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We asked Annette Petchey, Founder of New Light and judge of the Prize Exhibition 2020/21 a few questions ….
Congratulations! New light is now in its 10th anniversary year and has exhibited hundreds of artists in dozens of venues with thousands of entries and visitors. New Light has seen many a fledgling artist flourish from its platform and gain national attention. What was the original vision for New Light and how do you feel these goals have been achieved to date?
Thank you! I can hardly believe it has been ten years since New Light first started shining a light on northern art.
The original vision for New Light was to foster northern artists at the beginning of their artistic career: the £10,000 main prize, named after Valeria Sykes, a generous philanthropist who has believed in New Light from the outset, was designed to give the artist enough breathing space to concentrate on their artistic work for a year. It was difficult to specify “early career” in any meaningful, quantifiable way, and so it was rather crudely applied by age limit.
It soon became clear that our purpose – to celebrate and promote art from the north of England – extended well beyond age or career stage, and we moved away from these restrictions, making New Light about all fine art created by northern artists. We have added a number of other prizes to our portfolio now, all with roots in our purpose: the first addition was created for Valeria Sykes to recognise the work in the shortlist that she liked the most (Valeria is a self-taught artist, and collector of art); we have since added an emerging artist prize sponsored by Manchester’s fabulous Saul Hay Gallery (itself a relative new-comer to the art world); a printmakers’ prize, courtesy of Zillah Bell Gallery in Thirsk, which has an enviable record for excellent artists, established and new; an award that is chosen by visitors at each venue; and a purchase prize to add to the New Light Collection.
New Light has punched above its weight from the beginning: it started in my kitchen with a group of enthusiastic volunteers, a couple of key individuals who believed in my vision and were willing to risk backing it with their time and gallery space, and received accolades and acclaim from the outset. It continues to do the same, but the exhibitions and tours have just got better and better as the New Light team has refined and improved its approach. It was described as “the place to go for the best in northern art” a few years ago, and I am so proud of that.
What do you hope the next ten years will bring for New Light?
What do I want for the future? Goodness, but that’s like asking a child what they want for Christmas! “I promise I have been good, and I would like…”: a venue for the Prize Exhibition in Manchester or Liverpool – it feels like we miss a hugely important area with our tour, but we haven’t been able to find anywhere that can accommodate us; sponsors for each of our venues – we would love to be able allow more people access, and to do more outreach work at each of the venues, but the cost of doing so prohibits us; and sculptures – at the moment, our prizes are restricted to wall hung work (effectively pictures), and we would love to extend to sculptures if we can find the funding or sponsorship to do so.
Our ambition is to be seen as the Summer Exhibition of the north – the place in our region to go to see the best fine art being produced right now. As we open the exhibition in late autumn/ early winter, I guess we would have to be the Winter Exhibition.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic producing some of the most testing economic times since the second world war, some of the region’s economies where we will be hosting the prize exhibition will have been significantly impacted by the loss of tourism. What impact do you think this will have on the artwork produced across the North?
I am really interested to see what impact the pandemic will have on work. Will the pieces being submitted be darker, reflecting the anxieties being felt; or will they reflect the optimism for emerging? Right now, the reported flattening of the infection curve seems to be generating cautious discussion about relieving the lockdown somewhat. I suspect we will have both… I know I swing between feeling pretty down about ever seeing a return to the freedoms I have enjoyed my whole life, to finding joy in small things that I have more time to enjoy than I did previously. On a purely practical level, I am aware there are some artists that actually have more time to produce work right now. This is probably not be the case where the artists are overseeing home schooling, though!
What benefit do you think New Light can bring during this time to those regions in terms of social and economic regeneration?
One of the benefits of New Light being run on such a shoestring is that we have built a system that is capable of being run by the team in their own homes. We don’t have an office, and so the whole team is used to working remotely and liaising with each other by ‘phone. This includes the collation and judging of the submitted work and – together with the long tour planned into summer 2021 – we can be really confident of going ahead with the Prize Exhibition, even if we have to change the shape of it a bit.
Before finishing in London, the Prize Exhibition is due to be in the Scarborough Art Gallery, Tullie House in Carlisle and The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. While each of these areas already has cultural richness, this is coupled with pockets of economic hardship, and so the pain of the stalled economy will be felt.
For economic recovery, there are obviously the prizes. These are significant for the recipients of course, but the whole exhibition tour is a selling exhibition with the artist taking the largest share of any sale, and the rest being split between the venue and New Light. Added to this is the benefit to an artist of their profile being raised with the judges, the media and venues on top of the collectors that visit the exhibition – a slower-burn toward economic recovery, but the testimonials from previous short-listed artists attest to the positive impact on their careers.
From a social recovery perspective, New Light has always recognised the wellbeing benefits of art, and sees the accessibility of art in our exhibition tour as part of the solution for social recovery. We would also usually host workshops and talks around the exhibition as we firmly believe that people engage with art in different ways, and want to facilitate that as much as possible. Most of our venues in this tour are free to enter, so I would heartily encourage everyone to do their soul some good and go to see the exhibitions when they are closest to them.
Many previously shortlisted New Light artists have volunteered to lead workshops and classes as part of the ‘Art for All’ programme which runs alongside the biennial exhibition. This has resulted in unique opportunities for artists to engage with their audience. How do you see this programme developing and attracting more community involvement with the arts?
Our Art for All programme started with a few workshops with local community groups before expanding to schools-based programmes, workshops and talks. While most of the sessions we run are open to everyone, the people who chose to take part generally already appreciate art. We would love to host more outreach work with groups that do not access the arts as much as others. This is a desire we share with the venues we exhibit in – we are purely constrained by the funds to deliver it.
Over the past ten years there has been much attention and scientific backing to the long- attested idea that the arts are good for you. New Light has established exhibitions of work from its Collection in hospitals as a means of improving the wellbeing of both staff and patients. What do you see as the future for the New Light Collection and how do you see this work continuing?
I am really excited about the Collection! It is all by artists who we would class as “northern” as they meet our criteria (or would have met them, when they were alive) and our plan is to make it available for public spaces to borrow, free of charge, as long as we can get sponsorship to fund the Collection. We started to build the Collection in 2015 with money donated by a Leeds art group that was closing, and it has grown pretty organically since, with generous donations from artists and collectors, and the inclusion of work by Jan Huntley-Peace, who won the first Purchase Prize during the last Prize Exhibition.
In a small way, we have made the Collection available to a couple of hospital trusts, and are now really keen to hear from any individuals or companies who are interested in sponsoring making this body of work available to the public so that we can make it much more widely available – we have a list of places keen to borrow from the Collections. Do please get in touch if you are able to help in this way. Likewise, if you own art by any really good northern artist that you would like to consider donating to the New Light Collection, or are an artist from the north of England who would like to donate, we would be delighted to hear from you. The works we have in our Collection are wonderful, but there so many excellent northern artists out there that we would love to add
We had planned an official launch of the Collection at Grantley Hall Hotel in April, but have had to postpone this until October because of the pandemic. Please also let us know if you are interested in attending this launch.