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As a legacy to our Art Schools of the East Midlands exhibition by John Beck & Matthew Cornford in Sept/Dec 2023, we invited Stella Couloutbanis who was Exhibition Organiser (later Exhibitions, Events and Festival Director) at Bonington Gallery between 1989 and 2007 to jot down memories of her time at Bonington Gallery & NTU.

This piece of writing is also shared on the occasion of our current Bonington Archive display entitled Stella’s Dilemma, that documents some of the process behind the creation of Tom Hackett’s 1991 solo exhibition Burst. This presentation is on show in the foyer of Bonington Gallery from 16 March – 4 May, 2024.

Memories of Bonington Gallery by Stella Couloutbanis

“In April 1989 I joined Trent Polytechnic as an Exhibitions Organiser for the Bonington Gallery, having left my previous role as Touring Exhibitions Officer within the Arts Division of Nottinghamshire County Council (NCC).

It was an interesting time to join the Polytechnic. Local authorities had relinquished responsibility and Trent Polytechnic was moved away from NCC – two years later becoming an independent university, first called Trent University and later changed to its current name, Nottingham Trent University. With its new statute a Vice Chancellor (VC) was appointed, Professor Ray Cowell. He had a passion for the arts and played a pivotal role in developing the art culture within the university. 

Image of the Bonington building in 1971.

The strategy was to transform the space into a public contemporary art gallery. The early years presented some significant challenges, with no designated office area, no staff, a limited budget, limited technical support, no funds to publicise the space, no doors to the gallery, no easy access, and no invigilation.

I initially shared an office within proximity to Professor Robert Ayres, Head of Visual Arts and Fine Art Department, who was my manager and led the vision for the space and the city.

Up to this point the gallery was referred to as ‘The Exhibition Hall’. It had an outline exhibition programme established by external bookings and by members of the Fine Art staff. 

To reposition the gallery as a contemporary public gallery we needed to shift away from external bookings and use by internal staff towards a more public remit. Like any change it was initially tricky to implement, but after two years the switch was well underway. The gallery had been renamed to ‘The Bonington Gallery’ (later shortened to just ‘Bonington Gallery’), and a programme of contemporary artworks and performances was being programmed for up to two years ahead. 

Detail of Bonington Building plans taken from The Architects Journal, January 1971.

In the early 1990’s we successfully secured two significant grants which helped elevate the Gallery and establish its position as a public art gallery. We became clients from East Midlands Arts (now the Arts Council England) receiving an annual grant plus match funding from Trent Polytechnic. 

The Henry Moore Foundation awarded us a grant to upgrade the gallery, allowing us to procure and fit doors, install a disabled access lift, install bannisters on the staircase, procure and install theatre lights and completely renovate the wooden floor.  

We also managed to get a disabled toilet installed in the Bonington building with a grant from Nottinghamshire County Council.

The most amazing thing for me about the Bonington Gallery was its size. It was one of the largest, single room galleries in the Midlands with a ceiling height of 22 feet and 2153 square feet of flooring. It had a beautiful maple floor which was in stark contrast with its brutal concrete egg box ceiling – all these distinguishing features making the gallery iconic, in my opinion. I would often describe the space to artists as a space you walked down into and, “imagine you are at the bottom of an empty public swimming bath”. The vastness of the space also meant the acoustics were difficult to work with making public speaking sometimes a challenge.

Image from the exhibition ‘Mechanics of the Eye‘, 1992, which also shows the lights & rig that were funded by the Henry Moore Foundation.

Forming partnerships and collaborations with artists and art organisations was pivotal in the gallery’s development and helped create a robust programme. Over the 18 years the team worked with all the key organisations and festivals in Nottinghamshire, such as Dance 4, Now, Expo, Angel Row Gallery, Nottingham Castle Museum & Art Gallery, Djanogly Art Gallery, Wollaton Hall… and many more. Hosting some of the best talent in the arts. 

I worked with some amazing artists and performers during my time, too many to count, who were based locally, regionally, nationally and internationally – I never did a head-count, but it must be over a thousand. One of our key success factors was our growing reputation for supporting artists where we would do all that was possible for them to produce their creative work. Mentoring was very important to me, to help artists develop their artistic ideas. We were always being flexible, understanding that work was fluid and the creative outcome could be very different to what was originally proposed.

