FEATURE INTERVIEW WITH:

Backlit Gallery’s Matthew Chesney

Reading Time: 11 minutes
Working with over 60 diverse artists locally and around the world, the independent, two-story Backlit Gallery opens its doors in Sneinton for exhibitions and to provide affordable studio space in the heart of the city, supporting graduates and emerging artists as well as promoting community and local heritage. We sat down with founder and director Matthew Chesney to talk about the gallery, not giving up and what makes Nottingham a special city.
Interview by Vika Serstobitova. Words & Photos by Mitch Proctor

Hi Matthew. Firstly, could you tell me about where you grew up?

I grew up in Newark which is about an hour away from Nottingham, it’s a historic kind of town and known for the civil war, there was a big battle around Newark Castle which I kind of lived next to on the River Trent, so I spent most of my youth going to a roman catholic school, praying and playing around ruins and churches.

Did you ever see yourself doing what you do now when you were young?

Yes, my parents are both art teachers so they totally encouraged me to go down a creative path and as a kid I was just drawing constantly. I remember being a kid and just having sketchbooks full, my mums still got them and at school people would get me to draw for them, I’d have a queue of people. People would say “oh draw that” and I’d just do it, dead easy, because I just love drawing not so much painting but definitely drawing and recording and registering what was around me. It was a great place for me to escape and fantasise about a world that I wanted to live in.

I spent most of my early adult life in performing arts and theater so my mum would always say “you’re going to be an artist one day”. I was adamant to prove her wrong. Then somehow I just veered back into art because it seemed like an honest place to stand and express your point of view or to be political. One day I just realised what she’d said to me years earlier and I was actually quite angry about that [laughing]. But I was also grateful that she knew, and I think I knew, that it was going to happen at some point.

What did you do before opening Backlit Gallery?

I spent lots of time in the theatre and tv world. I did quite well but I also used to sing and produce music. Before Backlit being a full-time job I was doing promotional work selling coffee machines which was fun but really quite tragic. I thought “I don’t want to do this anymore”.

Most artists I know have to do something they don’t want to do to pay the bills, but the ones that are persistent and professional are usually successful. You can never really give up. I saw Churchill said something like success is acknowledging failure but never giving up. I think failure is can give you a different perspective if you’re an artist and acknowledging that can be the best thing because it means you’re never going to be comfortable and also means you’ll never give up.

Backlit was actually a voluntary organisation up until 2013, simply because we just couldn’t get ahold of any funding and nobody was coming to us and saying “here’s what you need to do”. It was a process, and still very much a process, of learning and trying to strengthen the organisation and yourself.

What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken with Backlit?

Performing Gender is an exhibition which explores gender and identity through audio and visual artworks. For me, it feels as though this is one of the most challenging yet rewarding that we’ve worked on. It means a lot to me because I think the world feels very unbalanced and people are going backwards in terms of consciousness, understanding and respect for each other. It’s like showing trans or gay artists and activists that died like thirty years ago feels risky, but it shouldn’t.

As I said, organisations are “punching above their weight” and we have huge ambition for Backlit but in the past had very little money, which makes everything feel risky because you don’t know how sustainable it is. I could just keep pushing and pushing each exhibition – and I will – but at the same time it’s difficult to mitigate risks when you live in a bizarre world and landscape that doesn’t really acknowledge the work that you do as much as it could. Now it feels really risky and it really is quite scary in some respects.

Performing Gender Exhibition

So tell me a bit about the gallery and what artists you get?

We exhibit artists at various points of their careers so at the moment we have Matthew Barney who is one of the biggest avant-garde filmmaker artists in the world and then we’ve got people like Marianna Simnett and Mandy Niewöhner who are nationally recognised alongside Jake Moore whose a studio member so it’s kind of giving artists opportunities at various points in their careers. For the more established and successful artists it’s a chance to take a risk, for the mid-career artists it’s a chance to expand to new audiences, and for the emerging new graduates, it’s a chance to actually work alongside and learn from the more established artists.

We’ve always had a very diverse programme that ultimately caters for local artists. The point in our studios is to make sure artists are developed to various points in their career so it’s not always about display and exhibition, but about conversations, workshops, development. That is a core part of what we do, and it shapes the organisation totally because we always have artists to listen to and to answer to as well.

 

“It’s like showing trans or gay artists and activists that died like thirty years ago feels risky, but it shouldn’t.”

 

What is a normal day in running the gallery?

You know, it varies day to day. I can’t say any one day is the same and that’s part of why I love what I do. Also there are times when there are long episodes of complete uncertainty. For example, today I have the fun of filling in a funding application and providing evaluation for another fundraiser as well as taking MA students on a tour and moving walls round and organising the next project. It is a completely physical and mental job that requires at times every single drop of energy you have in your body. That’s how I feel anyway, maybe other people don’t work like that, but I definitely give it every single part of my being. I push into a project almost to the point where there is a little bit of me in it, you know, the blood, sweat and tears.

If it wasn’t Backlit Gallery, what would you be doing?

