Modern Painters, New Decorators
Interview by David McLeavy
Published in May 2020
Modern Painters, New Decorators is an artist-led organisation running a gallery, shop and studios from a shopping centre in Loughborough, East Midlands. They enable artists to re-energise the local by producing free contemporary art exhibitions, artist-produced products and creative membership schemes. They are known for taking a collaborative approach to exhibition-making and a unique volunteer development programme. The project was started in 2017 by artists and makers with a connection to the town.
I had the chance to chat to David John Scarborough, who runs MPND along with a collection of other artists, supporters and partners.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to me a little about Modern Painters, New Decorators. I understand that the organisation was founded in 2017. I wondered if you could talk a little more about the organisation and about the arts scene in Loughborough? I am interested to know if you have seen a difference in the local scene since your formation when compared with the preceding years.
Hi Dave, thanks for the invite! Modern Painters, New Decorators is an artist-led organisation running a gallery, shop and studios from a shopping centre in Loughborough, East Midlands. We believe that artists can positively impact where we live (the physical structures) and why we live there (the psychological or emotional connection). A lot of our exhibitions are about this idea of place-making. Everything we do, our exhibitions, our products and memberships try to tap into this larger narrative.
I have to admit, I find it hard to talk about Loughborough’s art scene. I think it’s difficult to speak about what is (a place of lack) when a lot of what we try to do is talk about what could be (a place of possibility). There have been several successful artist-led spaces in the past such as Vanilla Galleries which merged into Two Queens, Leicester and there’s organisations doing great things now like Graff.io, Charnwood Arts and Radar. But we need more.
Recently a good friend of ours, Kev Ryan, passed away. He was a massive advocate for the local area without being glib or naive. He oversaw Charnwood Arts, and was involved with trying to launch The Generator, a massive regeneration project which looked to restore a historic building in the middle of town into an independent and co-operative creative hub. With hubris, I think this is the sort of scale of ambition we need. A research project by CVAN East Midlands and Leicester Uni suggested that only 16% of visual artists working in the East Midlands are under 35. Universities UK suggests that statistically graduates are the most involved and engaged in their towns and local communities. We need a compelling vision of what it means to live, work and thrive in our town if we want to see change, and if we want to see artists and graduates rooted in communities.
The change we have seen since are formation has been about connecting disconnected creatives. Locally, we now get to hang out with artist-friends that we may never have met. Many of these guys are quietly working away, but have a national or even international reach. We get to celebrate their wins with them. The last 3 years have been a chance for us to find our feet and build a following, a chance to trial and pivot until we found successful ways of gathering people. I think our next steps as a community are to gather that momentum and bolster it together with others to expand beyond what we ever thought we could achieve.
The Ground is Good, installation view, 2018
I fully believe in what you are trying to do with MPND. You mentioned a vision of exploring 'what it means to live, work and thrive in our town', and I wanted to ask about some of the specific things that you have been doing within your programme to address this. For example, are you showing work by artists that are based in the surrounding area, or are there other approaches you are taking to explore the specifics of 'place making' in Loughborough?
Thanks for the encouragement!
We’ve only really hit upon this way of thinking over the last 12 months, which has sort of come about through being a part of Loughborough University’s graduate enterprise scheme, being inspired by others like Fermynwoods Contemporary Art and the Portland Inn Project, and simply trying things out and seeing what sticks. All that’s to say - a lot of what we’re doing is based on hypothesis rather than proven facts and ways of working.
We’ve worked with artists who are based in or have a connection with the town such as Leon Sadler, Sumiko Eadon, Colette Griffin and Mateus Domingos but we’ve also worked with artists from across the UK such as Emily Hawes, Adham Faramawy, Olivia Bax and Ian Jackson to name a few. I think if we were solely to work with artists who live in Loughborough this would be limiting. You need that outsider energy to come in, to shake things up, to see things differently. It would also mean that we would likely not have the platform, connections and opportunities we now have across the UK, something which ultimately brings added value to our local artist-community.
Our approach is blended across our curation, our education projects, our studios, our volunteering opportunities and even our shop. Often our exhibitions respond to some sort of heritage aspect of the town, that could be the marketplace culture, the strange amount of public sculptures, or the rooting nature of sound. Leon Sadler and Olivia Bax, alongside Eva Masterman, worked with us on ‘The Ground Is Good’, a project which loosely responded to Leicestershire’s industrial history as a major site for brick-making in the 18th Century. The exhibition gave us a chance to tell a story about the town, engage with contemporary clay practice, and work with community groups - in turn enabling them to contribute to the story. For us, place-making is as much about working with these groups, shifting their perception of where they live, and in some instances showcasing their work alongside emerging or established visual artists. In many ways, the same could be said of our membership schemes for local artists, and our volunteer development programme ‘The Cohort’ for graduates and placement year students.
The Studios, 2020
I find it interesting how you balance your programme between artists who have a connection with the area and the immediate context whilst inviting artists from further afield to involve themselves within the locale. Do you consider what your doing to be an educational resource for the town and it's public?
