As 2013 ends, I think it’s time to update the project blog with how my PhD at University of Salford is going, I’m now exactly one year into my research (proposal succesfully upgraded in November) and my ideas are developing as the reading and exploratory fieldwork progresses.

Just a quick reminder: the PhD was created to explore how universities interact with the creative cultural economy. I started off with an idea about how film festivals mediate ideas between communities on, off and around campus, animating cultural sector connections and making them visible. I’m becoming more interested now in how universities play a role as intermediaries in the curation, circulation and validation of cultural texts and artefacts (including films) and how the discourses that these texts and objects represent are mobilised through their exhibition or presentation. What are the objectives and orientations of the people involved in this practice? How are people engaged?

Examples of this idea in practice come from recent visits to very different exhibitions in Liverpool and Nottingham, both assembled with university involvement – it’s funny how research into cultural subjects can happen when you aren’t even planning it! I went to Leicestershire last week to visit my sister and because it was raining we scanned the ‘what’s on’ pages of Nottingham city centre venues looking for something to do. We picked Pop Art to Britart at the University of Nottingham’s Djanogly Art Gallery, a selection of around 50 pieces from a private collection of late twentieth century and contemporary art owned by David Ross, entrepreneur and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery itself was founded through the philanthropism of Sir Harry Djanogly (a collector of LS Lowry paintings) and is part of Lakeside, the University of Nottingham’s public arts complex, which has occupied its present loction on the South edge of the University of Nottingham campus since 1992. Also on this site is the D.H. Lawrence Pavilion, built in 2001 and home to two more exhibition spaces as well as a 225 seat theatre. I’ve visited lots of times before and there is always something interesting on.

The current exhibition is free (on till Feb) and includes work by Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allan Jones, Gilbert and George, Mark Quinn, Damian Hirst and Peter Blake. There are some pictures from inside the gallery here and more information about the exhibition here:

I was interested to learn that David Ross, Nottingham alumnus and co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, is also co-Chair of a University fundraising campaign Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, the University’s largest ever philanthropic fundraising campaign, launched in October 2011. A press release states that the campaign has now reached £100m of its £150m target and the announcement was made at the launch of this exhibition last month.

While wandering around this impressive show of paintings and prints from Swinging Sixties to Cool Britannia, I’m thinking about what the artworks have been asked to stand for in this context, and whether that matches their original purpose. The double irony of Gavin Turk’s ‘Turkey Foil’ readymade drags pop art into a mildly funny pastiche of itself, gavin-turkDamian Hirst’s spot painting is predictably unsatifying – “insistently frontal” as Adrian Searle puts it. I find them a bit like a Cath Kidston design – basically inoffensive, will hold just enough credibility for now.

1972 by Richard Hamilton There are Pop Art reproductions of images from magazines and newspapers such as Yuri Gagarin in Joe Tilson’s toy-like piece, or Richard Hamilton’s picture of Mick jagger in ‘Swingeing London’. There’s a lot of Kate Moss, too.

‘Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool’ – an abstract looking David Hockney from 1971 is beautiful and mesmerising, but unsettling given the implied priviledge of the title. In the 2nd room there’s this little portraint of David, by (friend) Jonathan Yeo.

Despite enjoying seeing the works themeselves, there is a pervading sense of fait accompli about this show, it seems to be about acqusition and display, ownership, the images of celebrity culture reflect some sort of self-aggrandising triumph of marketability over substance. It’s as if its strategic function as celebration of philanthropic giving has eclipsed the meanings that the artists ascribed to the individual works on display. I also suspect (maybe unfairly, but hey) that these pieces have not been ‘collected’ for any political potential, rather for their aesthetic value as home decoration combined with ‘bankability’.

As a contrast to this ‘big name, big philanthropy’ message, I’d like to mention a new exhibition Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 at Tate Liverpool, put together with the support of Liverpool John Moores University, that takes a global view of how the production and reception of art has been influenced by left-wing values throughout the last two centuries. It has been curated by Francesco Manacorda, (Artistic Director, Tate Liverpool) Lynn Wray, (PhD Researcher at Liverpool John Moores University) and Eleanor Clayton, (Assistant Curator). Francesco is one of Lynn’s supervisors.

The top floor of the Tate is basically a riot of ‘stuff’ – hand-printed agitprop posters, piles of free newspapers, a reading corner arranged by Russian collective Chto Delat? (meaning: What is to be done?) piled with books donated by Radical & Community Bookshop News from Nowhere, a bolt of fabric and coloured threads for you to embroider your own message, Jeremy Deller’s videos of folk practices along the wall and this remarkable banner:

One star piece is one of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Death of Marat’ paintings, a piece much copied to aid its swift disemmination across France and make Marat a martyr of the Revolution. William Morris wallpapers hang nearby, alongside pictures from the 1930s Mass-Observation project in Britain, we see art in a role as democratic representation, radical response, as subversive framework, an unauthored collective endeavour, challenging order, inviting discussion and negotiating possible utopias.

The Office of Useful Art inside the exhibition space is a project in association with Liverpool John Moores University and is running interventions and workshops throughout, while in January a selection of films will be presented in the gallery with talks by Film Studies scholars at University of Liverpool.

This exhibition suggests that art’s value lies is in its process, asking how to merge art and life. This reminds me of a lecture by Mark Banks, who looked at some of the realities of work in the cultural sector, and suggested these ways people could deal personally with issues of critique in their work:

Grounded aesthetics – Treat everyday life as a source of creativity and aesthetics, remain open to unorthodoxy, apprehend wider structures and create alternative cultural responses.

Social production – Recognise work as a socially embedded activity and find pleasure in everyday practices. Re-moralise economic imperatives by building in social rewards and ethical production. Despite its obvious difficulties, this practice is still persistent.

I want to know how universities are using these socio-cultural practices to connect with the public, to mobilise art as part in political discourses. These two examples aren’t meant to be comparitive, just recent observations and worth mentioning because they can still be seen in January. With this quote (from the Art Turning Left teacher’s info pack) Jeremy Deller perhaps offers a serendipitous link between the two exhibitions : ‘If Pop Art is about liking things, as Andy Warhol said, then folk art is about loving things’.

With my research I’m going to be asking questions about the purpose, rather than the content, of cultural events. By working with the discourses embodied in the texts and objects, do the curatorial collaborators hope to provoke a reaction? What reaction, with what effect? What can the mechanism of art exhibition (in this case) do and how would that benefit the institutions involved?