Live Art into a major independent performance production; and Matti Braun’s Ghost Log, which as a response to the opening scenes of an unrealised film by Satyajit Ray turned Gallery 3 in to a lake traversable by wooden stepping stones. Arnolfini’s long term commitment to both public sculpture and arts education have united through involvement with the Primary Capital Project, which has commissioned over 15 artists to produce work for primary schools across Bristol.
After the phenomenal success of Grayson Perry’s The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! in 2017, there followed a period of instability for Arnolfini.
Galvanised by a new team, with Executive Director Gary Topp, Arts Council England funding was reinstated and the partnership with UWE Bristol, custodians of Bush House, strengthened as an integral part of Arnolfini’s success moving forward. Still I Rise: Feminisms, Gender, Resistance Act 3 relaunched Arnolfini’s major exhibition and events programme in Autumn 2019 to mass and critical acclaim.
Arnolfini’s future continues to build on a positive, collaborative approach, with strong relationships across partner organisations, artists, and a broad, diverse audience more important than ever.
The cultural offer within Bristol is radically different from what was available in the 1960s. There is now an exciting range of galleries, studios and artist-run spaces promoting the best of new art in the city, making it one of the most desirable places for artists to live and work in the UK.
Arnolfini remains at the heart of the community, as an international centre of contemporary art, always mindful of founding director Jeremy Rees’ principle to ‘Enjoy Yourself’.