After visiting John Hansard Gallery, Arts Ambassador Jenny Banful reflects on how the Cultural Quarter is supporting the shape of Southampton’s identity.
On my first trip to John Hansard Gallery (JHG), I stepped into a welcoming atmosphere and as I wandered through the various rooms I felt at ease. Around the gallery there were sculptures, film and photography. I didn’t know what to make of some of the work at first but the calming space made me feel comfortable, able to pause and reflect.
The gallery still remains relatively new to me. JHG is a modern and spacious with huge glass windows creating a sense of openness and invitation – the space’s raison d’être is ‘to be explored’.
During my last visit, I interviewed some of the staff. I gained behind the scenes stories that lie within the gallery’s walls!
I spoke with Ben, Duty Manager, whose role involves managing the gallery assistants, the maintenance of the building and the security of the artworks. His main objective is to make people feel welcome and to make sure the exhibitions are accessible to the general public – ensuring that they have (as he puts it) a ‘way in’. I particularly liked this phrase because it solidified the gallery’s identity as being inclusive.
We also discussed Southampton’s identity as a maritime city: it has an outward-facing presence from its port which is used for trade and travel. Then, a presence that draws people in beyond the docks for the ‘stream of visual art’ and ‘ribbon of green spaces’ with its many galleries and parks. The JHG carries this sentiment, as its home to the kind of art that facilitates community spirit.
Between May and July, the gallery ran its ‘Community Takeover’ programme. I was lucky enough to experience public interaction with art during Art Asia’s residency in preparation for the Southampton Mela Festival, a group of primary school children attended a design workshop where they were making decorative banners. Observing the footfall of the gallery – young and old – made it clear that JHG is a space that welcomes all. In doing so it reflects the City which is home to a rich variety of people. Ben and I also briefly discussed how the gallery space embraces this diversity in a more literal sense: through infrastructure. For example, some of the walls within the gallery are specifically designed to be moved and removed to suit each exhibition. This re-modelling aspect is one I find interesting in light of Southampton’s cultural movement, which is continuously evolving.
The gallery is physically and metaphorically knocking down walls in a time where hate crimes are on the rise. The current exhibition (Resist: be modern again) celebrates amazing women in history who were marginalised or overlooked when making great waves in culture and art.
One of the first things you see in the gallery is a ‘neon sign with the phrase ‘You Belong Here’… this sign marks the birthplace of LGBT Future Month’ a permanent installation created in collaboration between Southampton-based artist Asten Holmes-Elliot and young people from Breakout Youth, making John Hansard Gallery a Queer History landmark.
JHG has even invited skateboarders, who usually frequent Guildhall Square, into the gallery with Skate Southampton! (25 June 2019 – 29 June 2019). All of this helps to challenge cliched images of cold, austere art galleries by collaborating and working with all walks of life in Southampton!
Following my discussion with Ben, I spoke with some of the gallery assistants. There were lots of varying responses – all of which were intriguing but one stood out the most. It came from Jess who previously studied Literature and History of Art:
‘Everywhere we go, we are inundated with information. We live in a world that tells us what to think. Whereas in a space like this [JHG], it encourages you to have a genuine interaction with the art.’
I love that the space is truly welcome to everyone and if you haven’t visited the JHG yet, I would encourage you to come along, explore the free exhibitions and events – you might just find something surprising!
Jenny Banful is an English Graduate and former Arts Ambassador at the University of Southampton.
The Excel Southampton Internship Programme is a paid opportunity supported by the Careers and Employability Service at the University of Southampton