It has been a memorable few weeks for the Art For Guernsey. Fresh from the announcement that the charity has syndicated a group of local art collectors to require an original Renoir that was painted in Guernsey, its founder David Ummels has laid out plans to curate an exhibition around that piece next month.
Renoir’s connection to Guernsey is a largely untouched heritage, one that Art For Guernsey has brought to life through the Renoir Walk, which allows people to follow in the famed artists footsteps and see through picture frames the views he painted during his short time in the island in 1883.
In some respects it’s a history project, however it has been animated by new treats and technology; the frames in particular lend themselves perfectly to a #RenoirWalk hash tag or Instagram selfie.
In 2018, the States opened a tender process for individuals or groups to come up with ideas for the Tourist Information building that would stimulate St Peter Port as part of the Seafront Enhancement Programme.
In the end, the proposal to turn the prime estate into an arts gallery, finished second behind plans to turn the building into a boutique hotel.
That has not dampened the ambitions of David Ummels, who was one of the key players in that proposal, and he spoke to CONNECT’s Aaron Carpenter about what the island can do to position itself as an attractive tourist destination when the world returns to normal.
DU: ‘’Two years ago we proposed to the states to transform the Information Centre to an art venue. It wasn’t a successful bid, nevertheless we created off of the economic benefits of art, and there are plenty. Art is not only an enabler, art is an economic value.
The art economy in the Uk, art venues, performing art centres, concert halls, is worth £1.1 billion; that is subsidies by £400m and self-sustained by £700m. What is interesting that £7b is being spent visiting that £1.1b economy.
That means flights, hotel, trips and all the surrounding activities. Those are the figures of the Art Council, so the UK is doing that extremely well and as a creative industry it has been growing at a faster rate than it has in the last 10 years.
If you set aside the fact that it is an art economy and that it is not an industrial or services economy and you look at this rationally, from a macro- economic perspective it is very investable, and of course in our case there is that much more potential because we have the natural beauty of the island. There could be several reasons for visitors to come and usually the proof is a diversified mix.”
AC: “There seems to be a synergy between art and the landscape which is so present in Guernsey?”
DU: “That is very true and every time we bring an artist here, we expose them to the beauty of the island, to a very high level of hospitality and kindness, and they are absolutely enthused and inspired. They interact with the local artists, they are going home better artists and they become perpetual cultural ambassadors. Some of these artists have a quarter of a million followers on Instagram, so when they take a picture and they say “I love Guernsey” it has an impact.
Islanders have an understanding of the natural beauty and if it is celebrated with the arts it is an extraordinary promotional material.”
AC: “What can Art for Guernsey do to promote tourism?”
DU: “I’ll give you an example of hopefully a future collaboration between VisitGuernsey and Art for Guernsey. We have a very good relationship with them and I feel if it wasn’t for the lockdown we would already have done one collaboration together.
We proposed to VisitGuernsey that every time they open an air link with a new country or a new airport, to curate an art exhibition inside the airport. So, let’s say they open the Rennes connection, we know over the last five years that there are probably 100- 150 artworks that have been produced or curated by artists- we have seen those artworks and know exactly where they are.
If I said to local artists “can I please borrow your artwork for the sake of curating an exhibition at Rennes Airport or Bordeaux Airport to specifically celebrate the beauty of Guernsey?”, of course they would say yes and all of a sudden you have the inventory to go and promote your destination. How much more impactful that would be than a press campaign with a few posters on the walls of an airport.
It’s food for thought for them to consider their next destination. And unlike a marketing budget that once it’s spent, you need a new budget, guess what, if we go to another airport three months later, we are sending the same collection.
I think if it wasn’t for lockdown we would have done one project like this and I think it’s very important because it’s a project that everybody will understand.”
AC: “Is the local art scene unfunded?”
DU: “There is a big debate on whether art is unfunded or relatively unfunded and it is true, but I also strongly feel that the creatives need to be creative about themselves and how they promote themselves.
The process of putting a project together is the same process as in my former professional world as an investor. For an investment, you need purpose, you need returns and I think if the art world is capable to come to the table and say we are bringing value here, we will be more impactful and better value for the taxpayer. Creatives need to convince the authorities that they need to step up.
Creativity is one of the key assets that the economy will need in the next 20/ 30 years and art is such a powerful medium to celebrate what we have.
