The South East’s programme of new work RELAY may point the way to a new type of collaboration between organisations involved in the arts, suggests Michael Stanley, Director of Modern Art Oxford in this interview with Frame and Reference.


National arts funding is under increasing pressure, but challenges offer new opportunities. With organisations looking for new ways in which to commission work do collaborative projects like RELAY offer a way forward. Michael Stanley was one of the key movers in setting up this summer’s RELAY project. Frame and Relay spoke to him about the history of RELAY and what has been learned from this type of collaboration.


At what point did you become involved in RELAY?


I put the first side of A4 down. I suppose it was interesting because we’d just come from one of the very first Turning Point summits and had had lots of conversations with Lewis Biggs – it’s quite interesting that he’s now in this region. [Lewis Biggs was appointed the curator for the Folkestone Triennial in January 2012].


The idea that Lewis and Robert Hopper were looking at several years ago – that Artranspennine  territory – was quite instructive to this project.


I was also aware of initiatives like Gallery GO [a consortium of eight Hampshire galleries] – that there had been various collaborative clusters before, but I don’t think there had been anything which really brought together the idea of the region. I was being fairly pragmatic about the region – this is a politicised region, an Arts Council region – but nonetheless, the strength that lies in that chain of visual arts organisations which over the last five, ten years has been well invested in, is quite remarkable. The idea of thinking of a programme at one point in time that would in some way quite lightly connect clusters of activity across this geography to come together was quite interesting.


And then the Olympics provided both the opportunity and the metaphor?


It did. There are some projects to do take on the Olympic idea directly, such as Milton Keynes and Stoke Mandeville and certainly the project we’re working on with John Gerrard and Olympic hopefuls. But there are others that have taken far more abstracted ways that are to do with cultural and ideological politics or to do with dance and other aspects of movement in a more formal way, which I think has given a richness to the programme.


How do go about passing the baton around these very different venues in a way that the audience understands that this is a shared programme?

I think we have to be fairly sensible and recognise that this is a project with pretty minimal resource . The idea from the start was that we would provide a series of ingredients or a framework, within which each of the clusters have a huge amount of freedom to grow and develop, from the parnerships that they created, the funding streams that they accessed, the artists that they engaged. So there’s no curator to RELAY. There’s no overarching programme in that sense. It’s very free form in terms of how the projects work. So we have to be pretty circumspect with our aspirations in terms of audience development.


When you put works of art together you often find that they speak to each other unexpectedly. Have you found that with RELAY?

I always remember a conversation with George Shaw who said if you put three or four artists in a room you’re going to find thematics that connect them. The over riding theme that comes through several of the the commissions and works is a conversation with technology, whether it’s the technology that connects John Smith’s film or the more sophisticated technology that John Gerrard is using.


I think it’s interesting as an experiment, throwing something out there. You get a number of clusters developing projects that are about this time, of this time, with artists that are of this time. If you’d started with a very didactic programmatic approach, maybe you wouldn’t have got that.


I think that in terms of RELAY and – especially in relation to Turning Point South East and the TPSE network – I think the thinking about where we take this next year, in a kind of biennial mode, is interesting. You rightly said the Olympics was the opportunity for this – it wasn’t the reason, it was the opportunity – and we’re looking at working with some of the heritage sector, potentially with national museums, so there could be another opportunity for these contemporary clusters of organisations to create this kind of collaborative programme.


Galleries traditionally had a hierarchical relationship to their environment, providing beacons of excellence. We’re now living in a more networked society, respwhich changes the whole dynamic. Does something like RELAY provide future road map for how arts can curate work in a specific area?

I think that’s a huge challenge for the visual arts sector at the moment – how you encompass and engage with that that change?  Historically the institutions that we inhabit have been often been led by personalities. Economics is putting pressure on that. But it’s also interesting to see how much things have changed in other ways. I was looking back at the archive of Modern Art Oxford the other day, just looking back at that incredible moment when Nick Serota was there in 1976. The programme he established there was absolutely remarkable, but then you look the correspondence and you reflect on it and actually the art world was so small. And it doesn’t work like that any more.


If anything we’re now within a culture of networked activity. It’s the whole paradox of where we are, that we’re still in a sense upholding the idea of a personality of place that is one person’s vision and I wonder whether that can endure over the next five years, to be quite honest. I don’t know. But I think these initiatives and projects are really exciting – just to push the preciousness of that from the sector point of view.


RELAY is just getting under way. How are you feeling about it?


You were right going back to the audience in your question earlier. It will be interesting to sense whether there is an idea of this being a moment in visual arts activity. We probably haven’t been able to put enough resource into it to be a sense of that. But certainly when we reflect on it from the institution’s point of view I think there’s a hell of a lot of learning to be done about how we think about these collaborative programmes in the future and how they will stack up.


Interview by William Shaw