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Andy Field (Co-Director, Forest Fringe) tackles funding, ethics and office views with Shonagh Manson (Director, Jerwood Charitable Foundation)

I am struggling to write an introduction to this interview with Jerwood Charitable Foundation director Shonagh Manson that doesn't make me sound like a horrible sycophant, but I am having a hard time. I am having a hard time for a number of reasons, amongst them:

1.    I have known Shonagh for nearly a decade now and she is probably one of the nicest people I have ever met. As you will see if you make it pass this slightly laboured introduction, she manages a thing that only a few people I've met can, which is to know an awful lot about your chosen profession but still retain a giddy, almost child-like enthusiasm to discover more. She also once she let me stay in her house briefly because I had nowhere to live.

2.    Without the support at various crucial moments over the last six or seven years of the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, Forest Fringe, the small organisation I run with my friends Deborah and Ira, would never have achieved any of the things it has been able to. They seemed to recognise something in what we were doing and have the imagination to find ways to offer us vital support when others couldn't. This is not, I don't think, an isolated experience. When artists and arts organisations are doing unpredictable, hard-to-classify, potentially radical things, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation are often close at hand making great things happen when other are unwilling or unable to.

3.    I am probably a horrible sycophant.

All of that notwithstanding Jerwood is quite genuinely a funder of the arts like no other I've met or worked with. The same infectious enthusiasm that is part of any conversation with Shonagh is reflected in the imaginative, adventurous way they go about making amazing, unusual things happen.

They do good, in a good way. And I think that sometimes deserves to be celebrated, even if it makes you look a bit of sycophant. So when Jamie asked me if I would interview Shonagh for their Jerwood Run Riot takeover I was more than happy to do so. Here is what we talked about.

Andy FieldWhere are you and what does the desk look like at which you're writing these answers? 

Shonagh Manson: I’m in the Jerwood Charitable Foundation office. I’m glad this isn’t a video interview as my desk would look like a disaster zone to the uninformed – it’s really a meticulous filing system though, honest. Our office is a former classroom in the old Victorian school building that was converted into Jerwood Space in 1998, so it’s high ceilinged and light and airy. My desk is covered in Jerwood mementos. It’s colourful, though probably due for redecorating.

Andy FieldWhat is the Jerwood Drawing Prize and what is interesting about this year's prize in particular?

Shonagh Manson: The Jerwood Drawing Prize is a two-decade-long project founded by Professor Anita Taylor and Paul Thomas. They started what was the Cheltenham Open Drawing Competition back in 1994, and we’ve been involved in funding it and presenting the exhibition in London since 2001. It’s the largest and longest running annual open exhibition for drawing in the UK; each year upwards of 3,000 physical art works are submitted from across the UK and every work is seen by a panel of three internationally renowned selectors.

The project began from within the heart of an art school, looking to debate the nature, value and status of drawing as an art form. Attitudes to drawing have changed across the intervening years, for better and for worse, but every year it’s a unique opportunity to understand and recognise a really diverse range of drawing practices.

I can’t tell you too much about this year’s show as the winners won’t be announced until the award ceremony on 15th September. [Winners announced here!, RR] Last year the winning piece was a sound work by artist Alison Carlier. It was great to have such fervent conversations about why a sound work was considered to be drawing and I really liked the piece.

Andy FieldWhat is it you do at the Jerwood Charitable Foundation? 

Shonagh Manson: I’m Director. We’re an independent grant-making foundation funding artists and arts organisations across the UK and we also run projects ourselves which support artistic practice, so I look after our strategy and delivery in both of those areas.

Andy FieldNo, but what do you actually do at the Jerwood Charitable Foundation? What does your day normally look like? 

Shonagh Manson: It’s the old cliché, but never the same day twice. Today I was working on our private view invitation list for our next exhibition, the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards 2015 – it’s so important that the artists’ work is put in front of the right people so I’m finicky about reviewing our lists. Then I met Animate Projects and the five artists who’ve been selected on their new practice development programme Drive, which we helped to design and are funding. They all gave PechaKucha presentations about their work and the new projects they’re developing on the programme. We’re installing Jerwood Drawing Prize at the moment so there was bit of work around that. A ton of correspondence, some staffing planning, and then conversations about funding applications, in preparation for our upcoming Board meeting.  And the final arrangements for a picnic in the park in the evening to say goodbye to Hannah Pierce who has been here on maternity cover as Gallery Manager for our Jerwood Visual Arts programme this last year – it’s sunny!

Andy FieldWhat are the things Jerwood does that you’re most proud of? 

Shonagh Manson: I’m most proud that our organisation takes risks on the unknown. It’s rewarding to be somewhere that values funding the kind of practice which might be described as risk-taking or for which it’s harder to gain funding and support; work that’s experimental or challenges social politics and expectations. The other kind of risks we take are in helping artists make a leap into a way of working they’ve never done before, or at a scale or in a form they haven’t yet grappled with. And I’m incredibly proud of how much we manage to do with the limited resources we have – that’s the canny Scot in me.