In addition to that, I want to know more about your audience. Who comes to your events and have you seen that change over the last few years?
I’m not sure. Although we run education projects every so often, I don’t think we’ve ever considered ourselves through that lens. In my mind, being an education resource perhaps feels more didactic. We probably resonant more with the idea of being storytellers.
Who comes along to our events really ranges depending on what we’re trying to do. Our openings have grown a lot over the years. To begin with our openings were either made up of our friends, or were very quiet! Initially we were focusing on attracting families, which meant we hosted day long openings on a Saturday with coffee and free activities with mixed success. Since the start of 2019 we started hosting exhibitions openings on a Friday night and have seen pretty consistent growth since then. This happened for a number of reasons, we doubled down on our relationship with Loughborough Uni, we had built more of an artist-community around us, and more people knew about us. Openings are now a mixture of our close community, students and creatives aging anywhere from 20 to 60. Our community workshops are different - we’ve worked with previously homeless people, asylum-seekers and vulnerable young adults. Our day to day visitors are different again and are normally people either casually familiar or unfamiliar with art and out shopping.
The Good Life, documentary still, 2020
I guess spaces evolve and change in response to changing audiences and developing needs within the organisation. Tell me a little more about the practices of the people who run MPND, including yourself, as you are all artists in your own right?
We’re not all visual artists, but everyone on the team has their own creative practice. We’ve had the pleasure of working with a lot of different friends over the past 3 years, but here’s the current line up of our team. Josh Jones and Tom Fowkes are both freelance videographers with backgrounds in film and graphic design, when they work with us they handle our comms and media. Natasha Brezicki and Liv Bauckham volunteer on our management committee overseeing artist relations and education respectively. Natasha curated our show ‘She Makes Music For The Age Of Machines’ and she often uses processes of translation to cast new light on the environment - using anything from found materials, collected data or sound. She produces a lot of very tightly produced, well made installations. Liv’s background is in alternative education for at-risk young people, but she’s also a painter and produces portraits in her spare time. Harry Freestone handles all our techy needs, installing our shows and things like that. Harry makes videos using freeware, sculptures which use motifs from architecture and at various points has had obsessions with magnolia paint and concrete. His work plays upon frustrations that he finds in domestic spaces and town planning. As for my role at MPND, I pretty much handle everything else, from our curation to our shop, managing the team, looking after our members, keeping on top of operations and finances. When I do make time to work on my own artwork I’m mostly drawn to the different ways materials connect us to either our own histories or to the natural world. At the moment I’m doing a lot of drawing and writing, but in the past I’ve made surface focused objects from dripping plaster, grating plasticine or hosting clay workshops. I also use a lot of Photoshop and InDesign to produce digital or print-based works, using public domain images as a starting point.
The Winter Shop, 2018
This is perhaps a slightly more dry question, but I think a lot of readers would be interested to know how you survive financially. You mentioned that you run a shop, is this a useful source of income for MPND and do you also receive support through grants for your programme?
The shop has been super helpful for keeping things ticking over, and we also recently launched a version of it online. We have received grants in the past from our local council for one-off projects, but these have been quite rare. We’ve received one off donations from individuals and other charities, businesses and arts organisations - people who love what we do and want to see it grow. Myself and others have put in their own money as well. We also create regular income through our membership schemes, which has really helped stabilise us. We’ve found having multiple revenue streams quite freeing, even though it perhaps sounds quite precarious. It’s enabled us to grow and sustain what we’re doing, and is in fact quite stable. All this, combined with a lot of love, voluntary hours and other part-time jobs is how we continue to grow, whilst honouring the generosity of others.
She Makes Music for the Age of Machines, installation view, 2019
Quite often having multiple different funding streams allows you to be a little more agile and able to weather more difficult times very effectively.
Thanks so much for talking to me about MPND, and I wanted to finish by asking what your vision is for the future?
We’re actually in the process as a team of looking at our vision, taking stock of where we’ve been and working out what the next big risks are that we need to take. Writing this during lockdown, it seems strange to say that we’re in fact in an incredibly exciting season as an organisation. I personally never expected us to come as far as we have, which is why we work by team and not by autonomy. I need to be challenged to dream even bigger! Being in a position where we are now more established gives us the responsibility to steward what we’ve got to its maximum potential, and to model best practice as much as we can - whilst having fun with it all.
In many ways we’re still trying to work out what our vision looks like. We know that our aim is to enable artists to re-energise the local. But what does this look like in 5 years time? In the immediate future we’d like to; help our members and volunteers grow and find worthwhile opportunities, experiment with new ways of operating and organising ourselves, find new stories to tell, expand, dig deeper into our friendships with partners and collaborators, create education projects which impact the lives of young people, become better artist-curators, enjoy where we live, work towards having zero environmental impact, equip others to ‘set up shop’ like we have, to make Loughborough home. This unwanted time of isolation has given us time to reflect, and see new opportunities in front of us. I think we’re on the cusp of something.
If you like this why not read our interview with School of the Damned Class of 2019
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