EACH YEAR, around 70,000 visitors flock to the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, the majority, probably, to see its glittering collection of over 2,500 oil paintings.
At the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in Swansea, hundreds of British and European Old Masters and Surrealist and Impressionist works attract around 40,000 people.
In London, millions of people visit the National Gallery with its 2,300 photos.
As cultural and tourist magnets, art galleries enchant, encourage and inspire and, just now, transport us to a place blissfully beyond the biting anxieties about climate change and the pandemic.
They are also very good for local economies. Unlike seasonal tourism, they are year round magnets. The Machynlleth Museum of Modern Art knows this, as does Margate, where the Turner Contemporary Art Gallery establishment is credited with a 62% increase in tourism and a $ 20million injection contribution. sterling in the local Kent economy.
For Aberystwyth, such an asset would be a godsend. A major new art gallery would be sure to rekindle the spirit and economy of a city sagging under the shadow of Covid-19.
Such a location would greatly enhance the cultural accolades Aberystwyth already enjoys, while definitely putting the city on the map as a mecca of fine arts on par with the best anywhere. It would be a glorious cultural achievement and a sure-fire economic stimulus, helping immeasurably to revive a city hard hit in recent years by job losses and store closings as a result of the obsession with online shopping and the internet. Covid.
So is it achievable? Absoutely. This is an attractive prize, and entirely within our reach, and which would complement the Old College Cultural Center project currently under way. Because, unknown to most people, Aberystwyth already has one huge, unique and magnificent collection of paintings. And it is a collection, above all, which belongs to the public.
The scale is astounding. For the approximately 2,200 state-owned oil paintings held by the National Library of Wales in its beautiful Edwardian building overlooking Aberystwyth are almost equal in number to those in the National Gallery or the National Museum of Wales.
The National Library’s collection is unique, in part because it includes a phenomenal range of fascinating portraits of people at the heart of Wales’ social, political, educational and political history over the centuries, as well as landscapes Glorious and other works, and the world’s largest collection of landscapes and portraits of Kyffin Williams, arguably the most acclaimed Welsh artist of the 20th century. In total, the range is vast, breathtakingly beautiful and in a variety of subjects and styles.
Other titans depicted include Turner (his Dolbadarn Castle is on long-term display), Gainsborough, Gwen John, Augustus John, William Coldstream, Claudia Williams, Evan Walters, and Evan Williams. And there is wonderful work by many more.
The big difference between the great Cardiff and London collections and those in Aberystwyth is that the vast majority of ours are never seen by us, the people who own them. Instead, they are kept in storage. A very limited number sometimes appears in exhibitions at the library, and some are sometimes found, on loan, in galleries elsewhere.
But, above all, it is a monumental cultural warehouse with its doors tightly closed, its magnificent contents almost always, and almost always, invisible, these thousands of works of art instead kept in piles at the back from the lower part of the library building on Penglais.
Granted, there are blank walls in parts of the library where some of these paintings could be on display, but they are not. At the same time, the exhibits in the library’s Gregynog gallery inevitably overwhelm the paintings in the stored collection.
The whole pleads for the library to be receptive to any serious proposal which would allow – no doubt in rotation – these thousands of works to see the light of day. After all, artists paint to be seen. Kyffin Williams, for example, who left the library with a total of 1,700 works and over £ 400,000, was enthusiastic about his production being on display to the public.
Furthermore, there is a compelling argument that dispersing large national collections offers greater protection than centralization under one roof. The serious fire in the library in April 2013 underlines this. The fire occurred in the roof, but there is no guarantee that a similar catastrophe could not occur in the storage of paints in the lower areas and in the basement.
Where could our new Aberystwyth gallery be housed? Look no further perhaps than the old St Paul’s Chapel on Upper Great Darkgate Street, a spacious 2nd grade listed pile from the late 19th century built by the town’s Wesleyans. Abandoned as a chapel in 1992, it was converted into a pub – The Academy – seven years later, a bizarre makeover given the Wesleyan animosity towards the drink. The pub closed 18 months ago. This beautiful classic building and an adjoining old classroom dating from 1903 are for sale (approx. £ 475,000) or rent (approx. £ 20,000).
Another possibility could be the disused Deva building on the waterfront or (although probably too small) the grade 2-listed meeting rooms belonging to the university, the original home of the National Library. There may be other suitable buildings in the city center, and a purpose built gallery should not be seen as an impossibility.
Potential financial support for what would be a major program would include national lottery money awarded by the Arts Council for Wales, which very relevantly also distributes Welsh Government funds to ‘maintain and develop a high quality Welsh artistic activity ‘. Councils should also be invited to participate.
But what about the national library itself? Will he support the dissemination to the public of his state-owned paintings? So far the signs are not good.
I laid out my proposal in a 400 word message to the library and was told “that sounds like a great idea” and “something to discuss with our exhibits manager …”. The answer: my message had been sent “to one of the directors so that he can get back to you”. But no one did. Odd.
The Frankly Spoken column appears
every two weeks in the Cambrian News
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