David Ummels is a man on a mission. He has a passionate belief that art has the power not just to inspire but to also drive economic growth and change Guernsey’s brand internationally for the better, Will Green reports.
WHAT is soft power? It is a way of dealing with other countries that involves using economic and cultural influence to persuade them to do other things rather than using military power, according to the Oxford dictionary.
And for David Ummels, it is exactly what Guernsey should be doing when it comes to changing misperceptions about the island. Key to his vision is cultural diplomacy, using art to build and strengthen links with other countries and jurisdictions.
The Guernsey resident and art collector founded Art for Guernsey, a charitable initiative undertaking activities within the art, educational and charitable sectors. But he also has decades of a career in debt restructuring and the capital markets, so brings a businessman’s eye to opportunities afforded by the art for his own community.
The 2023 Renoir Exhibition
And when it comes to opportunities, Mr Ummels’ assessment of what a major Renoir exhibition coming to Guernsey in 2023 was expansionary from tourism to helping the island’s energy security.
French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent time on the island painting in 1883. The exhibition will celebrate this and Guernsey’s influence on Renoir. Paintings worth millions by artists like Renoir, Monet and Gauguin are set to come to the island.
Artwork by Bazille, Courbet and Denis will also be included in the exhibition, which is being organised by Art for Guernsey in partnership with Museum of Impressionism Giverny in France.
There was an opportunity to reconnect islanders with their cultural heritage, said Mr Ummels. `We will run, around main events and different satellite activities, especially at Moulin Huet [in 1883], he discovered this wonderful site.’
And it would be a huge opportunity for Guernsey to showcase itself globally, attracting more visitors and positive headlines, said Mr Ummels when he addressed a Guernsey Institute of Directors’ event.
‘We listened to the hospitality industry who told us “In a good season, in the summer Guernsey is fully booked anyway. So can you guys try to prolong the season and hold this in Autumn 2023 so we benefit from it?”
‘This exhibition is, for me, more than curating assets.’
Art for Guernsey would be teaming up with Guernsey Museums to put on the exhibition, with assistance coming from the wider community. Art for Guernsey was also working with key partners, such as Guernsey Arts, Guernsey Arts Society, Visit Guernsey, Condor Ferries and Aurigny to facilitate the transport of visitors and maximise opportunities to open new connections.
Mr Ummels expressed confidence that the States would support the project with goodwill and contributions in kind, with civil servants and teachers being good partners. The government would be brought to a point where it would be ‘high-fiving’ Art for Guernsey in 2023.
National coverage of the Moulin Huet Renoir walk was highlighted as a successful example of using art as an economic enabler. Collaborating with museums globally for the 2023 exhibition could also leverage social media reach far beyond local shores – with Art for Guernsey itself already having 31,000 followers on Facebook.
At the heart of Mr Ummels’ message was building links and networks with people outside Guernsey. He said the 2023 exhibition was taking place because of a friendship with Cyrille Sciama, head of the Museum of Impressionism Giverny in France – an extension of the world-famous Musee d’Orsay in Paris – which developed when discussing inspirational wider events planned alongside the exhibition.
‘The structure of the exhibition will be the first in Giverny museum during the summer months and it will come here in the autumn,’ said Mr Ummels.
‘If you look at the list of artworks that we intend to display, you will see Musee d’Orsay, Boston, Metropolitan Museum in New York, the National Gallery, etc.’
Mr Ummels set out how cultural diplomacy – in this instance through the 2023 exhibition – could help transform the island’s brand and incorrect perceptions that it was a tax haven.
‘For me, this is a unique opportunity to tell the world who we are and how we inspired Renoir. It is also a unique opportunity to promote our country brand and tell the world that we have natural beauty, kindness, amazing community values – that the tax haven times are behind.
‘And it is an opportunity to excite everybody and inspire the children and tell them that even here in Guernsey, we can do amazing things.’
A Regional Summit
There were plans alongside the exhibition, he said, to organise a regional summit between Normandy and Guernsey. It would bring together political and business forces to have a wider dialogue on issues such as direct connections and a proposed new electricity link between Guernsey and France. The objective was to fix issues.
Mr Ummels also revealed that a respected lawyer had told him the summit was an opportunity to facilitate dialogue that could save several million pounds on the electricity link.
‘Everybody in the world is using cultural diplomacy to promote interests. This is not cynical. It has to be genuine.
‘But it has to be recognised that through art activities we can achieve a lot of things,’ he said.
Opportunity for the Business Community
The 2023 Renoir exhibition will be a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity for businesses, said Mr Ummels. With fundraising to support the exhibition set to get started, he urged businesses to offer support and help to cover the cost of the exhibition, in areas such as logistics and insurance.
Islanders would be invited to engage through photography, schools and the disability alliance would also be involved, and Mr Ummels also envisaged special events for corporates such as curated dinners surrounded by art.
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