The concept of Teesdale Christmas Art Fair, which will take over The Witham between 8 and 20 December) came about as a consequence of a conversation between The Witham’s Executive Director, Katy Taylor, and local artist Ann Whitfield. Ann remarked that opportunities for local and regional artists to exhibit together in a showcase of fine art talent were few and far between. Katy did a bit of research, and realised that this ought to be addressed, particularly given The Witham’s pivotal location with Barnard Castle in County Durham a stone’s throw from Scotch Corner, and so close to Cumbria and North Yorkshire.
In short, it was realised that the concept of Teesdale Christmas Art Fair presented a fantastic opportunity to put The Witham’s new visual arts strategy at on the map.
Since starting work at The Witham as Visual Arts Coordinator a couple of months ago I have been incredibly busy researching regional artists, I’ve been to open studio events, exhibitions, and art fairs galore. I’ve gone back through press releases I’ve received and articles I’ve written for the Darlington and Stockton Times reviewing exhibitions across the region. I’ve drawn up innumerable lists of exhibition ideas and artists whose work I’d like to present to audiences at The Witham.
It’s been an intense and nerve-wracking period. Turning what has previously been a ‘room for hire’ into a carefully curated programme of exhibitions that presents some of the best, more innovative and exciting fine art that the region has to offer. The process has required introductions, and explanations, which, given The Witham’s long history, will inevitably continue for some time.
However, the past couple of weeks have been nothing short of thrilling. To receive so many emails and phone calls from incredibly talented artists eager to exhibit at The Witham is filling my heart with joy. Many of these artists exhibit nationally, some internationally, yet are excited to find an ambitious, commercial gallery on their doorstep. I've heard from several artists whose work I’ve long since admired, and also fantastic artists whose work I’ve never come across before. As a curator, art critic and artist myself, the latter really puts a bounce in my step. I have always felt passionately about offering regional audiences access to first class art (some of which will hopefully be new, and some at times challenging), and now I can see that happening at The Witham as I put together the Teesdale Christmas Art Fair and programme for 2017.
A few years ago I interviewed the Director of Modern Art Oxford, Paul Hobson for a newspaper article. Paul spent his formative years in Ampleforth, North Yorkshire before going on to study at Oxford University and carving out his career in the arts. He joined Modern Art Oxford from the Contemporary Art Society where he had worked as Director for six years. The Contemporary Art Society is a charity that purchases important works of art to place in collections across the UK; in interview he spoke at length about the importance of developing the economy and ecology of art in the regions.
What I’m getting at is that Paul knows only too well what rural means, and he also knows only too well the importance of providing a platform for artists to display their work, and providing a shop front for people to buy artists work. That may sound trite, but if we (by which I mean you, me, our friends and neighbours etc.) don’t invest in original works of art, we won’t have artists, and what a dull world we’d live in without artists to seduce our senses. Plus, what’s more exciting to own, an original work of art created by an artist who lives down the road with all the visible, smudges, smears, precision, time care and attention at its very core, or a pixelated print picked off the shelf in a generic department store owned by a multimillionaire whose funds are safely stowed away in a tax-free off-shore bank account?
Buying local doesn’t just apply to cheese and chutney, it's about supporting the local economy, and artist and cultural tourism play a part in that… make Teesdale Christmas Art Fair a date in your diary this Christmas – I guarantee something to delight everyone!
by Sarah Mayhew Craddock
Visual Arts Coordinator