Then and Now: Arts at Warwick

History of the Arts Faculty University of Warwick

Learning of the Then and Now Arts at Warwick project through students on campus started me thinking of my own experiences with the University of Warwick which has weaved its way throughout my life, leaving impressions good and bad in its wake.  As a child I enjoyed travelling to Coventry from Kenilworth on the 517 bus, always choosing the top deck vantage point to see first bluebells and then glorious autumn leaves along the Kenilworth Road.  The way Gibbet Hill grows before your eyes, flattens out as you approach, to rise enormous again behind you was a phenomena to me I couldn’t quite grasp.  Occasionally, my Dad, when driving, would divert to see the progress of the building of the new university and I would gaze with him at the sea of mud and construction traffic.  I have to admit that it was never a place I aspired to go to as I grew up and when choosing a university at 18, it was to Swansea University to study American Studies, the most obscure subject I could find in the 1970s, that offered me a place.  This I was to turn down, planning to go to university at another time and place.  I certainly did not expect it to be 25 years later that I would decide to study, and with family commitments, nearby Warwick was the only sensible option.  Joining at the start of the millennium felt significant and a 3 year full-time course in English Literature was at the same time both a luxury and a claim on an academic future postponed for so long.

Warwick was rather rarified then and the self contained nature of the campus felt exclusive and excluding.  Suggesting my Dad found a book he was looking for in the university bookshop one day, brought me up short when he asked if he was allowed to go there?  Warwick needed to become less exclusive and more connected to its community.  I believe this is slowly becoming the case and increasingly recognised by those with influence to make changes.  I was encouraged by the artist Matthew Raw’s commission for the new Arts Faculty building to be taking ideas out to the local Canley community.  This is to inform the work and encourage an engagement with the local people and the building.

Screenshot from the Opening Launch of Then and Now 11.06.20

Raw also took inspiration from the extensive University Art Collection, citing Terry Frost, Jack Bush and Ian Davenport as influences.  Raw intends to make his artwork with a tiled mural 5 x 15m positioned on the outside wall at the entrance to the building.  Those of us who remember the building of the university all those years ago can surely not forget the debacle of the white tiles falling off the buildings!  The university eventually won the court case against the architects, consultants and contractors, but I am quite sure the problem will not be repeated this time.  Matthew’s presentation outlining his thoughts and process for the project is available on the Then and Now website with the Online Exhibition Launch recording found at 1:18 to the end.

The above images as screenshots from Matthew Raw’s presentation for the online Opening Launch of Then and Now 11.06.20

Returning to study for an MA in History of Art brought me interaction with other areas of the university, and working in the Mead Gallery became one of the most satisfying experiences of my life.  I experienced the power of Art to bring the community closer, to help engage students with different ways of thinking and using the Art Collection as a stimulus to thought and work.  I celebrate the joy of introducing areas of the community to Art who may not have had that experience before, or how to interpret the feelings and ideas Art can promote.  Engaging with schools taking groups around the Sculpture Trails, and the Colour Trails with the extensive collection of Abstract and Contemporary Art freely available, is a wonderful privilege, not forgetting the other end of the spectrum with University of the Third Age U3A, visitors too.  The dialogue Art prompts is enlightening and I always learn something from others who consider the Art with me.

I was particularly pleased to be approached by the student led investigation into the Arts Faculty Then and Now project about my experience at the university, to celebrate their planned move to a new building.  The idea initially from Kathryn Woods, supported by Chair of the Faculty, Penny Roberts, and led by PhD student Pierre Botcherby with many current students on the team, all of whom can be found on the Meet the Team section.  There is so much interesting work in the website with contributions from students, alumni and staff: memories and experiences recorded; student accommodation at £4 a week; the Modern Records Centre raided for images of old posters of entertainments; political activity over the years; the progress of buildings; and Arts Faculty degree subjects offered.

Screenshot from the Opening Launch of Then and Now 11.06.20

The onset of Covid-19 pandemic has had its consequences on what was planned originally as a physical exhibition of archival material with an online presence.  These have been switched and the exhibition is now a virtual one, with the opening event online too.  When the building is completed the exhibition will be on display, but inevitably the principle contributors to the project will have moved on to other things.  The students grasped the implications of the pandemic lockdown early and swiftly changed tack to create this amazing virtual experience instead.  I commend the foresight, the research and commitment to the project and hope that others find the information interesting.  I love the half hour film of Warwick University life from the 1970s by Stefan Sargent included.  Watch it here:

Stefan Sargent film On Campus 1970

Having been based at the Humanities building for my English degree I join others with a love/hate relationship with the building.  Its straightforwardness and utility appeals as I am a generation who grew up with the new modern brutalist concrete answer to the post-war destruction of Coventry, and have always been proud of the Phoenix, rise from the ashes mentality of Coventrians.  However the building even then was not fit for purpose as most of the seminar rooms were too small for seminar groups of 12-15 students.  My memory is sitting on desks, floors, books, elbows bashing, sweltering in stuffy rooms on the fifth floor which, when you opened the window, no one could hear anything due to the buses driving past the window.  However, the long corridor was a perfect Art gallery and I used to love taking in the images while walking to and from lectures.  Sometimes desperately wanting to stop fellow students en route to exclaim “Wow!  Do you know what you have just walked past?”  Invariably an Andy Warhol, a Jim Dine, an Edwardo Paolozzi…currently Richard Long and Rachel Whiteread among others!

There are many photographs on the Then and Now website of the architecture on campus with original images of the construction of the Humanities block, plans for the new faculty building by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, which will be adjacent to, and complementing the new Warwick Arts Centre, both expected to be finished in 2021 in time for Coventry City of Culture, coronavirus allowing of course.

Architecture at Warwick

I very much enjoyed the online launch of the Then and Now project and the website.  Contributing to some of the memories was a treat for me, as mentioned in the previous blogpost when I was interviewed by Chris Hofmann, and the personal touch of videoed conversations with participants has made the whole event more tangible in a virtual setting, these can be seen in the section Isolation Diaries. 

Isolation Diaries

Utilising all media options has been good with Facebook, Instagram accounts and the interactive website has been used to the full.  Malina Mihalache has written an article for ArtSpace, a local artist journal, which would have completed the medium with a printed paper version of the project.  Not so in the end as the coronavirus struck there too and the journal is an online version for this issue.  Malina’s article is available on the Leamington Studio Artists website here on page 16.

Coronavirus has forced us to learn new things, communicate in different ways and embrace the 21st century with alacrity.  However, as good and challenging as this is I look forward to the next, physical version of the Then and Now Exhibition when the building opens, the opportunity to see the finished mural by Matthew Raw, meet with returning students and staff and welcoming new ones to the university campus to enjoy a continuing interest in the future of the Arts Faculty…with no sign of the Covid-19 pandemic!

Thanks to:

Then and Now Team

Madeleine Snowdon Artwork Design and style

Leamington Studio Artists

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