Late last year, the History of Art buddy scheme was awarded £1600 from the Birmingham Alumni Hands Up! fund, who provide funding to student-led projects and activities. This money is intended to provide undergraduate students with the opportunity to organise funded events and projects that enhance the student experience (all current students with an idea can apply for up to £2,000!!). We hit upon the idea of using the money to fund group visits to galleries across the UK, for all undergraduates, with a view to building relationships that cross all year groups and allowing more of us to view more works of art “in the flesh”. The first of these trips took place at the end of last term when a group of First and Second years visited Wolverhampton Art Gallery to view their exhibition ‘A Big Bang’ The Origins of the Pop Art Collection.
We arrived at the gallery in the early afternoon and were met by Tess Radcliffe (Cultural Learning and Participation Manager, and who used to work at The Barber!) who was going to take us on a tour of the gallery. Given that a brief discussion on the coach had revealed that very few of us even knew that there was an art gallery in Wolverhampton, Tess started with a brief history of the gallery itself, and filled us in on some interesting facts. Established in 1884, the gallery contains works including Johann Zoffany’s The Provoked Wife, as well as contemporary works by the likes of Gillian Wearing and the gallery also mounts regular exhibitions of contemporary, local artists’ works. The gallery also houses one of the largest collections of Pop Art in the country, thanks to the curator David Rodgers, who worked at the gallery during the 1970s. At the time Rodgers’s acquisition policy–which leaned towards Pop–created anger amongst the locals, who accused Rodgers in the media of frivolous and un-edifying spending, these works rapidly increased footfall in the Gallery, and go some way to maintaining its significance in the present day.
The exhibition we visited–‘A Big Bang’–focused on this Pop art collection, showcasing works collected towards the end of this period, and it considered the controversy that surrounded them. Tess talked to us about a number of key works including one of Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s Soup Cans and Peter Blake’s Cigarette Pack, accompanied in this exhibition by copies of newspapers which criticised its purchase in the 1970s . Tess also showed us David Hockney’s work Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, a screen print which places the male pin-up model in a God-like position, and challenges our ideas surrounding public and private life. Tess told us about other areas of the gallery including the museums decorative art collection, a vast but un-researched area of the its collection, and the galleries satirical exhibition This is Not a Joke, which raised questions about our behaviour and fundamental ideas about art itself.
We ended our trip with our own exploration of the gallery, taking in the Victorian and Georgian sections and obviously making the most of their dressing up opportunities! I think I speak for all of us when I say that the trip was highly enjoyable, giving a real insight into an often under-valued gallery just around the corner from us in Brum. A good time was had by all so thank you to Wolverhampton Art Gallery (especially Tess) for making us feel so welcome. Thank you also to the Hands up Fund who made this trip possible, giving us not only the opportunity to bond between year groups but also providing the chance to apply the knowledge we had learned during term one to paintings in situ.
Another Hands up funded trip will take place this term–so stay tuned to see what we get up to!