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Iniva Director Melanie Keen reflects on her first year

There are many things which have happened in the past year at Iniva which are not visible to the naked eye. These are the things that make a difference to an organisation that’s undergoing a transformation. Some of those things are the ‘behind the scenes stuff’ that help the machine to crank into action everyday. The conversations with artists and curators. The conversations with trustees and the Iniva team. The conversations with partners and potential partners.

The thing that has got me determinedly out of bed every morning has been wanting to affirm the importance of artists, and the crucial role that Iniva plays in the development of their practices, now, in the past, and in the future. And part of that development is the way in which we can help create a critical context and achieve greater engagement with audiences. Thinking this through has been especially needed whilst Iniva undergoes a significant series of changes to the way we will programme and function.

Even before I was appointed, I had to imagine myself running Iniva. My two-stage interview, which included representatives from Iniva’s board, Arts Council England and the Supporters of Iniva, gave me the opportunity to test out my vision for the organisation. I understood that the incipient Iniva could be not be disentangled from the Iniva established in 1994, and the idea of working as agency or ‘a gallery without walls’ was part of its DNA. The difference now, and the thing which makes us unique as a visual arts organisation, is the vastly expanded Stuart Hall Library, a significant resource that anchors us to a physical and intellectual space giving context to much of our work. Established when Iniva was formed 22 years ago, the library harnesses the space of ‘the international’ in ways that are more apposite for today’s nimbler, leaner incarnation of Iniva.

This year has been one of trial and experimentation, with several developments contributing to what a new Iniva might look like:

In October 2015, we secured funding from Arts Council Collection which ensured that Keith Piper’s new work would be commissioned and become part of a national collection to commemorate its 70th anniversary. Our partnership with the Bluecoat in Liverpool heralds the beginning of a major touring exhibition for Keith and points to our recognition of the differing types of support artists need at different stages in their career. Keith’s importance as a pioneer of digital technologies in Britain, and as a key British artist who has influenced a generation of younger artists, cannot be understated.

Towards the end of the year, we awarded bursaries to a group of early career artists, curators and scholars to attend a conference, Artist and Empire at Tate Britain. The recipients made insightful and provocative contributions to the conversations that took place at the conference. This was followed up with a roundtable in the Stuart Hall Library to debate ideas around exhibition histories and imperialism, amongst others.

In January 2016, we realised our first artist in school residency that specifically used our Emotional Learning Cards with partners A Space and Oppossum Federation. An artist working alongside an art therapist in a classroom setting makes this residency distinct. Drawing connections between artists’ practice, visual literacy and wellbeing continues to be an important part of our work with children and young people.

In February, we applied to the Arts Council England Catalyst Evolve fund, a match-funding grant to help organisations with fundraising. We found out in June that we had been successful and our grant was the largest given to a London-based visual arts organisation. We’re working with our partner Pavilion to realise some combined fundraising activity across London and Leeds. The grant means that we will be able to 100% match fund any donations from individuals, trusts and foundations or sponsors received to support our artistic programme.

By April, Alia Syed’s iterative work On a Wing and a Prayer, had been installed in the Stuart Hall Library as part of an exhibition with fellow artist Nadia Perrotta and a larger project presented by Nirmal Purwar. Alia’s work drew its inspiration from John Berger and Jean Mohr’s book, A Seventh Man, first published in 1975. The book is an intense exploration of the individual and collective experience of migration. Alia’s work could not have been more timely or acutely and poetically reflective of the crisis within which humanity is immersed.

In June, we worked with the Black Artists and Modernism team at University of the Arts London and Middlesex University to present the Lubaina Himid Study Day in the Stuart Hall Library. This cemented our partnership which will unfold over the next year with the next step being the conference Now & Then, Here & There being held at Tate Britain in 6-8 October. Later this year, we will be convening another Study Day on artist Li Yuan Chia whose first monographic show was produced by Iniva in 2001.

In July, we announced our partnership with the Stuart Hall Foundation to collaborate on an artist’s residency which will take place in the library from January to March 2017. This residency marks the beginning of regular programming in the library that supports early career artists, curators and scholars through providing time and space opportunities. We’ve had a tremendous response to the open call and will announce the inaugural artist by the beginning of December.

In the past year, I’ve had colleagues sidle up to me to ask if we still need Iniva, if our mission is still relevant (the assumption being the art world is properly international now) and in some corners, it has been suggested that the Iniva project (whatever static venture that is) has failed. To my mind, they are curious to see how change will take place. I would argue that with the opportunity to reflect, refresh and renew, Iniva is needed now more than ever. I look around and wonder how different the world is, broadly, now from the moment of Iniva’s inception. Rebecca Solnit, in her recent book Hope in the Dark, reflects on Zhou Enlai’s famous quote on being asked, in the early 1970s, his response to the French Revolution. She argues that his answer ‘Too soon to tell’, whether on the revolution of 1789 or 1968, could be seen as a generous and expansive perspective that gives rise to more open-minded uncertainty than most people are able to tolerate.

What I see now is greater retrenchment in the wider developed world which has given rise to movements which shift public consciousness: Black Lives Matter being a potent one. The 2015 Report by the Warwick Commission and the Arts Council England’s Data report acknowledge this retrenchment specifically within the arts and culture in the UK. In a post-Brexit moment when the UK borders become more intransigent, there is as much apathy as there is opportunity to challenge and be challenged. If you read Stuart Hall’s essay “Black Diaspora Artists in Britain: Three Moments in Post-War History” (available in the Stuart Hall Library), you’ll gain firm insight into the intellectual grapple with a complex and changing terrain on the notion of difference which ‘continues – persistently – to register its disturbing effects.’ With London’s first Muslim mayor and Bristol’s first Black mayor, it’s clear that change can happen in small sharp bursts or it can stretch across decades. Whatever the span of time, the urge is to defy amnesia and never lose hope.