Interview: Michaela Wetherell (Pink-Collar Gallery) | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Sunderland-based Michaela Wetherell is the founder and curator at Pink-Collar Gallery, an online space dedicated to addressing the issue of underrepresentation in the arts by promoting the work of female and working-class artists. It was started to support artists during the pandemic and since 2020 has worked with over 155 artists, commissioned 20 new pieces of work and focused on issues such as mental health, working-class identity and femicide.

Their new Arts Council-funded Belonging exhibition, Belonging, shines a light on working-class voices in post-industrial Wearside, as well as celebrating creative identities within the Sunderland community. It got five local creatives (Bridie Jackson, Catherine Forsyth, Ellie Clewlow, Bethany Stead and Mark Parham) to hold creative workshops in different communities around Sunderland and ask local people what ‘Belonging’ means to them. The stories that come out of these discussions will be used to produce work that commemorates the history of Sunderland.

The exhibition goes out on tour and will be stopping at Seventeen Nineteen until 15th March, The Boundary Resident Community Centre on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th April and Arts Centre Washington from 25th April until 4th May. 

Here, we speak to Michaela to find out about Pink Collar Gallery and the exhibition…

How did you get into art and art curation? What are some of the works that inspired you growing up?
Very long story short… 

When I was a child I used to be very creative thanks to my parents and my school. I didn’t realize until I was much older how creative my primary education was. Creating murals inspired by the books we were reading, having framed artworks by the pupils on the walls, school plays and building your 3D model of the perfect playground. I kept creativity in my education until I realized my skill set wasn’t at the right level to do it professionally and I found the history of art more interesting. This moved me into art history for university where I discovered curating and was like oooh this is for me. Starting with volunteering roles and a lot of trial and error over 10 years we finally got there!

Art that inspired me, my first real love was an artist called Modigliani who painted portraits and lots of naked women. I loved his style and learning about the women in his life, which took me down the rabbit hole of muses, that led me to women artists and an obsession beginning of learning about all these incredible artists and using art to tell stories.   

How has Pink-Collar evolved from starting online and offering support to artists during the pandemic to where it is now?
I can now actually see people in person! We did do some live events in 2011 when we all had to mask up and keep our differences but now it’s so much nicer to have events and exhibitions where everyone comes together. We are now developing pop-up spaces so the communities around us can see the work and it’s far more interesting to go to a gallery or cafe to appreciate art than on screen. The biggest change and my favourite part of PCG is supporting artists with networking events, mentoring and support groups. I love meeting new creatives as it can be very isolating in the arts so creating these events has been brilliant for me and hopefully for the people who come along. 

Your passions are highlighting female (under)representation within the arts and the relevance of working-class identity. In your opinion, what factors are restricting female and working-class representation in art? What do you think can be done, both short and long-term, to address the problem? What will happen to art if they are not addressed?
I think it’s a lot better than before for women in the arts but there are still too many restrictions, one being the unbalanced of paid and unpaid work. Generally, women don’t have the luxury to create in their spare time as they are caring for children, being a carer or doing household chores, for example. Now put being from a working class background and all those restrictions are heightened and that goes for any gender. With the lack of job roles and funding for creatives people can’t have a career in the arts and they tend to leave the profession cause it’s literally impossible. 

There is also elitism in the arts where people think the arts are not for the working class people and having an education in the arts is still seen as essential to start a career. Creativity in education at all levels is declining, so it will only be the ones who can afford private education and are willing to take the debt of massive university fees. We need more access to the arts, art programming on TV, youth centres, free creative activities and most importantly more money!  

If we don’t address the inequality we will have a very boring art world, where we have one (very privileged) point of view. 

Pink-collar is growing the gallery to a physical space which will be located in Sunderland. Can you tell us more about that?
Well I am right at the beginning of this adventure, we are an official business now and the dream is to have a beautiful gallery space in the centre of Sunderland. For now, I am commandeering other people’s space in pop-up events to promote the gallery and creatives. 

