Exposure Gallery, 9 College Street (2003 – 2007)
The story of elysium gallery (EG) starts in 2007, but it is in 2003 it can first trace its roots. At this time the city only had 2 art galleries, & these were largely inaccessible to the majority of emerging artists being taught & graduating in the city centre art University. Exposure Gallery was set up by a small group of art students and self-employed community artists. Its main objectives were to create a space for emerging artists to work, exhibit and learn valuable skills. The building was supplied by local property tycoon Roy Thomas who was sympathetic towards artists and the city’s needs and made available a 2 storey former Indian restaurant and shoe shop at 9 College Street in the city centre.
So in July 2003, Exposure Gallery was born & during its 4 years held over 60 exhibitions and events. These ranged from David Garners critically acclaimed ‘FACT’ exhibition, Andrea Liggins ‘Uncertain Terrain’ to the international New Artists and Designers competition and the annual Welsh Graduate showcase. In 2005 during the Welsh Graduate Showcase, Exposure was listed in the top 5 galleries to go and see in Britain by The Times newspaper. These sorts of shows were juxtaposed against the many community arts projects and exhibitions also held at the gallery. Curatorial wise every nook and cranny in the building was used in an attempt to give every emerging artist in Swansea and the rest of Wales a platform to showcase their work.
Nearly 300 artists had exhibited in Exposure Gallery during its tenure. Looking back, Exposure was definitely a space born out of a frustrated environment of artists starved of a place to exhibit in a city that was failing to recognise the potential of its local cultural community it had at its disposal. This was reflected in the chaotic and crammed nature of the shows.
By February 2007 though, the writing was on the wall for Exposure, the building had taken a battering by the elements and rowdy clubbers from the infamous Barons nightclub across the street. The financial limitations of the gallery were laid bare by one unfortunate incident when an installation consisting of hundreds of packets of rich tea biscuits was smashed up by an angry visitor. He was completely enraged by the sight of thousands of biscuits gently tacked to a gallery wall and displayed as art….. so proceeded to smash the exhibit up and had to be escorted out by 2 rather bemused police officers. The biscuits had to be replaced to the tune of £250 and then it was realised they were the wrong brand and so (on order by the artist) more biscuits had to be bought. A shortage of funds combined with a disintegrating building and spiralling costs of exhibitions left the organisation needing to proceed in a different direction.
Elysium Gallery, 41 High Street (2007 – 2010)
In 2007 Roy Thomas once again came to the rescue and made available a small 2 storey building on Swansea’s then run down High Street, many of the original instigators from Exposure Gallery had moved on to paid jobs & starting families, so the remaining few decided that a slightly new approach was needed with the new space. The name was taken from the mediaeval Elysium field’s cemetery that used to occupy the site and the old Elysium theatre that was opposite the gallery. It was decided to concentrate on smaller group shows and solo exhibitions with the focus still being on emerging artists and a stronger curatorial control over the shows. The building consisted of an atmospheric brick walled basement space ideal for films and installations, with the ground floor as a more traditional clean white walled exhibition space. Community group exhibitions and the shop were dropped and with the new focused direction, the quality of the exhibitions increased dramatically. The new gallery began to make its make its mark on the cultural map of Wales featuring artists such as Rosemary Edwards, Mr & Mrs. Clark, Alex Duncan, Jonathan Anderson, Kim Fielding, Andrew Cooper, Naomi Leake, Mike Murray, David Marchant, Fran Williams, John Abell and many others.
It was at this time the financial climate was rapidly changing, the ‘New Labour’ funding bubble had well and truly burst and the looming spectre of the 2012 Olympics loomed threatening to suck all funding from the arts. All the galleries suddenly had to find ways of becoming sustainable. Artist led organisations were closing down all over Britain, Arts Council funding plummeted and so the remaining galleries began to squabble over the scraps. Arts council money was diverted into the more established galleries to safe guard their future, whilst at the same time cutting adrift grass roots organisations. This though was not such a problem for the new EG, like its predecessor it had been run on a shoe string budget, received very little funding, but begun to thrive.
