Cymru Culture

Articles / Erthyglau

National Museum of Art, Cardiff, Wales

(September 01, 2011)

Our new National Museum of Art

In July 2011, Wales' collection of modern art went on display for the first time, in what is now known as the National Museum of Art. Six new galleries have been made available to display the art collections, increasing available space by 30%. This has been made possible by relocating National Museum Cardiff's archaeology displays, which will be moved to St Fagans.

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales' art collection is of international importance. Its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collection (bequeathed by Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, granddaughters of 19th century entrepreneur David Davies Llandinam) is one of the finest outside France.

Michael Tooby, Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales' Director of Learning, Programmes and Presentations, has kindly agreed to bring us up to speed on the recent changes to our national art collection.

Amgueddfa Cymru - 1One of the new contemporary galleries at Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff
(image: © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)


CC … Wales has a National Museum of Art! How exciting is that? Would you describe the new galleries, for those of us who haven't had the opportunity to visit yet?

MT … Well, I think the new galleries are fabulous – but there are actually two exciting developments to celebrate – the idea of a National Museum of Art (NMA) being created, and the new galleries themselves. The NMA therefore covers 26 spaces, across the whole top floor of the National Museum. All the existing spaces have been completely refurbished, roofs repaired, security upgraded, and completely re-displayed, with new things to see throughout.

The new displays are completed by the five new spaces which were unveiled in July – The West Wing. These are state-of-the-art white box spaces for modern and contemporary art, but which also restore the space and grandeur of the original architecture. There’s also the new Foyle Art Learning Space, a new state-of-the-art space for education work.


CC … When was the idea of a National Museum of Art first mooted?

MT … It came out of our consultation in 2001-3. This debated the future display of art in Wales, and saw invitational meetings and public meetings plus submissions from groups and individuals. Our conclusions were published as a report, 'Views of the Future'. We embarked on the development programme thereafter.


CC … What other locations were suggested?

MT … In fact, 'Views of the Future' concluded that the whole issue of the visual arts in Wales was not about one location, or even one institution. For example, we embarked on a significant programme of sharing the collections through projects in partner venues across Wales, many of which were also being refurbished: Oriel Mostyn in Llandudno; Oriel Davies in Newtown; Ruthin Craft Centre; Glynn Vivian Swansea; and many others. We also helped create a new venue, Oriel y Parc in St Davids with the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority. We have also worked with small museums: Chepstow; Abergavenny; Oriel Môn; and many others.

This helped balance the idea of a 'flagship' institution in the capital city. We decided to develop stage two in two phases. In the short term, the National Museum of Art would be an expansion and complete re-display at the National Museum Cardiff, with eventually, a new National Gallery. This would be a long-term, major project, to be created by adding a north ‘wing’ to the National Museum Cardiff for our wonderful natural history displays, allowing the whole of the current site to be a National Gallery.


  Amgueddfa Cymru - 2 Historic
One of the historic galleries at
Amgueddfa Genedlaethol Caerdydd - National Museum Cardiff
(image ©: Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)


CC … This is the first national institution in Wales not to reference the country in its title. Has Wales come of age now - that it doesn't need to distinguish between itself and the UK?

MT … Wales has come of age – but actually we thought ... keep the name of the destination simple. We are still under the organisational umbrella 'Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales'. One of the things we have learned through our international work over the last five years is that Wales' contemporary and modern culture is a really strong 'offer' in the global context. One of the key aims of the new National Museum of Art is, for the first time, to tell a specifically Welsh story in an international context.


CC … How do you choose what should form part of the national art collection? What relevance have artists with no Welsh connection to a national Welsh collection? And, is such a collection necessarily eclectic, or should it be cohesive?

