Posted 30th June 2017
Watts Contemporary Gallery
by Dr Helen Bowcock OBE
Earlier this week Arts Council England confirmed that Watts Gallery Artists' Village is to join the National Portfolio. The organisation has come a long way since 2004 when its then newly appointed Director, Perdita Hunt, persuaded her Board to embark upon a fundraising campaign to enable the restoration of the Gallery. In 2011, with heartfelt praise for its contribution to national heritage, the Prince of Wales reopened it and barely had the party disbanded when a new campaign was launched to bring back into charitable ownership the Watts's house and studio.
Given the enormous practical and professional challenges of restoring the Gallery it would have been entirely understandable to rest on laurels for a time. However those of us who have had the great privilege of working alongside Perdita know that this is not her style. The original campaign, aptly named 'Hope', established a culture of ambition, skilfully honouring the legacy and values of G F and Mary Watts whilst positioning the organisation as a leader in the arts for the 21st century. Recently Sir Peter Bazalgette paid tribute to the way the Watts Gallery Trust fulfils the Arts Council's 'holistic case for investment in the arts', meeting the four criteria of intrinsic, social, educational and economic value.
During Perdita's tenure over £20 million has been raised from largely philanthropic sources. A study by the University of Surrey estimates that Watts Gallery Artists' Village now contributes almost £8 million of gross value to the local economy. Richard Ormond CBE, Chairman of the Watts Gallery Trust, describes her as 'a genius for raising funds and getting things done'. But he also draws attention to another important dimension of her leadership, stating that 'right from the start Perdita understood and valued the Watts's mantra of art for all. A lot of people would have seized on the art and left it at that. But she took the 'for all' to heart and that is why Watts Gallery has made such an impact with its social outreach programmes'.
Under Perdita's leadership the themes and ideas expressed in the works of G F and Mary Watts have been made to serve as a powerful frame of reference to guide the organisation's social mission. She has nurtured relationships with many partners, spearheading the 'Big Issues' programme with its annual exhibition of work including by prisoners and young offenders. She has overseen a dynamic programme of new exhibitions and has ensured that justice is done to the legacy of Mary Watts with the creation of a museum within the Great Studio. Trading activities, notably the shop and Tea shop, provide today a thriving hub of enterprise. Perdita's combination of kindness and ambition have inspired many different people to aim high and to believe in the transformative power of art.
Speaking from my own perspective I can certainly attest to that driving ambition and the invitation to reach above ourselves. I went to Watts Gallery one day for a cup of tea with Perdita and came away having agreed to contribute to the purchase of the Great Studio and help engage other lenders and donors. I admitted once that I could swim and found myself crossing the Solent in her wake (a long way behind) in an extended sponsored swim which she has achieved a number of times, as always leading by example in fundraising. In taking on one extraordinary legacy she has, in an inimitable way, saved and developed an important part of our cultural heritage for which so many of us are immensely grateful.