Andy FieldWho was the last person you spoke to today?

Shonagh Manson: Does text message count??? If so then it was Roanne Dods, founder director of Jerwood Charitable Foundation who I can’t wait to catch up with and who texted just now. In person it was our General Manager Jon Opie; we’re the last two left in the office today before it’s picnic time.

Andy FieldDo you ever find there's a squeamishness is the arts around talking about where the money comes from to pay for things?

Shonagh Manson: Yes, absolutely, and we’re guilty of it too – everyone’s particularly afraid of the ‘how much’ question. It’s often hard because money and value don’t relate directly or comparatively. And I’d much rather talk about value than money. But money is real and artists need it. The really squeamish situation at the moment is around artists’ pay, which has to be talked about more transparently, and we’re a founder member of a-n’s Paying Artistscampaign which is promoting the need for fair pay for visual artists working with publicly funded galleries. We understand the challenges of making money stretch, but if we don’t collectively look after artists and independent practitioners, there just won’t be a thriving artistic culture to participate in.

Andy FieldDo you think arts organisations have a moral obligation to consider where their financial support comes from? 

Shonagh Manson: Yes. What we do with our money and our debt, where it goes and where it comes from, these are very important questions in a consumer capitalist society where what we do with that money is powerful – we can act and we often have choices. I think all organisations, not just those in the arts, and all individuals have a moral obligation to consider and to strive to be informed about the impact their financial (and consumer) transactions make in the world. I’m currently reading Tom Burgis’ devastating account of the global trade of Africa’s natural resources, which was an RSL/Jerwood Non-Fiction Award winning book in 2013 and unpacks some of the worst of this complexity and our complicity. I’m of the stance that every small decision makes a difference; the fact that making the world a fairer place seems so insurmountable doesn’t excuse us from trying. And let’s be real, too – it’s far from easy for arts organisations in an austere funding climate to find anything as luxurious as a ‘choice’ about where their money comes from, but the debate should be live and progressive all the same. We have to be conscious of the exchange that is made when financial support is given – supporters always gain something whether it’s achieving their goals for social impact or strengthening their brand and reinforcing their earning potential.

Andy FieldHow do you find the experience of being connected to so many different art forms at the same time? 

Shonagh Manson: Wonderful. It’s really special being somewhere where you can make connections and simple introductions across practices and approaches, and that’s a distinct goal of ours. There have been some really tangible examples of that – introducing a contemporary classical music organisation to established ways of artist feedback from the dance world for example, which they’ve since taken on board in their commissioning processes with composers.

Andy FieldWhat are you hoping you (and also Jerwood) might get up to in the future?

Shonagh Manson: I hope I’ll be staying right here! Every year the ambition grows and we think we’ve had our busiest year yet, and then another opportunity arises -  though we’ve got some serious solutions to find to make sure our level of spending is sustainable in this financial climate, so that’s a big focus this year. We’ve got lots of brilliant new exhibitions to deliver, and we’re investigating our touring strategy this year to see what more can be done to share the new commissions we’re supporting as widely as possible. Then toward the end of 2016 we’ll complete our second edition of the Weston Jerwood Creative Bursaries programme, which is supported by a brilliant suite of other funders, so the fundraising starts now for what we hope will be an even bigger and better third edition. Then there’s our responsible investment research, I’m very excited about that, and some staffing changes we’ve made recently here which I think will really strengthen what we can offer for artists. I’d love to introduce more of an advisory service for individual artists, which we’ve tested a little bit of, but we just don’t have the capacity so I’m thinking about that.

Andy FieldWhat's the most exciting thing you've seen in the last year? 

Shonagh Manson: It’s totally not de rigeur of me to pick something we led on, but both of our inaugural Jerwood Open Forest commissions blew me away last October. Chris Watson and Iain Pate’s Hrafn: Conversations with Odin was an enigmatic performative sound installation in the wilds of Northumberland, and artist duo Semiconductor created their first ever permanent public sculpture, a beautiful piece called Cosmos made in collaboration with the Forest Research science team at Alice Holt Forest – you can still visit this there in Surrey. The brief we created with our partners Forestry Commission England was for artists to put forward bold, broad thinking proposals to make a £30,000 commission anywhere in England’s public forest estate. It was such an exciting process to be a part of. We and Forestry Commission England are beavering away in the background to try and make it happen again so watch this space. More recently, I cried my eyes out whilst in Theaster Gates’ Martyr Construction at the Venice Biennale; it was the day of the UK elections and the experience was really overwhelming and powerful.

Andy FieldWhat can you see out of the nearest window?

Shonagh Manson: The walls of the London Fire Brigade Headquarters building next door on Union Street, and blue sky.

Jerwood Drawing Prize 2015

16 September - 25 October