MT … The cohesiveness comes from context and connectedness. Wales' best artists have always operated in a wider artistic and social context. For many generations this was interpreted simply as Welsh artists looking outside Wales. I think today there is the opportunity to understand artists in Welsh and international contexts, without expressing the sense that these are mutually exclusive. With that in mind, we can balance acquiring high quality works with looking at how they operate in the Welsh context. Eclecticism can be a strength, but in Amgueddfa Cymru’s case we are striving for breadth in cohesiveness.


CC … 'Art' can be as broadly defined as one wants it to be. How do you engage those who view conceptual art (as exemplified by piles of bricks, unmade beds and urinals) as nothing more than a 'con', or are they a lost cause?

MT … This is a very broad question. For a start, in thirty years as a curator, I have never really understood the concept of 'con' – why would anyone wish to 'con' anyone else by making art? Having said that, the terms of discussion for contemporary art have changed hugely in those thirty years. I think the way artists now connect with society, express that connection, link to other cultural forms like film, music, and everyday imagery from design, advertising, TV and so on is a fantastic opportunity. In our new displays there are all sorts of ways in which people can have a 'start' with individual works, or make their own connections through some of the juxtapositions we’ve created.

One thing, curiously, that curators and artists now have to contend with is the sheer familiarity of some artists – including the great conceptual artists. Let’s not forget that the number of visits every week to Tate Modern is equivalent to more than the capacity of the Millennium Stadium and the Cardiff City stadium put together .

This has shifted our sense of how an artist gains significance or exerts an influence on others. Artists may wish in their own way to express an alternative to the artists who are big in their field – even within conceptual art. What we are therefore interested in is getting a good balance between sharing some of those artists who are the 'big names' or the influential figures with those artists of each generation who are responding to them. And let’s not forget that some of those artists who are 'leaders' may themselves have a Welsh context - whether its pioneers of conceptual art such Barry Flanagan, Richard Long, Keith Arnatt, internationally known names who have been leaders of art since Conceptualism, like David Nash, or Richard Deacon, or protagonists within a particularly Welsh conceptual tradition, from Ivor Davies to Bedwyr Williams.


Amgueddfa Cymru - 6 Carwyn Evans-Unlliw
Carwyn Evans, 2002-2005
(image: © The Artist)


CC … If contemporary art becomes too elitist, should it be allowed public space to exhibit in areas that are, after all, paid for by the public it excludes?

MT … It’s an interesting phrase, ‘elitist’. I don’t think that works of art are capable of being defined as intrinsically elitist or not. It's an institution’s responsibility to address what this means for participants and audiences, and make it possible for the diversity of our audiences to have a point of access to ideas and experiences. After all, part of the joy of experiencing contemporary art is the artists are living in the same place and time as ourselves.


CC … Holding the internationally prestigious Artes Mundi exhibition at the new National Museum of Art seems to have a rather nice synergy. To display the prize's competition entries in a brand new museum should provide significant exposure in the art world to both endeavours. Are any similar ventures planned?

MT … Artes Mundi is a key part of our future programme, as are other major UK and international initiatives, such us being one of the four UK national museums showing the fascinating show called 'The Queen: Art and Image'. This has just opened in Edinburgh and comes to Cardiff in 2012, and looks at how the image of the queen has featured in art over the last 60 years, from the famous portraits to Jamie Reid's 'God Save the Queen' graphic for the Sex Pistols.


Amgueddfa Cymru - 4 Untitled-Proposal for a Social Centre
Untitled (Proposal for a Social Centre), Manon Awst & Benjamin Walther,  2009.  On loan from the artist, courtesy of Hannah Barry Gallery


CC … What increase is projected for visitor numbers due to the new gallery?

MT … We hope to attract an extra 30,000 people to National Museum Cardiff this year.


CC … How long do you expect the National Museum of Art to stay at its present location? Is the prospect of a National Gallery of Art anything more than an aspiration at present? What are its preliminary plans?

MT … The preliminary plan is based on completing the redevelopment of St Fagans, which will be accompanied by a reconfiguration of a National Museum of Natural History on the ground floor. At that point the recommendations of ABL's report on masterplanning the National Museum to include the north wing, adopted by our Trustees in 2008-9, will be reviewed.

