Wandering around the new free art exhibition in the space vacated by the library’s move to Storyhouse, my first thought was “am I actually in Chester?” This high quality exhibition featuring well known artists including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, is the result of the hard work of Chester Visual Arts. Founded by husband and wife team Cynthia and Ian Short, CVA has brought many key players in the city together including the University , the Cathedral and Grosvenor, with the long term aim of giving the Chester the permanent public art gallery it deserves.
Ian Short is a former corporate lawyer who with Cynthia, an ex New Yorker who has lived in Chester for 17 years, now run AielloShort , an art and urban regeneration company.” We got involved in the Arts because I was on the board of the Bluecoat in Liverpool” says Ian. “I sponsored at The Tate in the 90s so I know a lot about the art in Liverpool and I know a lot about London. Cynthia opened an Illustration gallery in New York as well. We founded a small group in 2010 and we met every month and talked culture. We found out what Chester was all about and we started to put things together. Having come from other parts of the world we knew that Chester was poor on the visual arts, we knew the theatre was coming, but we decided to do something about it. There had been consultancies done, sitting on the shelf and nothing was being done about it. “
Chester Visual Arts was formed when representatives from the Grosvenor, the Cathedral and the University and others came together. The project has been entirely private sector driven with all funds coming from the Board members and their institutions. “All through last year we were planning all this and in January we formed the company. Ian particularly praises the university and professor Neil Grant for help setting up the exhibition as well as working on graphics, website design and secretarial support. Chester’s hosting of the exhibition came about due to Cynthia and Ian’s acquaintance with Cathy Putz, head of international touring exhibitions at the Victoria and Albert museum where all the pieces are on loan from.
“Pop art is a response to the banalities of American consumer culture. It was all about changing the attitude of people towards aspects of American culture like fast food, the artists used graphics and things from commercial life. They were reacting to the commercial attitudes that were developing in the 60s. A lot of these works are on paper and they weren’t meant to be works of art. Here in Chester we have this incredible collection which the V and A have put together. There is a mixture of art from the late 50s to the 70s and we also have living artists, including Julian Opie and Damien Hirst” says Cynthia.
The exhibition perfectly compliments the cultural resurgence of the Northgate , including the huge impact made by Storyhouse and the Cathedral’s Ark exhibition which features many renowned sculptors. Walking around the former library and admiring the fantastic collection leaves a tinge of sadness that the display is only temporary with the building set aside for 2 restaurants as part of the Northgate development. The exhibition is free to visit and has so far attracted 2000 visitors in 6 days.
Of the long process to bring the project to fruition Ian says that “this is our leap of faith. From this we need to go out and get money. We earmarked this building 4 years ago but we only got possession 4 or 5 weeks ago. Our ultimate ambition is a gallery for the city but we have to find some short term space to bring this stuff up. We know between us we can bring exhibitions up. There’s a lot of old buildings that aren’t fit for purpose..”
Cynthia comments that “to raise the big money we have to show there’s an audience for it. A bit like how Chester Performs did , starting with theatre in the park and they grew and they grew. It’s hard because we have made the decision not to charge, this exhibition usually goes for about 6 pounds.. we thought “let’s see what the appetite is and go from there.” There are a lot of artists that want exhibition space. A lot of people outside the city have collections and art interests but they don’t come here.” She says that many ideas are being discussed for the future including a temporary pavilion or possibly taking up one of the buildings in the recently reopened Castle. “Anything is possible.. its just galvanising and getting a track record of trust…
“If you’re doing something positive and you don’t let people down, and you’re just straight , it takes time but you get there. You just keep at it! Ian doesn’t give up. There are failures but you pick yourself up and keep going.”
Perhaps in a few years we will be able to say: “meet me at the art gallery” and Chester’s already blossoming culture will be cemented with a prominent position in the visual arts.
Pop Art in Print is open on Northgate street Tuesday to Sunday 10 til 5. The exhibition runs until the 22nd October.
With thanks to Rachel and Seren O Kelly, Ian and Cynthia Short