40 Years 40 Artists: the 1980s

Writer Louisa Buck introduces the first 10 conversations in our 40 Years 40 Artists series of interviews with artists who feature in a-n’s archive.

a-n was born as Artists Newsletter in September 1980 at the start of a tumultuous decade of conflict, change and unrest. In the ten years between 198089 the social, political and cultural landscape of the UK was irrevocably altered, with Margaret Thatcher serving as Prime Minister throughout. Racial tension sparked riots in Brixton and in cities across the country, Irish Republican prisoners went on hunger strike in the Maze Prison, Britain went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands and miners came out on strike against colliery closures. There was famine in Ethiopia, nuclear meltdown in Chernobyl, the Berlin wall came down and the AIDS epidemic spread across the globe. Inevitably these momentous national and world events impacted the lives and work of artists; and for the visual arts in the face of public funding cutbacks and ongoing gender, racial and geographical inequalities, the 1980s became a campaigning decade.

Yet at the same time the 1980s saw a burgeoning of the sector, with more galleries and exhibition spaces – both public and commercial – opening across London and the regions than at any time in the past. In its first editorial Artists Newsletter acknowledged this, declaring that “the visual arts are an enormous cultural growth area” while at the same time making the observation that the “visual arts has no economic strength to improve its lot.”

Issue 1 of Artists Newsletter stated its intention to offer practical support to the visual artist by devoting 50% of its space to “the information side of art.” Alongside being a clearing house for practical information that ranged from suppliers of materials to award schemes, bursaries, residencies and jobs, Artists Newsletter also announced a dual role as “a means of raising issues significant to visual artists” and to act as a platform for visual artists to strive for a collective public voice.

Throughout the 1980s Artists Newsletter honoured this pledge, addressing many key concerns that arose from the broader changes sweeping through the decade, including the emergence of the Black Art Movement, the reformation of art education, resistance to toxic philanthropy, and campaigning for fair pay for artists. Many of these issues continue to be just as pressing and urgent 40 years later.

40 Years 40 Artists: the 1980s features interviews with: Sunil Gupta, Lis Rhodes, Antony Gormley, Magdalene Odundo, Richard Wilson, Anne Bean, Chila Kumari Singh Burman, Keith Piper, Mona Hatoum, and Brian Catling.

Bringing things right up to the present, we also interview 2020 graduates Miya Browne and Jody Mulvey, who discuss their hopes for the future.

Louisa Buck is a writer and broadcaster on contemporary art. She has been London Contemporary Art Correspondent for The Art Newspaper since 1997. She is a regular reviewer and commentator on BBC radio and TV. As an author she has written catalogue essays for institutions including Tate, Whitechapel Gallery, ICA London and the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. In 2016, she authored The Going Public Report for Museums Sheffield. Her books include Moving Targets 2: A User’s Guide to British Art Now (2000), Market Matters: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Art Market (2004), Owning Art: The Contemporary Art Collector’s Handbook (2006), and Commissioning Contemporary Art: A Handbook for Curators, Collectors and Artists (2012). She was a Turner Prize judge in 2005.