In the late summer of 1980 I was manning the shop at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham one day when a pale and slender young man came in bearing a clutch of magazines under his arm. He looked a little in need of a decent meal(!) but his lively and animated conversation was a revelation to me. Like most of my young artist colleagues in Birmingham I was always desperate for useful information to help make the painful transition from student to successful artist more palatable. Its difficult for anyone under the age of around forty to imagine but there was a time before personal computers, mobile phones, the internet, Facebook and Twitter…and that time made the acquisition of knowledge at best haphazard and at worst non-existent. The magazine was Artists Newsletter, or AN and that first issue made a ringing declaration of intention written by Richard Padwick, the fellow who had fetched up at the gallery counter – “Its role is the support of the visual artist…aims to cover the information side of art…to act as a platform for the visual artist, to encourage artists to strive for a collective public voice.” AN is still fulfilling this task some 34 years later, now a digital voice, competing in the babel of online voices, but still a touchstone for many in the field.
It’s strange to look back at the first few issues. Something I find myself doing before I package them up and sending off to Su Jones, for many years the very heart of AN, who is now working on the archive having, not so long back, stepped away from the front line. I’m clearing out and so my archive (that runs from issue one to the last ever print issue) has to go furnishing this last brief flick through those early editions. And it strikes me that so much has changed…and yet so much remains the same. A Tory government clawing its way out of financial crisis and substantial cuts in budgets, especially at local level. A pervasive air of ‘us’ (out in the regions) and ‘them’ in London (the early days of AN were funded not by the Arts Council but the then semi autonomous Regional Arts Association’s and specifically the four that spanned the north of England). Shades here of the recent debates around the relative levels of funds to London versus the rest of England.
There were squabbles and gripes about bias…towards Printmaking (?), towards or against photography, to craft v. Art and so on. Issue three’s editorial by guest Sarah Kent reveals the gulf between then and now as regards funding for women artists and some of what she reports now seems frankly shocking…and yet recent remarks by Tracey Emin – quite rightly in my view – suggest that at the upper reaches of the Art stratosphere it is men who still predominate.
In the early days there was little focus on individual artists and on the work itself (that had been very clearly ruled out in the initial brief) but right from issue one there was an artist feature (Lesley Graves) where aspects of practice and process, of the work and the artist’s ambitions for it, are explored in a refreshingly direct, non jargon, non theory laden, way. One remark strikes a chord all these years later. Lesley reveals that one of her reasons for giving up art school teaching was ‘lack of feedback from the students’ something that may well resonate with today’s staff in HE Art & Design! In issue two the marvellous and very underrated painter Maurice Cockrill is recorded as being disappointed at lack of sales from his solo show at the Bluecoat…something I doubt has changed for regionally based artists in the intervening 34 years…and supposing such a ‘local’ artist, however distinguished, could get a foot in the door of a major ACE funded regional building nowadays!
By issue four and Xmas 1980 AN was hitting its stride, pulling in more information from outside the north (the editor in part puts this down to a piece of new technology…the ‘Ansamatic’!) and surer of purpose and ambition. Its centre page spread a marvellously low tech graphic of the arteries of funding, the contents included features on Len Tabner, Cirencester Workshops and Bongate Mill Gallery in Cumbria – all still going all these years later, and the editor calling for more letters…something the editors in later years rarely had cause to request!
The Spring of 1981 saw the magazine start regular features on what came to be called ‘professional practice’ -something that HE Art & Design routinely declined to pass onto its graduates at that time. And the May issue saw the very first advert for ‘The Artists Studio Handbook’ to be available from ‘Artic Producers’, a publishing imprint from the same stable that would go on to provide a whole library of essential publications to artist over the years ahead. The listings section was expanding fast and the pages were full of artists of all kinds, many of whom have occupied major roles in the visual arts in the UK over the past three decades. The August issue saw the first International Opportunities listing and in September I notice that I purchased a half page to advertise the Sean Scully exhibition we were mounting that autumn. In that issue the magazine celebrated its first year. Over the next two decades, despite occasional difficulties and setbacks it became the indispensable guide for artists making their way in the UK. We all as artists owe a great deal to the people who established and went on to run the magazine. If there were any justice there ought to be some kind of suitable honour for them though I doubt they’d want any such thing. But as I package up the early issues and consign the rest to pulp I fondly imagine what, and who, might be commissioned to make a fitting public artwork to celebrate this achievement…one thing I know for certain left to me it would be sited on the banks of the Wear!