Interview with Sumitra Upham, Associate Curator of ICA Fox Reading Room Associate Curator – ICA Fox Reading Room (Touring Programme), London

The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, is currently touring several exhibitions from its Fox Reading Programme across regional museums and galleries in the UK with the support of Arts Council England, including Huddersfield Art Gallery, the Phoenix (Leicester), the Potteries Museum and Gallery (Stoke-on-Trent) and Wednesbury Museum and Gallery (Sandwell). The ambition for the Touring Programme is to work in collaboration with these museums and galleries to improve public access to, and awareness of, high-quality culture, contemporary arts and emerging practice across the UK. In developing a sustainable and accessible touring model, they aim for the exhibitions to engage new and diverse audiences in contemporary visual arts; investigate how access to high-quality exhibitions can be widened; and serve as the impetus to grow regional infrastructure. We speak to Sumitra Upham, Associate Curator of the Fox Reading Room (Touring Programme).

A: The ICA’s touring programme looks to work in collaboration with galleries across the country to improve public access to contemporary art: what have you found most interesting or rewarding about working with these smaller, regional venues?
Each of the museums and galleries that we have partnered with as part of ICA Touring are distinct, both in terms of their artistic programme and their approach to engaging audiences. We are currently working with 4 cultural institutions across the UK: Huddersfield Art Gallery, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, Phoenix Art Centre in Leicester and Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery. These museums and galleries have such inspiring histories and collections that are not being accessed as much as they should. Where possible we have tried to marry the ICA exhibitions with a collection-based show or another temporary exhibition, to activate further interest in their core programme.

All the venues have high costs in maintaining their public buildings, and what with recent cuts, they have little funding devoted to their collections, temporary exhibitions and public programme. It is therefore extremely rewarding to work collaboratively with them on shaping an ambitious interdisciplinary exhibition programme, and to know that ICA Touring has provided a foundation for this to grow further.

A: Each venue has a slightly different programme: could you talk a little about the process of putting together the touring programme, and how you selected the works that would go into it?
SU: All the exhibitions in the touring programme are exhibitions that have premiered at the ICA as part of the Reading Room programme.  For the selection process we looked back at previous Reading Room exhibitions to find shows that would be both contextually and logistically suitable to tour to regional museums and galleries across the UK. We knew which venues we were approaching and with their audiences and institutional interests in mind we made our selection.

Accessibility and diversity were key considerations as these shows had to appeal to wide audiences. We therefore elected exhibitions that spanned the field of contemporary culture, across contemporary art, design, architecture, music, literature and publishing. From exhibitions dedicated to examining; the history of Arab popular culture; the work of a radical feminist print collective during the second wave feminist movement; or the 1980 tower block pirate radio movement in the UK, the programme offered resonance to a range of ideas and contexts often overlooked by contemporary cultural history. Once we had a short list of shows we shared the selection with our partnering venues and they made the final decision on which they would take forward.

A: Shout Out!, which was previously on at the ICA, is being put on a couple of times as a part of the touring programme, is there something about pirate radio that you thought would resonate well across the country?
SU: The UK has a very rich history of Pirate Radio. The London movement was very prolific but there were many pirate networks operating throughout the UK at that time that were just as active. Places like Manchester, Leeds, Bristol and the West Midlands had very vibrant scenes in the 80s, and in many ways still do. Stoke has a rich musical heritage (in the late 60s and early 70s it was one of the original destinations for Northern Soul, and then again in the late 80s-early 90s for Acid House). The city also had a progressive network of pirate radio stations operating in the 1980s. With this in mind, Shout Out! was developed, responding to the interests of The Potteries Museum and their audiences.

A: There seems to be a lot of ephemera on show as part of the programme – was this a deliberate choice, and if so what were the motivations behind it?
SU: Yes very deliberate. At the centre of most ICA Reading Room shows is a rare archive or collection of ephemera relating to a particular moment in radical 20th or 21st century cultural history. We see these shows as laboratories for testing contemporary ideas and they are configured in a way that encourages audiences to think about the arts through its wider engagement with society. Ephemera is an interesting, tangible and intimate medium to work with.  It provokes a sense of nostalgia among audiences, offering a more accessible and ascertainable entry point for them to think about and engage with visual art.

A: As well as putting on exhibitions, you’ll be working collaboratively with local libraries and schools on learning and participation programmes. Why is this such an essential part of the programme as a whole?
SU: From the offset, this was all about the learning programme. As a London-based institution the biggest challenge for us was always going to be around understanding the interests and needs of local audiences, and shaping a programme around this. We were informed by some partners that they are heavily reliant on outreach activity to build and sustain audience engagement, as their visitor figures can often fluctuate. With this in mind, we began forming relationships with local schools, colleges, youth groups, women’s centres, senior groups and universities, who became key audiences for us – in some cases we would design exclusive workshops based on the interests of a specific group.

Connecting with local libraries was a great way of reaching out to audiences. In regional towns and cities, libraries are at the heart of communities. Working collaborating with them on learning projects allowed us to expand our audience reach further and connect with those who previously have found it challenging to get involved in cultural events.

The ICA Touring Exhibition continues at venues across the country until January 2016.

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1. Installation view of Tove Jansson: Tales from the Nordic Archipelago, The Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery, 2015. Courtesy of The Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery and the Institute of Contemporary Arts.