Image from the opening of John Newling’s exhibition ‘Lost’.

Bonington Gallery was always a space for site specific and installation work. In 1991 John Newling installed his work, Lost. It covered the entire floor of the gallery with a map of Nottingham City Centre made from paracetamol laid on steel plates. It was a significant point for me – not only was the work powerful and thought provoking with a striking visual impact, it showed that the gallery was ideally positioned to commission site specific works for the space and not just hosting and housing wall and floor-based work.

Over the years we had some fantastic installations; David Wilkinson & Mary McIntyre, Ray Lee, Dunn & Dempster, Shelley Sacks, Ansuman Biswas (collaboration with NOW Ninety 9), Rosie Leverton, Tom Hackett, Lorna Green, Natasha Kidd, Lone Twins, Gobb Squad, Opera North, Bodies in Flight, Hancock and Kelly, Ivan Smith, Susie MacMurray, Mariele Neudecker, Richard Brown are just a few to name.

Image of John Newling’s ‘Lost‘, from the artists website

Dance was a significant aspect of our programme, and we held the first Dance Festival in 1991, organised by Nottinghamshire County Council. At this festival I was introduced to the company Salamanda Tandem. This was the beginning of a very long working relationship between us, lasting several decades. Isabel Jones, the director (a dancer, singer, musician and visual artist) worked in Bonington Gallery for many years and I became chair to the company in 2005.

Image from ‘Plank Rule‘, 1992, presented in the main gallery space as part of Notts Dance Festival.

The gallery was a host and collaborator for Notts Dance and Body Shape Image – two major dance festivals organised by Dance 4. We worked with Expo and Now (Nottingham City Council) presenting, co-commissioning and supporting performances. 

A promotional image for ‘Remote Dance‘ for the 2005 edition of Nott Dance festival.

Around this time the VC’s passion for the arts led to the establishment of a collection of artworks for the university, focusing on purchasing works from practitioners living and working in the East Midlands. Bonington Gallery was responsible for sourcing, hanging, caring and cataloguing the works. 

With an increase in our Arts Council grant, Future Factory was created by Professor Rober Ayers who was appointed as the first Artistic Director ever established at a university. This funding allowed us to commission new work and host our own performance festivals, Celebration NottinghamSensitive Skin and Body Space Image. We also ran artist fellowships ­– giving support, mentoring, opportunities and bursaries to help further their practice. Future Factory’s exhibition and performance programme was housed at Bonington Gallery and Powerhouse, Victoria studios (the site for the new DaDA building). This included a multi-disciplinary contemporary exhibition programme involving photography, film, video, sound and multi-media plus a live art and performance season every year.

When Future Factory was established, Bonington Gallery had a team of eight, including a marketing officer, marketing assistant, technician, education officers, the director and myself. This was an amazing time as it was the start of a feasibility study for a new contemporary art and performance space in Nottingham which was awarded to Nottingham Trent University. The outcome was a success, which led to a further award from Arts Council England to continue with a more thorough and detailed feasibility study working in collaboration with Nottingham City Council and University of Nottingham.

Image from 2007 exhibition ‘THE REDEMPTIVE BEAUTY OF LIFE AFTER DEATH‘, which was presented as part of the Future Factory. This exhibition was done in collaboration with New Art Exchange.

In 2003, due to staff changes, I was promoted to Exhibitions, Events and Festival Director to programme and curate exhibitions, performances and events in Bonington Gallery and 1851 Galleries (Waverley Building), Powerhouse/Basement performance spaces and other University venues. In 2004 I was seconded part time to Nottingham Contemporary as a member of the development team, attending project and client team meetings, stakeholder/sub board meetings and Capital Network meetings.

I have so many happy memories at Bonington Gallery… In the 1990s it was one of the locations for the TV series Boon. We had students exhibiting work in the gallery, including Sue Webster and Tim Noble and we negotiated a fee of £50 per student and a fee for the gallery. In addition, we were allowed to use the catering wagon which was stationed outside the gallery. It took a week for the crew and actors to film a 1-minute-long scene which was a confrontation of a student and a lecturer with a slap on the face! 

Images from from the TV daytime show ‘Boon‘ which was filmed in the gallery. If you study or work at an educational institution you can watch the episode here.