Amgueddfa Cymru - 5 Counter Culture II
Common Culture, Counter Culture II,
Carwyn Evans, 2011

(image: © The Artist)


CC … Is the Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales' entire art collection now on display, or are further gems held in the vaults?

MT … Much of the historic and classic modern collections is now on display, but there are two areas of the collection where we will continue to rotate displays. The collections of works on paper – some 30,000 items – can only ever be on short-term display so as to preserve them properly. Shows like the present one dedicated to Graham Sutherland will rotate so as to bring these marvellous areas of our collection to our visitors. Meanwhile, such is the breadth of our collections in the period after 1945 that these too will form changing displays in the new West Wing. These will, as with the opening display 'I Cannot Escape this Place', be shown as themed displays.


CC … Which pieces in the collection are your personal favourites? And which would you consider to be of international importance?

MT … My favourites: well I couldn’t possibly say! I think the works that continues to provide reward for me over and over again, however long you spend with them, include Cézanne’s le barrage François Zola (François Zola Dam) and Paysage provençal (ProvençalLandscape), which are next to each other on the wall at the moment, Thomas Jones' great Italian studies, the Francis Bacon Study for a Self portrait, all very different. I’m still getting to know the recently acquired Picasso, Nature Morte au Poron (Still life with Poron) – I suspect I’ll keep looking at that!

We have so many works of international importance I can’t really list them. Our 2009 show Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection toured to five US venues, three of which saw their highest ever attendances for it, and that included 54 works. What I realised seeing the show over and over again was how consistent the quality was, right across all the exhibits.

I suppose one thread of favourites has to be those works I feel a personal connection to.

One good example is the recent acquisition Rug Seller, Tréboul, 1930 by Christopher Wood. I included it in an exhibition many years ago. The work was one of a group Wood created in Brittany, and this one was in a private collection at the time. When the exhibition was shown in Brittany, my wife and I stayed in the hotel room in Tréboul used by Wood, and where the work was painted – the view is roughly that from the hotel room window - so that's a special connection!


Amgueddfa Cymru - 3 Impressionist
One of the Impressionist and new modern galleries at National Museum Cardiff, containing some of the works included in the
Turner to Cézanne: Masterpieces from the Davies Collection tour
(image ©: Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales)


CC … What was the feedback from the 2009 Davies Collection USA tour? Have any of those galleries reciprocated by showing their collections in Wales? Are any other tours likely?

MT … In broad terms, over 230,000 people saw the show in the five venues, and in terms of profile, a US based agency calculated the value of the direct press and media coverage as the equivalent of over $6M of 'paid for' activity.

It was summed up for me by the reactions of individual visitors, though. One elderly visitor who said she had travelled five hours through snow from Buffalo to Syracuse in New York State in December to see it, and it was one of the greatest exhibition experiences she'd ever had. I also remember the opening in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where one member of staff pointed out that the drinks area was deserted, simply because absolutely everyone there – hundreds of people – were completely engaged in quietly looking round the exhibition.

We are planning a follow up, dedicated to the landscape as subject, from the 18th century to the present day. If all goes well, this should happen in 2013-14.

We don’t have plans to bring collections over here – partly because our project in the USA is wholly funded by US sources, and the resources for bringing things the other way are not anything like the level our colleagues can generate over there. Something to address in the future, perhaps.


CC … Following the success of recent exhibitions, such as Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster work and the Ancient Rock Carvings from Dazu, China, are other special exhibitions planned?

MT … We will certainly continue to look at how to bring in these high profile shows, and we really hope that people reading this will follow us on Facebook, Twitter as well as our regular mailings to find out more. In particular, we have two touring exhibitions coming up – the one on the work of Josef Beuys in October and the other on the Queen in February 2012, as mentioned above.


CC … Michael Tooby, thank you.


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