VAN November/December 2010: Debunking Elitism

Stephen Doyle Discusses his Project ‘The Great Belfast Art Hunt’

Going on the ‘Whitechapel art hunt’ in London’s East End in the summer of 2008 ended up being a revelation for myself and the friends who attended the event with me. Previously thinking that the London art scene both began and ended with the big institutions such as the Tate Modern, the Hayward and the National Gallery, the event cleverly encouraged us to explore galleries we never otherwise would have dreamed of visiting – primarily because we had no idea such places existed. So off we went searching out tiny gallery spaces in non-descript alleyways, having a great deal of fun in the process. Fast forward two years: and now it is the big institutions we ignore, in favour of the dynamic and innovative things happening in local underground art scenes.

I first started exploring the Belfast contemporary art scene when I moved here from London in the summer of 2009, and it came as a welcome surprise to discover that there were over 25 exhibition spaces in the Belfast City Centre alone, with even more on the peripheries. An eclectic mix of artworks could be found: you name it, and it was there: craft, installations, photography, video art, conceptual art, performance art, and then the obvious mainstays of paintings, prints and sculpture. There was even a gallery dedicated to architectural exhibitions. In short, there was something for everyone. And yet there existed the age-old problem: for the most part these galleries were only known to insiders. Many Belfast residents, even those who would consider themselves devoted ‘culture vultures’, had no idea of the exciting plethora of galleries that existed on their doorstep. Of course they knew of the Ulster Museum. Some might also be vaguely aware of the Ormeau Baths Gallery, the Golden Thread and/ or Belfast Exposed, but that was about the limit of many people’s knowledge.

It was a situation the galleries themselves were unhappy with. Certain private galleries can be forgiven for wanting to keep a select clientele, but not only do most publicly subsidized galleries have an actual remit to encourage wide sections of the public through their doors, but their staff usually have a personal desire and inclination to turn the appreciation of contemporary art into a more mainstream leisure activity. In short, conditions were ripe to bring the ‘art hunt’ model to Belfast. By this time I had discovered that it was not just London’s East End that had hosted an ‘art hunt’, but that the event was a tried and tested formula that had featured in developed cities all over the world, including New York, Sydney and San Francisco. In each case the results were the same – a framework was provided in which contemporary art could be enjoyed in a fun and unpretentious manner by people who were not necessarily art-world insiders.

For the event to be a success I needed at least 10 Belfast galleries to take part. Inexplicably, I was worried the idea would be met with reluctance, but nothing could be further from the truth. The concept was met with unanimous enthusiasm, with even galleries that were normally closed on a Saturday offering to open up for the day, whereas other galleries were willing to extend exhibitions by a few days so that they would have something on display on the Saturday. It was actually rather wonderful to see curators’ veneer of jaded cynicism turn into enthusiasm for a few precious seconds as I broached the subject to them. Alas, the world-weary front was soon back in place, but that was OK, I had what I needed.

I also needed funding. There were two primary costs – the printing of flyers, and then the food and drink for the gallery party, which would conclude the art hunt. I received financial sponsorship from the John Hewitt bar, and I stood to generate up to £300 through ticket sales, which were retailing at between £4-6.

On the day, everything ended up going according to plan. Participants met up outside Belfast City Hall at 12.30pm and were each given their Belfast Art Hunt pack. Inside each pack was a specially created map of Belfast City Centre that listed 26 different gallery spaces. There was another piece of paper listing the rules of the hunt, and then another sheet with a list of clues. Each clue revealed the name of a gallery, which the contestant then had to visit. So one clue  might be “come to this gallery for a swim”, with the answer being the Ormeau Baths Gallery. Another clue might be “a gallery open to the elements”, the answer being Belfast Exposed. Thirteen galleries in total participated in the event, and in each one there was a word pinned to a wall which contestants had to make a note of. This was how they proved they had been there. They had just over three hours to visit all the galleries. At 4.00pm they were directed to meet at the secret gallery party, where there would be food and drink, and a prize draw for everyone who had successfully collected all the passwords.

Through the kindness of certain individuals and institutions, a great number of prizes were amassed. The prize that generated the most excitement was a beautiful framed and glazed limited edition print by renowned Northern Irish artist William Artt, part of his latest series of works titled Sedimentary. Meanwhile photographer Frankie Quinn from the Red Barn gallery donated a photographic print, SpaceCRAFT donated a £50 gift voucher, the Golden Thread Gallery donated several books, Belfast Exposed donated a photographic print / poster, and main sponsors The John Hewitt bar donated two bottles of wine and a lunch for two.

There were 12 volunteers who helped out on the day as assistants. In order for contestants to clearly identify who to turn to if they needed help, and in order to have a bit of fun, all 12 helpers, as well as myself, dressed as cowboys or cowgirls. These helpers included five of Northern Ireland’s most promising contemporary artists, all of whom were more than happy to look silly for the day; the message couldn’t be any clearer – the world of contemporary art can be fun. This had always been the raison d’être of the Belfast Art Hunt: to provide an antidote to the stiff formality that can all too easily pervade the contemporary art world. Commentator Don Thompson hits the nail on the head with the following remarks, which, although they refer to private galleries, also aptly describe certain public galleries, especially when such subsidised spaces so often follow the private gallery’s intimidating ‘white cube’ aesthetic so slavishly. Thompson notes: “Observe people looking at art through a gallery window; frequently they pause before pushing the buzzer, then walk away. The quick escape has nothing to do with the art being shown … It is the fear that the dealer will treat you as an unwelcome intruder or, worse, as an idiot, and will patronize you” (1). It’s a pertinent point; such a fear, of being treated like an ‘unwelcome intruder’ or ‘an idiot’, characterised much of my early gallery-going experiences, and I know plenty of others who have admitted to feeling the same sentiments on more than one occasion.

In the end a total of 75 people participated. This number included a wide mix of people, from all backgrounds, and of all ages. Most had no background in the arts, which was exactly what I had hoped for. The reactions were as I had planned: everyone was surprised that Belfast had so much impressive and exciting art on offer. Typical reactions included the woman who informed me she had lived just outside Belfast City Centre for over 20 years and yet today was the first time she had ever set foot in the Ormeau Baths Gallery, one of Northern Ireland’s largest and most exciting art galleries. Meanwhile, there was someone who had been studying at Queen’s university for over two years, yet today was the first time he had entered Queen’s University’s Naughton Gallery, one of the greatest University galleries in the UK.

There are a handful of huge art institutions dotted across the globe, places such as the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, that have proved that the consumption of modern and contemporary art can be successfully transformed from an obscure specialist hobby into a mainstream leisure activity, one that can be enjoyed by people from a diverse range of backgrounds. Such institutions have been able to achieve this thanks, in large part, to their enviable budgets that have funded a series of remarkable marketing and branding campaigns. Such high-profile marketing initiatives are, of course, well beyond the means of smaller galleries in less populated cities; however, the success of the Great Belfast Art Hunt demonstrates that there are other ways that the myth of contemporary art’s elitism can be debunked. As ever, imagination can triumph over financial limitations. As the old adage goes, problems are only opportunities in disguise.

Stephen Doyle


Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

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