Which projects have you been the most proudest of so far?
I did a project called Re-Imagine in 2021 with a Mexican feminist group called Las Iluministas. The project was originally about how the murder of women is portrayed in the media. When we were planning and developing this project we launched with a GoFundMe to help us get further funding for the whole project. This was in Feb 2011, and in March 2021 the death of Sarah Everard made this project into something more important than just an art exhibition. We commissioned 5 UK-based artists and 5 Mexican artists to do public artwork about femicide. We had an online gallery showing over 100 artists’ work to protest the rise of femicide. We also used this project to get facts and raise awareness. It was a challenging project but for all these women to come together and show the power of art in activism was pretty amazing!

Briefly tell us about your current project, Belonging?
I am a Sunderland lass and I am very proud of where I come from but you do get sick of the negativity of what Sunderland has become. We should be proud of our heritage but most of it has now gone. But the people are still here, living their lives and some are really trying to make a difference in their community. This project is about the people of Sunderland and what it means to belong to a place that has been forgotten. 

To celebrate the importance of belonging five creatives have held creative workshops in different communities around Sunderland, asking people who live in Sunderland what Belonging means to them. The works commemorate the history of Sunderland, referencing glass making, shipbuilding and coal mining but with a contemporary twist of modern stories. The output from these workshops has inspired new works which will be shown around Sunderland.  

How did you select the artists to take part in this project?
My job as a curator is to connect with artists, visit their studios, follow them online and see what they’re up to. So I have a Filofax of people in my head that I will dive into and see who would be best for the job. Sometimes artists are highly recommended to me by other creatives and I will have a conversation and see if we are a good mix and go from there.   

How important do you think it is for artists to engage with the communities in which they operate or draw inspiration from?
It’s hugely important, or you start doing work in an echo chamber and make work that you think will work for these communities. I have been guilty of it, developing workshops on what I think people want instead of asking first. This is my first project in Sunderland and I wanted to do this to make new connections so I can build up a reputation of being someone to trust. I am sure I haven’t got everything right but hopefully, by having a big broad conversation about what it means to belong to a place, I can have open and honest discussions about what the public wants to see next. 

The works commemorate the history of Sunderland, referencing glass making, shipbuilding and coal mining but with a contemporary twist of modern stories. Do you think the industrial heritage of Sunderland is being forgotten over time and how important is it to present these stories with a more current spin?
I don’t think it has been forgotten but what I dislike is the conversations of “ the good old days.” There are new generations of creatives and communities that are trying to make Sunderland better and when we talk about the industry it’s to say it was better before.  

I do think history is important and some amazing groups like Sunderland Maritime Heritage and Sunderland Antiquarian Society do amazing jobs preserving the history of Sunderland. But I do think personally, if I want to do a project about the history of Sunderland or any post-industrial town there are more exciting and contemporary ways of telling these stories. 

You’ve received funding from the Arts Council for the project. How has that helped and how important is funding from various governing bodies to organisations such as yourselves?
It’s the most important and the biggest hurdle all creatives have. It’s helped greatly cause I got to fund myself and most importantly the artists to make the work. Having funding can come with the stress of applying and managing it but the feeling of being paid is far greater. It’s not a perfect system and we definitely need more funding in the arts but if we didn’t have it I truly don’t think I could do this for a living. Another funding body declined this project, and the first go for the Arts Council was rejected, so it nearly never happened. So if people do get rejected it absolutely sucks but don’t give up if you really believe in the idea. 

Do you have any future projects on the horizon?
Next up is going to be a series of exhibitions called, FOCUS. These exhibitions will focus on women working-class artists from the North East of England. The exhibition will take place in early February at Otto Cafe in Sunderland. Starting with the amazing Sally Anderson. Follow events and exhibitions at pink-collargallery.com and sign up for our newsletter to know what’s happening all things PCG.

Mark Parham – Belonging Project

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