It has to be mentioned that during this period the High Street area of Swansea had reached a low, it was regularly labelled as Britain’s worst High Street in the press. It was a place dogged by decades of building decay, social problems and had become a no go area in the city despite essentially it being the gateway to Swansea when stepping out of the train station. The audiences visiting the gallery changed from people who shopped in the city centre to the people who inhabited the High Street. Elysium became a place that was accessible to people who felt unable to visit the larger more established galleries… an audience who up until then had no interaction with the visual arts.
So, EG between 2007 & 2010 became one of the few positive strands of energy in that street bringing people back to the area for the first time in years. This was before all of the activity that dominates the street today and was the beginning of EG’s relationship with the High street that is still strong to this day.
Elysium Gallery, 96-97 Mansel Street (2010)
Over the years the one subject that kept cropping up when discussing what artists needed in Swansea was studio spaces and the severe lack of them. Swansea Metropolitan University was producing many talented artists and yet there was no reason for them to stay and work in the city. What artist workspaces there were in Swansea were notoriously hogged by people who just used their studios as cheap storage space. So after nearly two and a half years; March 2010 saw EG move from its High street home and into an old 3 storey huge maze of a building in a dilapidated state at 96-97 Mansel Street.
This building had been amongst other things a department store in the 1940’s, a mod café in the sixties named The Café Macabre (with coffins for tables!) and more recently Swansea’s premiere brothel. The building was dominated by its 1970’s flocked wallpaper running from the entrance and up 3 flights of stairs and the old department store lift. Layers and layers of years of different types of wallpaper, paint and damp decorated the main ground floor exhibition space walls and ceiling. The new space offered an escape from the confines of a white cube space and tantalizingly the chance for 20+ artist’s studios on the top 2 floors with extra communal and exhibition spaces.
Things started promisingly with various successful funding application bids, all the studios being snapped up within days of advertising and a wide variety of events such as the 24 Hour poetry marathon, Welsh Artist of the Year 2012 winner Gemma Copp’s: Bound within a hidden space and the epic After the End. This exhibition featured 80 artists and performers inhabiting every space in the building. The event was the biggest of its kind in Wales, attracted an audience of thousands throughout its 4 week run and demonstrated that there was a huge demand for such a venue in Swansea. Unfortunately it was not meant to be; the building began to deteriorate at an alarming rate, Swansea Council health and Safety officers muscled in on every opening night and finally our long term supporter Roy Thomas became a victim of the ever worsening economic downturn. After 9 short but eventful months the keys were handed over to the creditors and the building stood empty and deteriorating even further for a couple more years.
Elysium Gallery, 31 Craddock Street (2011 – 2012)
Once notice was served at 96-97 Mansel Street the next venue was quickly snapped up. Over the 2010 Christmas period a small old sewing machine repair shop situated just across the road from Mansel Street was quickly renovated in time for its first exhibition at the beginning of January 2011. This building was once a part of the old Albert Hall Hotel and restaurant in the 1870’s and legend has it that a doctor who resided there in the 1880’s moved to London and became a suspect in the Jack the Ripper murders!
The exhibition space at 31 Craddock Street was relatively tiny compared to Mansel Street, but importantly, offered 13 office spaces above the gallery which were transformed into artist studios.
This smaller gallery focused more on providing support and debut solo exhibitions for Wales’ new graduates. One being Swansea Metropolitan University’s Lucy Read which featured a house made entirely from bread, in her show ‘House of the Lovely Dark Summers of my Childhood’. Other artists exhibiting at the gallery included Tiff Oben, Helene Roberts, Philip Cheater, Elizabeth Waterhouse, Richard Monahan, Dalit Leon, Hannah Lipsey, Beth Banks, Mary-Ann Kokoska, Huw Andrews & Kelly Gorman.
Due to the size limitations of the Cradock Street gallery space it made sense for EG to create various off-site projects. This included an annual presence in the beautiful setting of the Salem Chapel in Hay-On-Wye alongside the International Literary Festival, which resulted in the film festival Bus stop Cinema in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, the exhibition From Purgatory to Paradise was a site-responsive installation in the chapel and featured Craig Wood, Tim Davies & Jake Whittaker.
