[This story was originally published in the August 2018 edition of etc magazine.]
Emily Jessica Turner speaks to a trail team member who has been exploring the history of the town’s longrunning celebration of creativity
The oldest walking art trail in the world, Arundel Gallery Trail celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. To mark this very special occasion, one committee member has hunted through the archives to piece together a history of the town’s celebration of all things creative.
James Stewart, who ran the gallery trail for several years, has been involved with the project since 2003. “It is like being part of a family of artists, with a history that goes back almost as far as most people can remember,” he tells me.
Exhibiting work as diverse as painting, sculpture, photography, and the crafts, the trail showcases work by Arundel artists who are known far and wide for their work. “It is no wonder that Arundel is now seen as the ‘Home of Art’ in Sussex and the South East or the ‘St Ives of the South’,” James says.
I ask James about his favourite memory of the gallery trail, which is one of the events hosted as part of the annual Arundel Festival. “The year we at Zimmer Stewart Gallery invited artist, Anthony Frost and poet, Bob Devereux to bring a bit of St Ives to the Gallery Trail,” he says. “It was in 2011, and we set them up with a ‘market stall’ in front of the gallery on which they displayed paintings for sale, and in front of which they performed poetry of and about St Ives. People enjoyed both seeing the work and hearing the poetry. In many ways I wanted to draw parallels with St Ives and Arundel, both of which have a rich artistic heritage (longer and broader in the case of St Ives).”
It’s clear how important it is to mark the Sussex town’s history of celebrating creativity, and to see this anniversary as a chance to reflect on how the trail has, in James’s words, “established the reputation of artists and introduced visual arts to an extended public”.
First taking place in 1989, ten years after the first Arundel Festival was held, the gallery trail took form after four founders came together to create a visual arts element of the festival. Although Ann Sutton MBE had the original idea for the circular walking trail, within hours she had the support of other local artists and art teachers, namely Oliver Hawkins, Renee Bodimeade and Derek Davis.
To put together his history of the trail, James spent a week exploring all the records available from 1989 to date. This included brochures, posters and press articles: “It was worthwhile because now we have the record to carry forward,” James says. “Luckily I was able to fill gaps by talking to some of the organisers over the years who are still around, and taking part this year!”
He found that the first year of the trail saw 50 ‘galleries’ open their doors, as art lovers visited cellars, conservatories and back yards to see resident artist studios, as well as the conventional commercial galleries.
“The original route took in Tarrant Street, Maltravers Street and the High Street,” explains James. “Being so compact, without the need for a car to see every venue, it was the first of its type in the world, a format that is now copied in towns and villages throughout Sussex and beyond.
“Over the years the trail expanded to include the whole town and even some venues further afield, but still maintained the original ethos of being totally walkable (almost).”
Several of the artists who took part in 1989 – Neil Holland, Derek Davis, Val Lishman – have been regular exhibitors over the years, and some are set to take part in the special anniversary event.
“It is this variety within the trail which visitors enjoy; they are able to see new work by regularly showing artists and follow their development, and at the same time see the work of other artists who may only show for one or two years,” James says.
Showcasing visual arts to the public is just one aspect of what the trail offers the community – many charities have benefited over the years with proceeds from sales going to various causes chosen by the artists. These include art in hospitals, breast cancer, schools in El Salvador.
It also offers the artists a chance to meet each other and share their work: “The artist get-togethers are social events, where artists, who often work alone in their studios, get the chance to catch up with old friends and compare notes, chat about art and how the trail will be for them this year!” James continues.
A further achievement is the launching of artists’ careers. For some the trail was the first time they were able to show work, giving them valuable exposure and feedback. In addition to this, several galleries from across the South East come to the trail in search of new artists.
However, the trail’s most important role is its purpose in the wider community.
“The greatest achievement of the trail is introducing the many thousands of visitors each year to a broad range of work by both emerging and established artists, that otherwise they might not see”, James states. “They might not like everything they see, but they get a chance to talk about the work with the artist and find out more.”
The 2018 Arundel Gallery Trail will have a larger guide, promising to be a bumper year. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of the trail, Arundel based filmmaker Jane Mote of Beech to Beach has created a short film which can be seen on the trail website at http://www.arundelgallerytrail.co.uk, and will also be shown during the 2018 Festival.