New Contemporaries:
Art in a Time of Change

Tate Britain. The Turner Prize. The Met. V&A. The Fourth Plinth. These are just a handful of the places – and accolades – associated with contemporary artists Helen Cammock, Sunil Gupta and Heather Phillipson. The trio are known individually for their longstanding engagement with race, migration, womanhood, wealth and power. Now, they have teamed up to select this year’s Bloomberg New Contemporaries: 55 of the UK’s most exciting new creatives. The result is a cross-section of what the art world looks like right now, from Margaret (Weiyi) Liang’s performative portraits (shown above) to Haneen Hadiy’s alternative depictions of her motherland, Iraq (below). Established in 1949, New Contemporaries is the longest running survey of talent emerging from the UK’s art schools. Its list of alumni reads “like a who’s who of British art”, spanning over 70 years and including Chris Ofili, David Hockney, Derek Jarman, Mona Hatoum and Tacita Dean. Right now, the show is open at Blackpool’s Grundy Art Gallery, before it travels to Camden Art Centre. Aesthetica catches up with Kiera Blakey, who was appointed New Contemporaries Director in June, about what to expect from this year’s cohort.

A: Firstly, huge congratulations on your new role! New Contemporaries has a long and storied history, dating back to 1949. What does it feel like to take this on? KB: Thank you. It’s a huge privilege and an incredibly important time in the sector to centre artists’ voices. New Contemporaries has an incredible alumni but it’s important that we continue to address and evaluate how we’re working – it’s not the same art world it was even just a few years ago – we have Covid, inflation and the impact of the enormous hike in student fees. The question of who gets to be an artist is more pertinent than ever.

A: Each year, New Contemporaries travels to a partner venue outside London. Tell us why this year you are working with Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, and why it’s important for the show to be hosted by venues such as this. KB: It’s incredibly important that New Contemporaries is a touring exhibition. There are brilliant courses and institutions outside of London and it’s important to reflect that in the work we do. I grew up in the North-West of England and I think if I’d seen examples like New Contemporaries in my town it might have given me the confidence to start this work much earlier.

A: This year’s artists were selected by Helen Cammock, Sunil Gupta and Heather Phillipson. These are hugely renowned names. What kinds of works were they looking for this year?
KB: The artist panels are always looking to reflect the broadest picture of emerging art. This means ensuring there’s a balance across all mediums, however the practice of each artist means there will always be a pull towards their interests so for this year there is a large proportion of moving image work.

A: Are there any are key themes that have emerged? What do they tell us about today’s artists?
Recurrent themes in the artists’ work this year include care, kinship, climate justice, world-building, geographical borders and identity politics. Artists are a lot more politicised than when I was an art student 20 years ago and that’s a fantastic thing that we should celebrate. Artists can help us see the world anew and imagine new possibilities and we need that now more than ever.

A: What can audiences expect from New Contemporaries 2023? Can you talk us through some highlights, or examples of works in the show at Grundy Art Gallery? KB: I don’t want to single out specific works; there are 55 artists in this year’s exhibition and I couldn’t choose. But what strikes me the most is the sheer energy. I’ve worked in public institutions for a long time and it’s wonderful to be amongst a group of artists who feel free to be experimental, take risks and not feel the pressure of the market.

A: What kind of impact does New Contemporaries have on early-career creatives?
We know that New Contemporaries provides that first platform or bridge into the art world and so it’s important we set that experience up well. Our alumni have gone on to achieve great success – from gallery representation to major public institutional exhibitions nationally and internationally. 

A: Going forward, what do you hope to achieve through New Contemporaries?
KB: New Contemporaries has a great legacy so I want to build from that. We’ll be looking at opportunities, partnerships and toolkits that open what has historically been a very closed sector. We’ll also look at the role of the exhibition and the audience – we mustn’t forget we’re working in public institutions. The question of who gets to be an artist is my biggest driving force, and to talk about that we need to address artist pay and how we value the work of artists in society. | Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool, until 16 December 2023 | Camden Art Centre, London, 19 January – 14 April 2024

Image Credits:
1. Margaret Liang, With Helen.
2. Haneen Hadiy, Mesopotamian Victims of Climate Change.
Noa Klagsbald, My Meninas.