“The power is out”, Nathalie Staples, the Gallery’s director, explains to me apologetically as I step in from the sharp 9am morning air of Trinity Street. I tell her not to worry: you can hardly tell the lights are off in the white-washed, open-plan space, lit by the full-frontal windows flooding the floor with sunshine. This is my first experience of the inside of the Cambridge Contemporary Art Gallery. If I am surprised by the floor space behind its small shop exterior, I am even more taken aback by the sheer volume of art and creativity stored under this roof. And yet, before I get to peruse the collection, I remember my duty to interview, and sit down with Nathalie at the front desk – it’s just me, Nathalie and the mechanic quietly fixing the electricity in the corner. Perfect.
I know what I want to know about the collection – anything and everything she’ll give me – and so start out with the all-encompassing: what sort of art are we looking at here? What does the collection have to offer? Nathalie, warm and enthusiastic, is happy to give me the briefing. The gallery offers a mixture of art: paintings, limited edition handmade prints, crafts and ceramics. In comparison to its sister gallery , Cambridge Contemporary Crafts over on Benet Street, this collection focuses on the fine art of contemporary artists living in the UK. It brings together both local and national names, long term and short term partners of the gallery, to adorn the clean brightness of its walls, whilst maintaining a strong connection to print makers of varying levels of the fame ladder. The great thing about the gallery is its affordability (even for the student pocket!) with some pieces coming out as low as £3-5 for a handmade piece of original art.
One of my main inquiries concerns student interest. Are we interested? Does Nathalie receive a lot of the population of Cambridge University wandering into her doorway in search of creative diversion? She tells me that the audience is a mixture: students come and go with the tourists and the locals, providing a variation of ages, professions and nationalities, ready to appreciate art. I bring up the lack of the Fine Art course at Cambridge, which is apparently not academic enough for Cambridge but just fine for the Oxford degree syllabus, to see if she thinks there would be more interest in the town’s art scene if it entered our academic periphery more. Nathalie agrees, but argues that this does not prevent students from appreciating that which they don’t study.
I ask Nathalie about her favourite piece in the gallery – does she have one? There is a slight whistling through the teeth before she can answer, but she has to turn me down. Pick a favourite? – It’s too difficult. She does, however, continue to talk about what pieces she owns by artists part of the collection, like Angie Lewin and her beautiful woodcuts of flowers with a retro twist, inspired by Eric Ravilious. Another name – an impressively exciting and well-known one at that – is dropped into the conversation at this point: the gallery’s most expensive piece currently featured is “I Love You” by Sir Peter Blake, falling at £4000. According to The Independent, Blake is in the top 10 of most influential British artists of all time, and is probably best known for designing the cover of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles, which has become an iconic piece of pop art. I saw his work on the walls of Tate Britain last summer, and now I meet him again in a small Cambridge Gallery. There is definitely more to this place than meets the eye.
Delving into the serious and economic, I ask about the place of art in the recession – has our love of art changed in relation to our lighter pockets? Has the gallery been affected by the big crunch? “People are more cautious”: people do not want to buy as much, and yet this has not stopped their interest in the art. This has actually probably increased, since in times of doom and gloom, people go looking for the inspiring and the beautiful, especially if they can’t own any for their own walls. At this point, Nathalie goes on to describe to me the “Own Art Scheme” set up by the Arts Council, where one can borrow, interest free, pieces from galleries for a certain price a month, as a means of encouraging those usually unable to buy art.
I was quite surprised upon hearing that the most recent exhibitions at the gallery had been focussed upon street art and the YBA movement. The former had brought in Banksy prints and works by other graffiti artists, drawing in a much younger crowd. The latter had compiled works by Gary Hume and Tracy Emin among others. I ask about what’s coming up on the agenda, but Nathalie talks about her own caution in this current economic palaver: this year she is choosing more mixed exhibitions with more focus on print making, which is less expensive but still hand-made, in her attempt to tailor the gallery to needs and demands.
After all of this seriousness, we finally take a tour of the gallery and browse the works. Nathalie’s enthusiasm is infectious: she takes me through the copiousness of pieces, describing the various techniques and character traits of the different artists. We begin discussing print making – surprisingly harder than it sounds. Clare Halifax, one of the artists in the collection, uses screen prints and stencils to superimpose layers of colours to form cityscapes and town scenes, producing intricately patterned works out of small palettes and great attention to detail.
We then move through the lino cuts of Paul Catherall – bold blocks of bright colours forming metropolis scenes – to glance at Charlotte Cornish’s audacious abstract paintings and prints. Mychael Barratt, and his use of Shakespearean themes and scenes from The Canterbury Tales in his art, naturally appealed to my English student eye.
At this point, a customer entered and I was robbed of Nathalie’s guidance. I took my leave of her a while afterwards, not before buying a few of the cards on sale for £2 each – a bargain in originality in comparison to the highly popularised repetitions of Paperchase and WH Smith. It was now 10am, and I had already managed to gain insight into the world of Cambridge art and into the delicacies of the hand-made print. A very good start to a Wednesday.