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Muddy Meets: Cat Gibbard, Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange

Programme Curator at Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange in Penzance, Cat Gibbard paints the view for Muddy Cornwall as to how galleries are breaking biases and working in partnership to deliver creative inspiration.

International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women as well as being a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. Here at Muddy Cornwall we are marking the day once again with an interview series of inspiring women across the Duchy.

(c) Steve Tanner

Tell me a bit about your background and what you do – and how you came to do this?

I am a programme curator at Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange. I work as part of a small team devising and delivering both the exhibition and learning programmes at the galleries. Growing up, my love of art helped me make sense of the world and it continues to be a valuable tool for exploring all kinds of issues. My route into programming was through gallery education, following ten years teaching in primary schools. Education is an area I continue to have a particular interest in, and I have the additional responsibility of overseeing all the learning programmed within the organisation. My current role stretches over eight days a week and I job share this with the brilliant Rebecca English. 

I’m also chair Trustees for Kernow Arts Education Partnership (Keap), whose mission is to support and enhance school curriculum activity through creative arts, with a particular emphasis on performance and creative writing.

Newlyn gallery Cornwall entrance

Has your day to day working life changed at all during the pandemic and if so, do you think it has highlighted any need for change?

The team here is very nimble footed and despite periods of closure during the pandemonic, our programme continued online – we created 360-degree visual tours of our exhibitions and a virtual Palace of Culture. We adapted the way that we connected with our audiences face-to-face, creating a field kit to enable us to work out of doors. In fact, one of our current exhibitions, Simple Truths was devised on an allotment plot with dads from the WILD Young Parents Project. Making a brew with our woodfired, ghillie kettle and chatting about life and art was an essential part of the process for me.  

(c) Steve Tanner

We’ll take this blend of online and in person delivery of our programme going forward. I’m in the middle of a two-year action research programme funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which looks at a blended approach for teachers’ Continued Professional Development, working with nine schools in West Penwith and the Isles of Scilly.

Have you encountered any examples of bias in your working life? 

Yes, and they can be quite subtle. For example, traditionally art galleries would have separate exhibition and learning teams. An exhibition would be devised well in advance of the learning, which was seen very much as a supporting role. With visitor engagement at the centre of our programme we’ve actively worked to integrate our exhibition and learning output, which is now generated by a single team, with interchangeable roles. 

In recent years we’ve been working increasingly with public collections of artworks and stumbled across an interesting bias here. The fact that the selection panels used to be made up of white, middle class men is very much reflected in the works added to the collections at that time, particularly those started in the late 19th or early to mid 20th centuries.

And although national collections are working to address these ethnic, class and gender biases, this historical legacy, just by means of probability (due to numbers of male artists), can sometimes bubble to the surface. In 2019 this happened with a year five class from Newlyn School who were to select ten pieces of work from the Arts Council Collection to hang in their school. Despite a democratic process and working to a colour theme, all the final pieces ended up by male artists. In order to address this imbalance, and yet stay true to the children’s choices, I commissioned a series of workshops inspired by the artworks, and delivered by all-female makers and artists. 

What are you / your team doing to call out gender bias, discrimination or stereotyping?

The most effective tool myself and the team here have for tackling issues of equity is through our programme. Over the past three years we’ve been working in partnership with the Arts Council Collection, who are guardians of a rich resource of over 8,000 contemporary British art works, which crucially belong to the nation – this is an interesting notion – how does the nation have a hand in selecting the work that goes on display in galleries around the country? Our answer was to invite diverse groups of people from our community to curate a programme of exhibitions called, New Voices, drawing on the works in the Arts Council Collection and supported by Cornwall Council. 

First up were 14 students from Mount’s Bay Academy with Go On Being So. Questioning what it means to be a global citizen was the starting point for their exploration of the Arts Council Collection, selecting works that say something about the world today and their place in it, and which highlighted issues such as conflict, diversity, and mental health.

Photo by Steve Tanner

This was followed by Seen, an exhibition celebrating LGBTQIA+ artists within the collection selected by young people from across Cornwall aged between 11 – 19 working in partnership with LGBT+ charity Intercom Trust, and What Lies Behind with works selected by a core group of 10 participants, referred to the gallery through social prescribing initiatives in local GP practices. Bringing this amazing partnership to a close is Captured Beauty, curated by Abi Hutchinson, artistic director of Black Voices Cornwall and Simple Truths with artworks selected by dads from the WILD Young Parents Project. 

(c) Steve Tanner

Our monitoring and reporting on diversity amongst the artists we programme is routine, and ensures we consistently deliver a balanced and representative programme. However there is always room for improvement – having recently acknowledged that representation by artists within the organisation who identify as disabled is not inline with local and national data, we made a successful application to Dash Arts Future Curator residency programme and look forward to welcoming a disabled curator to our team in autumn 2022. 

What’s the general vibe among women in business / business owners in Cornwall?

Partnership working is a key part of my role with networking and practice sharing being an important element of that. Although the pandemic put pay to face-to-face meet ups, Lea Guzzo, Cornwall Councils Senior Creative and Creative Industries Officer, has been instrumental in recent years in ensuring the creative networks across Cornwall remain connected, through initiates such as the Creative Conversations which bring leaders within the sector together enabling them to develop the plans for delivering Cornwall Council’s Creative Manifesto. 

I’m also part of national networks, such as Plus Tate, Engage and the Clore Leadership Programme. Working in a rural, remote part of Britain, it’s essential to keep abreast of developments within the sector nationally.  

Do you have any role models?

There are some truly inspirational women working within the arts in Cornwall, KEAP’s Amanda Harris for example, whose passion for a creative education through art and literature has sustained that organisation for more than 20 years. Or Melissa Hardy and Mikki Ashton form Hypatia Trust, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of the concerns and achievements of women living and working in Cornwall, past and present, as well as the energy and drive of Lea Guzzo, mentioned earlier. Each of them is passionate about the power of the arts to transform lives. 

What’s your favourite Cornish beach / view?

I’ve spent many a happy hour at Prussia Cove (below). It’s a good spot for gathering samphire and sea glass. 

What do you do in Cornwall to enjoy living here?

I keep bees and so from March to October a good proportion of my free time is dedicated to them in some capacity, but with as much swimming, walking and stretching out in the sun as I can fit in between.

Favourite places to eat are The Dog and Rabbit in St Just for breakfast, Argoe in Newlyn for lunch (below) or the Potager Garden Café near Constantine at anytime! West Penwith has so many great independent shops with too many favourites to name.

Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange is a publicly funded contemporary art gallery presenting artwork in all media by regional, national and international artists, across our two venues, one in Penzance and one in Newlyn.

Currently showing Captured Beauty at Newlyn Art Gallery, curated by Abi Hutchinson from Black Voices Cornwall and Simple Truths at The Exchange with works selected by dads of the WILD Young Parents Project, from their Pengegon allotment.

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