The Dilemma of the Penwith Society

The Penwith was formed in the late 1940’s when the members were truly avant garde. It has enjoyed 25 years of St Ives Modernism under the likes of Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon, Berlin et al. That history has no bearing on its future. It has gone.
Once St Ives had over 150 artists’ studios. It has now become a premier holiday destination. Commercial pressure has reduced the studio stock to just 35. The art community replaced the fishing industry, sail lofts making perfect artist studios, and now those same lofts make perfect holiday accommodation. Whilst there are between 1500 and 2000 artists in the Penwith Peninsula, there appears to be little by way of artist communities, meeting to exchange views, ideas and challenge opinion. The reduction in the number of artists working in St Ives has probably resulted in the Penwith no longer being a social hub for the art community.
Historically, Art Societies are often created by a group of like minded artists, who are probably excluded by the art establishment at their time. Therein lies a problem, as the reason for a Society’s creation will cease to be relevant over time, as their art becomes accepted. Similarly, Art Societies tend to focus their activities around their own members to exhibit together and that may limit the viability of a Society, as the individual aims of successive generations of members start to take priority over the collective aims of the Society.
The apathy of members leads to Societies being run by a handful of members who may fall into the trap of putting personal interest before that of their Society.
Perhaps the structure of a Society is no longer the right vehicle for promoting artists. That is almost certainly the case for the younger artists. They may consider that their own aims are best aligned with like minded artists, forming loose groups to exhibit together, sharing the costs and management of each exhibition, and then moving on, the groups in a constant and invigorating state of flux.
When the Penwith Society was formed, its members had lifetime membership. The number of members was restricted with the intention of ensuring that only the best Cornish Modernist artists became members. That process still remains today. Only time and the hand of the grim reaper is likely to change the current membership, so there is little room for new blood. The members themselves may, understandably, be adverse to change, particularly as one of the major benefits of membership is a right to exhibit through the year in a prestigious gallery for a modest annual subscription.
Whilst there are many outsiders who think the Penwith Society has become moribund, who think they could do better, the reality is that change can only come from within the Society. Only its existing members can bring about change.
Every now and then Societies need to ask the question “What is the current and future purpose of this Society?” This needs to be an open discussion with its members, associates, users, community and other interested parties. Nothing should be excluded, all possibilities should be discussed, no matter how radical. From this should form an embryo of what the future looks like for a Society. That embryo then needs to be broken down into a renewed statement of purpose, a defined structure, and an assessment of financial
requirements – essentially a business plan. All these decisions rest with the Members.
Art Societies need to be very clear about how they are going to finance their activity. If the plan is to just have a space to exhibit artists work, without reliance on sales, then the members of that Society must wholly fund the Society through subscription. In the early days, staffing may be covered by enthusiastic member volunteers but that enthusiasm will wain over time and then staff will need to be employed and managed. The costs may become greater than the members are prepared to cover. The Society then has to consider bringing in some commercial aspects to fill any shortfall. It would be fair to say that most artists lack the skills of finance, sales, and marketing that would be needed to manage a commercial operation. That inevitably means either employing people with those skills or relying on volunteers. In both cases the Members may feel marginalised as they will no longer be at the helm. It is possible to re-assure Members by frequent and relevant communication about the current state of the Society. Silence is not an option.
The Penwith Society prides itself on its independence from funding by a public body such as the Arts Council. As many Societies have found to their cost, funding from a public body comes with terms and conditions that can be restrictive, and ultimately can be terminal for the Society.
The Penwith Society is more fortunate than most, as it owns outright, part of the Penwith Gallery complex.
The remainder of the Penwith Gallery complex is owned outright by the charitable company, Penwith Galleries Ltd. Being a charity its aims are directed towards the development of subsidised studios and providing gallery space to educational establishments and artists. The aims of the Company are therefore different than those of the Society. The Society is devoted to promoting the art of its members.
Historically, the Company has managed the entire gallery complex so that effectively there is only one “commercial” operation. However, the Company and its board of Trustees are required to abide by the rules set by Company and Charity Law. That should not be an issue where the majority of Trustees are external and not connected to the Society but where the Society members have become the majority, as is now the case, there is a serious risk of conflicts of interest. My understanding is that this matter is being addressed but, according to data in the public domain, nothing has yet changed. This is a serious issue that should be rectified urgently. There may even be an argument for the Company to cease managing the entire complex, returning control of the Society’s property to the members and the Company pursuing its own charitable objectives as an independent activity under the management structure actually embedded in its Memorandum and Articles of Association. This would further minimise the risk of personal conflict of interest. External Trustees, with the right skills, are a valuable resource and that, coupled with the art knowledge within the Society membership, could form a force to be reckoned with.
The Penwith is unique, it once had a world renowned heritage, and could become a significant force in the art world again. However that rests solely with the members and Trustees. It’s their choice, carry on without change and potentially wither on the vine, or grasp the nettle, and create a Society and Art Charity embracing the future. There is no half way house.

Chris Smith

Chris Smith was mentored by the renowned Plymouth figurative painter, the late Robert Lenkiewicz. He became a full time painter and printmaker on moving to St Ives 2013. He is an Associate of the Penwith Society and a Member of the Porthmeor Print Workshop.

Volume 30 number 6, July / August 2016 pp 28-30

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