In 2011, EG took over a gallery space in Venice during the Venice Biennale, where Vending Machine: An Installation featured over 200 works from 106 artists from Wales. Artists were invited to make small pieces of work alongside their contact details to fit inside a vending machine which were then bought by visitors to the gallery. These works made their way across the world with many of the artists receiving replies from the buyers
The first ever Beep: Wales International Painting Prize took place during July and August of 2012, the theme being Through Tomorrow’s Eyes and featuring 45 national and international artists. The exhibition took place in the Volcano Theatre arts space in Swansea High Street and celebrated contemporary painting on a grand scale which addressed serious subject matter. The exhibition took advantage of the fact that there was no serious appraisal of contemporary painting in Wales, the opening night was a huge success with over 400 people attending with many more visitors during the exhibitions duration. The main prize was won by Welsh artist Hannah Downing.
More off-site events continued with DISRUPTION which consisted of a series of performances by a team of ‘POSITIVE DISRUPTORS’ and took place on the city’s main shopping area Oxford Street in 2011 and on the much derided, run-down High Street in July 2012. This demonstrated that a series of breaks from the daily routine can have a positive impact and make the environment in that part of Swansea a better place in which to be. It involved storytelling, random acts of kindness, communication, mass participation, performance and song – something that changed the daily routine of that day for the people of Swansea.
In 2011 elysium also set up Artawe: Arts Resource Swansea – an artist-led online resource for anyone interested in the Arts in Swansea. This enables Swansea artists and arts organisers to share news and views
Elysium Artist’s Studios, 2 Mansel Street (2012 – present)
Past successes in helping renovate and create positive attention to long term derelict buildings enabled EG to take over the nearby former office block at 2 Mansel Street at the beginning of 2012 to renovate into artists’ studios.
Opening in January of that year to great fanfare, the building consists of 13 studios on the top two floors of a three storey building. All studios benefit from large windows which allow good light, there is 24 hour access and broadband. There is also plenty of corridor and wall space to display works and currently houses 15 artists.
Elysiumgallery & artist studios, 16 College Street (2013 – present)
Midway through 2012 the gallery was once again on the move and it was back to College Street, exactly opposite where Exposure Gallery began nearly 10 years before.
16 College Street is the sight of the notorious old Barons nightclub (famously featured in the film Twin Town) and was transformed into a new gallery space and 13 artist studios. The premiere exhibition ‘WHAT ARE THEY BUILDING DOWN THERE’ opened in the summer of 2013 and used the studio spaces for the show before the tenants moved in. This was a group show of established and emerging artists including Peter Finnemore, Kim Fielding, Andrew Cooper, David Marchant, Becky & Jason, Jonathan Anderson, Kapspike & Goebells, Philip Cheater, Gordon Dalton, Eva Bartussek, Helene Roberts, Denise Kwan, John Abell and Barnaby Dicker. The crowds of people who came to attend the opening numbered in their hundreds and filled the building and over spilled into the streets.
There has been a continuing programme of shows and events since such as celebrated Chinese performance artist Yingmei Duan in October 2013 also Pascal-Michel Dubois, Michelle Dawson, Daniel Trivedy, Huw Alden Davies, Maria Pask, Sean Vicary & many more. International links have been forged through the University of Colorado. Having hosted the work of Colorado University Professor of Drawing, Mary-Ann Kokoska at our Craddock Street gallery in 2011, Elysium & CSU set up a major Wales & U.S cultural exchange which resulted in two major exhibition of drawing featuring over 300 pieces of work by over 100 artists in Swansea & Colorado.
The College Street Gallery continues to run a varied and exciting events programme which acts as the focal point to all of EG’s activities in Swansea.
Elysium gallery Orchard Street Studios, (2015 – present)
In July 2015 Swansea’s creative community was given a huge boost with the news that elysiumgallery were opening up an extra 36 studio spaces in the city centre.
The studios situated on the top floor of the old Iceland supermarket building also houses the IS THIS/THIS IS project space, a communal library, research areas & an artist residency programme.
EG currently provides over 60 studio spaces for over 100 artists (including the Swansea College of Art MA course) over three venues in Swansea city centre for a wide range of practitioners including visual fine artists, photographers, film makers, illustrators, designers, writers and performers. The EG studio project fosters a collaborative and participatory experience creating a vibrant and creative community, creating the framework for a world of ideas and inspiration which will feed into the flourishing Swansea arts scene.
In 2017 EG will celebrate its 10th birthday. We would like to thank all of our past & present gallery helpers, sponsors, artists and friends who have helped make Elysium gallery a success and an integral part of the Wales arts scene…… Let’s see what happens next!