There are six museums in Leicester, the main attraction being the New Walk Museum on New Walk. This pillared marvel, reminiscent of a by-gone age of empire and neoclassicism, was my museum of choice, it looks like the museum in your head. Another of Leicesters six museums is the Newarke Houses, which is a preserved set of buildings and a garden. It is only speculation, but I wonder if a typo, or a carelessly pronounced word in a telephone call might have addressed Newarke museum instead of New Walk museum. I will probably never know.
At this stage you see the project was at a halt, defeated and thoroughly discredited, the project that never was.
Just to add salt to the wound my girlfriend left me and my Nan died all in this same month.
But…before you start declaring “can this text get any more depressing?” hold fast dear reader, for a series of positive steps followed this apparent oblivion.
I had previously sent out feelers to cultural groups, Universities and individuals that I had wanted to involve in the project, and this had formed much of the research for the original ACE application. At the time I had simply expressed an interest in involving each party and in turn each had expressed their provisional support.
An email appeared in my inbox at the beginning of the Summer of 2007. It was from the Leicester Council of Faiths, belatedly expressing their interest in the project and offering to take part in the research. I thought about this for a couple of days before writing to the Head of the Jewry Wall Museum, and asking if it would be possible to gain access to the stores as a researcher. This request was accepted, and I began re-thinking how I might be able to produce the same project, but without the support of the City Gallery or the New Walk. Another stroke of good fortune, ACE offered their support for the project second time around. I suddenly had a budget, but an uncertain future if I could not produce an audience in the thousands! I felt that this audience issue could wait, being that I would have a year to achieve this before ACE would come back to me for results. I restructured the project around the idea of interviews and focus groups being the medium whereby experts could feed into the project and arranged to meet the LCoF the following month.
Several more weeks passed and my connection with the City Gallery all but dried up completely. I still went in a updated them every now and then, but their enthusiasm for the project had withered along with their own funding. They agreed to get me the contact details for someone in the Jewry Wall museum who could grant access to the archaeological stores, and this marked the last act of kindness on their part. Whilst in the meeting one of the other City Gallery staff came in and said that she had heard a rumor that the project had been rejected at the highest level. This was both unsubstantiated and ludicrous. The project had been provisionally agreed to and no formal proposal had been submitted to them that anyone could have objected to!
I waited a few more weeks for some kind of confirmation. Finally the City Gallery called me to explain that there had been some mix-up in communication between the gallery and the museums. It was put down to a re-shuffle in management, or perhaps a change in priorities and policy. Either way, it was still not clear what it was that had been objected to.
I emailed Renaissance East Midlands to find out if they would be interested in moving the project to Derby (though this was the last thing I wanted to do) and was surprised to get an email reply stating that a situation had occurred and that they no longer wished to support the project, and that they had sent me several emails stating the fact (which I never received, for whatever reason). I phoned them and was told that they had made contact with the head of the Leicester museums, who had never heard of me or my project. His response was almost certainly that this ‘show’ would never take place. Renaissance East Midlands response was also clear cut. In one meeting (at which I was not present) I lost two years of funding, two regional exhibitions and was branded a liar. But I was no yet run out of town, and I had a few questions to ask of the City Gallery about this ‘miscommunication’ that had occurred.
Suddenly the pressure seemed on to create a project with huge audiences to justify even the tiniest sums of money. I bit the bullet and re-applied stating that I would make sure the exhibition was suitably exhibition-like and well attended within the museum (my original ideas had involved displays and interventions in the much smaller store rooms of Jewry Wall, and giving tours to a relatively small audience), quoting the walk-in audience figures on the New Walk Museum (which had provisionally agreed to exhibit the work) as several thousand over a 6 week period.
I was invited to Derby by my contact at Renaissance East Midlands, to have a look around the Derby museum and art gallery, as a possible location for the second stage of the project. Despite a show in Derby not being relevant to Leicester archaeology, they proposed that the project should get the needed support if I exhibited there in Late 2008. They suggested that the project could be created from museums across the region. It was my turn to nod and provisionally agree.
This broad set of benefits was the projects undoing. When I met with numerous potential museum, heritage, culture and visual arts funders each in turn said that it did not meet their criteria because it sounded too much like heritage work, too much like visual arts, too much like the museums responsibility, too much like community art, too much like MA or doctoral research, and on, and on. It seemed that it met no funders aims completely besides ACE who are by far the most open minded and centralised funder of the arts, and despite the projects relevance to all of the other groups, no one else would support it. As usual though, all of them wanted to be kept informed and would be interested in benefiting from any potential research.
Then almost out of the blue, Renaissance East Midlands made a provisional offer to part fund the project if it formed a research document that would go onto a much larger regional project that they would fund the following year. I sent them a formal proposal and waited for confirmation. It seemed to good to be true.
In the mean time I put in a basic ACE application to cover things like travel costs and a small fee to cover the time I intended to spend working within the museums, and later interviewing.
Several weeks past and the debacle of the Olympics draining funds from ACE hit home, with many of my peers having funding bids turned down on the basis of lack of funds in ACE. The Leicester City Gallery had to let some of its staff go, and among other losses was an offer of limited financial support for my travel, plus a few paid lectures that I had been relying on for some staple income. This also brought about a change of the off-site team, and a completely different attitude towards the project. This came alongside my own ACE application being turned down on the basis of financial restrictions and lack of perceived benefit, being that I had posited the project purely as research.
Do not get me wrong though, I am not an embittered or rejected artist holding a grudge against the art world, nor am I a non-conformist telling you that everything is shit. I have successfully run arts projects and shown work for the past four years, and it is also my main income. What this project has shown me is that the form of a working practice can be incredibly fluid and creative in its own right. One day you might expect to be working towards a major regional exhibition, and then two weeks later you are writing for a publication instead, or creating a different show, or different work in an entirely different way, each outcome either replacing or complimenting the others. This way of working surprised me. It showed that in the past I very often adhere to what I 'said I would do', and perhaps this is an unhealthy hang over from numerous Arts Council England applications, that when granted must be carried out with precision and to a timetable (though in truth none have ever gone completely according to plan). I am a project maker: I imagine, arrange, and undertake projects.
At the beginning of 2007, I began contacting institutions in Leicester. I wanted to create a project that would draw together diverse cultural and academic groups so that they would create a dialogue about something that crossed all of their fields of expertise, but that because of their distinct fields they would each produce a different interpretation upon the same subject. I quickly latched onto the archaeology in Leicester collections that has labels like "unknown artefact" or "bird? ornament", and decided that these fragments were the perfect visual vehicle for multiple interpretations.
Initial contacts went well, and I quickly learned about the points of connection between the arts and the museums within Leicester's cultural sector. The City Gallery off-site team encouraged and aided my contacting several big-wigs who had the power to say yes or no on projects of this type, and the consensus was a 'yes' with all the usual provisional elements around access, health and safety etc.
As my own project manager it fell to me to write applications and go to meetings with potential funders, and it was here that I met the first resistance to the project. In many ways the project would benefit and endorse Leicester archaeology, and in particular encourage new ways for the general public to engage with and relate to their own heritage. It would also provide a broader approach and outlook for visual arts in the region and create an original way for non-art audiences to engage with contemporary visual art.