A new initiative takes inspiration from the historical legacy of Nottingham’s Midland Group, a cooperative of artists that aimed to make the Midlands a centre of art activity
Nottingham’s art scene has a unique identity. The city’s size accommodates a diversity of ideas, while being small enough to foster conversation and collaboration. Graduates from Nottingham Trent University’s fine art course have created a young, experimental, and entrepreneurial hub, that coexists with galleries presenting international art such as Nottingham Contemporary and New Art Exchange. But the Midlands region – within which Nottingham is a major centre – comprises diverse arts contexts, from urban centres to rural spaces, with varying arts scenes and different obstacles facing artists.
A new Nottingham-based consortium, the New Midland Group (NMG), builds on the legacy of the Midland Group (1943–87) – a progressive artist-run cooperative which developed a strong arts network across the region. During its heyday in the 60s, The Midland Group exhibited renowned artists such as Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, David Hockney, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol in their gallery in Nottingham’s East Circus Street. Yet despite four decades of history and a high-profile international programme, a Google search will only return a handful of results that skims over the group’s successes. NMG celebrates the legacy of this predecessor and its role in making Nottingham a vibrant city for art and culture, while being attuned to addressing the needs of artists living and working in the Midland’s today.
The experimental and independent spirit of The Midland Group has an affinity with the consortium partners Backlit, One Thoresby Street and Primary – three artist-led spaces founded by arts graduates, that nurture a strong community of artists in each of the galleries’ respective studio spaces. Like The Midland Group, NMG supports artists, focusing on strengthening the artist’s experience of working in the region. While initially conceived pre-covid, NMG launched their 18-month Arts Council England-funded programme in December 2020, providing vital support for artists during a time when many projects and exhibitions were affected by the pandemic.
NMG supports fifteen associate artists through a programme of mentoring, workshops, discussion events, opportunities for artists to connect with one another and linking artists to partner organisations (from cultural venues to universities) based across the region. Recognising the vast range of needs, an artists’ fee might fund anything from an exhibition visit, childcare costs, travel expenses or work. Twelve bursaries support research and development, collaborative practices and production – part-supported through Derby’s Artcore, and a University of Lincoln bursary supporting graduates affected by the pandemic.
Who gets access to NMG’s opportunities? The open call welcomed applications from artists without a formal art education or from backgrounds currently underrepresented in the sector. Among the artists are Seema Mattu, a Birmingham-based artist whose practice is framed as a theme park known as SEEMAWORLD and which centres on LGBTQ+, gender non-specific and othered culture. Another associate is Tom Harris, a sound technician with a background in music research, now developing his work as an artist. With rising university fees and the government’s planned cuts for arts education, the arts may feel doomed to be an exclusive sphere for the privileged, but NMG presents a more accessible environment for making work in a critical and supportive community.
It is inspiring to see a project that addresses some of the failings of the artworld, including the increasing disparity of social opportunity, and the pressure on artists to develop projects that fit funding criteria. Instead, NMG encourages ambition, creating an environment for experimentation. For instance, associate artists Roo Dhissou and Sahjan Kooner applied for a bursary to collaborate after meeting each other at a NMG event, and who will now be exploring migratory activities around North India, and their shared cultural histories.
It’s refreshing for a project to look back to look forward. Hopefully The Midland Group’s history can be made publicly accessible, acknowledging how the group activated a regional scene during a time when the artworld was particularly London-centric. While the consortium may exemplify some of The Midland Group’s values in its own venues – artistic excellence, ambition, supporting artists – NMG shows the power of working collaboratively to make an impact that extends to the whole region. I am left wondering, what does it mean for NMG to support artists in the Midlands whilst being based in Nottingham today? Does Nottingham, with its strong arts ecology, leverage more opportunities for regional artists, or does the project miss opportunities to develop artistic communities in other parts of the Midlands? Through NMG’s website, which hosts opportunities, resources for artists and is a platform for the artist community, it secures the programme’s legacy, but also extends its reach globally.
This model of partners collaborating to address the needs of artists, the sector and the distinct locality, seems essential to the development of thriving arts scene outside of London. It’s unfortunate that the project does not yet have funding beyond 18-months, but a period of evaluation and consultation planned towards the end of this initial programme will hopefully shape the future direction of NMG. Hopefully the project will develop beyond 2022, and will continue to promote more collaborations across the Midlands.
Further information on the New Midland Group programme can be found on the consortium’s website