I feel proud to live in a community where a group of guys can get a coffee and sit around a table and say we are just going to do it (buy an original Renoir painted in Guernsey) because it is the right thing to do.
I hope one day we will have an art venue. We came second best for this particular building, but they said they very much want to engage with us in the future. I hope they will be rational and wise enough to look all around the world because it is difficult not to mention a country that is not heavily investigating in culture and art. This is the new place to be for tourism. It is undeniable and it is not good enough to ask where the evidence is to simply excuse the ignorance, because the evidence is everywhere.”
AC: “Is it important to you that a venue such as the one you’re describing is in the heart of St. Peter Port?”
DU: “I think there are so many examples where all sorts of locations could work but it has to be carefully considered, but not one that is so far away from everything. There are so many examples across the world, in Tasmania, for example where a very successful museum was set up which is pretty much the trigger for any decisions made to visit Tasmania- you go there because you want to be exposed to amazing natural beauty and an amazing museum.
Nevertheless there is one massive reason to have it in St. Peter Port- it’s that you have 110,000 cruise ship passengers. If you have an art venue of a very good standard in St. Peter Port, I’ll tell you no matter what you will have 60,000 to 80,000 visitors almost captive.
If you are smart about it, you promote the content of the museum in January before the cruise season, so you know exactly how many you are going to have before they even land in the marina.”
AC: “How do you then convert that initial impression you have made into getting visitors to Guernsey?”
DU: “To give you some statistics on how to convert, when we had last summer five days for the temporary Renoir Walk, we had 2,500 visitors. When you bring a child here to have a joyful experience, they tend to bring their parents. On the international side, we had visitors from France, from the UK, Switzerland, Belgium. I wouldn’t count them in the hundreds, but in the tens, and they are people who are ready for a high- quality experience.
It has an impact and for me it is more important than advertising. When the artists are posting images of themselves painting in Guernsey, it triggers a lot of response and without a doubt some of those potential travellers will be inspired by that.
I think on a different scale if and when we put together this exhibition about Guernsey Renoir and if it is branded, not in these exact words but in substance, ‘how Guernsey inspired Renoir’s career and how it had an impact on his life’, I can guarantee we are talking about thousands and thousands of visitors. I would travel and many of my friends would travel, take a plane for two or three hours, to go to an exhibition, no doubt about that.
The Van Eyck exhibition in Ghent earlier this year, pretty much everybody who loved art was there. It’s the same as if you’re a Liverpool supporter and they are going to do the parade- you are going to go, because you have been waiting 30 years.”
AC: “Victor Hugo has become an adopted son for Guernsey but there hasn’t been, as you’ve noted, that knowledge of the influence Guernsey played in Renoir’s life. Is it about time that is promoted more than it has been previously?”
DU: “I think so and when you take the Renoir Walk and when the schools are engaged in our Renoir project next year, they will do it through the eyes of a master. We can say, ‘come and take a look at Guernsey and take the same view that Renoir did’, because it is unchanged. I think the Renoir heritage is entirely underplayed.
J.M.W Turner, the one and only, came to the island and there is a sketchbook at the Tate Gallery in London including a few dozen sketches made by Turner at Castle Cornet and some of the other views.
So it’s possible that Art for Guernsey is going to go, next year, into a Turner Walk. And then all of a sudden we are talking, because we’ve got Victor Hugo, we have got the Renoir Walk, why don’t we do the Turner walk? He hasn’t produced any masterpieces here, as far as I understand, I’m not sure yet, but he did a lot of sketches and that is good enough brand for a Turner Walk.
It’s on the table, we are going to be very busy with Renir, but we have already set sights on this as one of our future projects. I ask some of my very Guernsey, Guernsey friends and they didn’t know, so I think we are sitting on a few gems in Guernsey.”
AC: “As I brought the interview to a close, David looked out at Moulin Huet, a yacht sailing over the English Channel, and took in the view.”
DU: “It’s such a beautiful island. We are living in a beautiful island full of extraordinary community value and art can pass that message. I don’t think the future of tourism is mass- market beaches, booze, parties and so on- inevitably there will always be a part of that- but I think people are looking for places to disconnect and reconnect with nature. Personally, those would be the kind of places I would pick for a holiday.”
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