I do work on a project outside of Backlit called ‘Charity Shop Sue’ which is a comedy series made for online audiences and potentially television. I think I would be directing TV content and also spend more time on my own practice making more artwork which has happened quite a lot in the last year and a half.

What kind of art interests you?

I’m really drawn to people that challenge and find new ways to articulate things that are unfathomable or difficult to express. I’m also inspired by people who are not scared of the truth, by that being their own lives or the world they see around them and I think that goes across film, music and art. I think the people I really admire are just very raw and honest almost painfully. I also kind of like it when any kind of artwork or projects speak for themselves and that’s always really important. That’s my golden rule, if it feels like it’s honest or it’s truthful and it’s painfully so that it’s actually a good thing and people can learn from it.

Do you exhibit your work?

Yeah, I had an exhibition in the collection museum in Lincoln last year. My work is video and performance and it’s almost an extension of the things I am interested in. Often when I’m making work I’m imagining it’s being made for an exhibition that I saw years ago that I really liked. It’s a bit like if you were making music to be part of one of your favourite albums, do you know what I mean?

My work’s very interested in the role play in contemporary art. It brings together my past instinct for theatre versus my interest as an artist to be as honest and raw as possible, and that includes situations that I’ve presented that are both tragic yet slightly comical. A lot of the work I’ve made, people aren’t sure if it’s kind of fictitious or if it’s real. There are questions of authenticity around it but it definitely deconstructs my role as an artist creator at the moment and also maybe has some level of participation with the viewer.

 

“I’m really drawn to people that challenge and find new ways to articulate things that are unfathomable or difficult to express.”

 

Tell me a little about the studios you run.

We have two floors of studios now with 45 artists in at various points of their careers and different types of practice. We also have 23 associates so altogether we have 68 artists that are part of the current facility we have at Backlit.

My dad actually led with the designing and building, then we have a studio manager who makes sure we have the right kind of artist in there who can support Backlit and we can support them in many different ways.  It’s very much a family affair here because we are very open and we are definitely a support mechanism.

Why did you choose Nottingham for Backlit?

I’ve been here since 1999 so I’ve been here a long time, but the thing about Nottingham that I loved was, A: my family are here which is important and B: I think Nottingham is kind of a really interesting city because of the art and culture like nowhere else, I’d even say in the world, because it does its own thing. Places like Leeds and Manchester and London, they’re playing very different games and have a different set of rules. 

Nottingham is like a city that is almost reluctant to be a big city. It is a place where people can afford to take risks and it’s a place where people can afford to have a good lifestyle and the artists and even the character of the city has always been very interesting, distinct and pioneering developments in art and also rebellion. What more could you want?

Many people come back who go away to London or Manchester, and that’s what kept me in Nottingham all these years. There’s just nothing else like it.

Mytho Plastic Exhibition

So you never considered doing this anywhere else?

I’ve considered it and it might even be possible in the future but I think Nottingham at this point has the right ecology, it has the right system for a place like Backlit to exist. You couldn’t find a space like this in London or Manchester, I don’t think you would find the audiences. Every big city I’ve been to nowadays is slightly diminished but Nottingham seems to be getting stronger. It’s so weird.

Are you creatively satisfied?

This is the thing, I definitely have periods of feeling very fulfilled but I think part of the reason I have been doing this for ten years is because I always want to go to the next project and learn something else. In some respects as a creator and director of Backlit, of course I respond to the artists and I respond to the studio members and I respond to audiences, but what pushes me personally for doing it is self-discovery and understanding more about the world around me, I suppose.

 

“The ones that are persistent and professional are usually successful. You can never really give up.”

 

What kind of advice would you give to a young person starting out?

I’d say be present, support the scene that you’re in whether that’s putting on exhibitions, showing your work or supporting other exhibitions. I’ve always said that, for me, it’s a belief system in the sense that you have to keep believing and keep going to get somewhere. Many people go to art school and leave thinking a big creator is going to come and sweep them off their feet and help them become absolute superstars but it’s just not how it works.

I think one thing is being opportunistic and another thing is just having integrity and putting your time into things that you care about. A lot of the stuff I have done is voluntary, so I would just say support other projects even if it’s for free.

Just try and make a difference. Be honest with yourself. Some people in the art world spend a lot of time trying to please others and it can make people a sorry state by not trying to find their own way. I think the last four years of my thirties I just found my own way and it’s been the happiest I’ve been. It’s the balancing of managing creativity and managing projects, being happy but not so much that you become complacent.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would’ve said be brave, take risks and don’t care about what other people think, which is kind of what I am at the moment.

What legacy would you like to leave?

For Backlit I would like people to look back and think that it took risks in a time when people weren’t able to, and it gave Nottingham a provision that hadn’t been seen before and showed artists that hadn’t been seen in the city before. In some respects it’s like Backlit has been totally ambitious and served and supported a lot of people. For me, I would like to remembered as almost a Byronic hero, but in reality I think it will be the opposite.

You can find out what’s on at Backlit Gallery and find out more about their studio spaces here  or follow them on Facebook, Twitter  and Instagram.

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