Having Tom Hackett’s Burst sculpture installation at the Gallery included sourcing, transporting and installing 70 industrial scale cable reels. I cannot remember how we got them in but I do remember the very long chats with the health and safety staff. The Gallery, over the years, has housed many other installations made from a wide variety of materials including bricks, books, fabrics, banana skins, radiators, and performances featuring bodily fluids, duration, audience participation and dancers performing with paintings and other media.

Stella posing with the cable reels at the Arnold BT depot. Photographer unknown.
Images of ‘Burst’ from Tom Hackett’s website. Courtesy of the artist.

On one occasion an external booking for a flower show had been taken that I was not aware of which clashed with a show I booked in – we had to temporarily take the show down for the weekend to allow the flower show and then rehang it again (not to be recommended!).

We held a Guinness World Record Breaking event. Matt Hand in collaboration with Leif Alexis and Ben Mawson-Harris broke the world record for the longest table tennis rally on their 16th attempt over a 24-hour period, reaching 5 hours, 8 minutes and 22 seconds.

Image from Matt Hand’s website, which catalogues this world record attempt, and the others which were part of eXpo at Bonington Gallery in 2001.

I worked with many students and graduates showing their work in the numerous associated spaces; from gourmet meals being cooked and served by two creative arts students in the Bonington Foyer, to tomato throwing in the gallery, to exhibitions, to awards (Margaret Bryan and Geoff Ball awards) and Expo which was started by NTU graduates.

In 18 years at Bonington Gallery we played host to many school and student placements and graduates. I enjoyed working with all of them, some as volunteers for specific events, others just working at the gallery as assistants supporting our staff and the programme.

I tried to give them an overall experience of what we did at the gallery, from curation, marketing, and education to the hang and finally the opening night. I am very grateful to all our volunteers without whose help it would have made our work much harder. There are so many of them I can’t remember all of them but you know who you are – a big thank you! I have been privileged to work with some amazing volunteers, many of whom have developed their own careers and I hope we played a part in it.

I feel strongly that the work we did at Bonington Gallery/Future Factory was the catalyst for what is now Nottingham Contemporary. Our input in getting the two feasibility study funds from ACE was initiated by us and NTU. Without the initial steer and the passion from Bonington Gallery and Future Factory, Nottingham Contemporary may never have happened. 

Image of the front of Nottingham Contemporary.

It was extremely sad for me and my staff to close the doors of Bonington Gallery in August 2007, our Arts Council Grant England Funding had finally been diverted to Nottingham Contemporary which was well on its way in the build and had a new Director in place. 

We left with our heads held high, knowing we had done our jobs well. I worked with some amazing people who contributed massively towards Nottingham Contemporary. Deborah Dean, friend and colleague showed outstanding passion and work. Professor Robert Ayres, friend and colleague demonstrated extraordinary vision and determination. NTU VC Professor Ray Cowell, for being such an advocate of the arts in all its forms.

And of course, my amazing team over the 18 years included Janice Britton, John Hewitt, Raif Killips, Stephen Fossey, Jenny Rainforth, Lisa Simmons, Haj Kaur, Sam Rose, Annette Foster, Geoff Litherland, Bo Olawoye… I hope I have not missed any names out!

Looking back, it is great to see Bonington has been repositioned back into the University and continues supporting research and development – something that we were also keen to support during my time at Bonington.

(It is to be noted this has been done by memory as I had no papers to refer to, apologies if I missed any names or organisations out, it was over 15 years ago!)”

For the fifth iteration of our ‘Bonington Archive’ series, we are delighted to present materials from our archive related to Burst, a solo exhibition by artist Tom Hackett that took place in the gallery from 8 May – 9 June 1990. The installation consisted of a large sculpture made from fabric and 80 x 3-8ft wooden cable reels.

These wooden cable reels were sourced by Exhibition Organiser, Stella Couloutbanis, from a British Telecom depot in Arnold, Nottingham. BT agreed to lend these reels for the show, but they would not deliver them to the gallery. So the question was – how do you transport 80 giant cable reels into Bonington Gallery?

The answer? A photoshoot and a press release, obviously!

Curated by Alex Jovčić-Sas

Bonington Archive is a revolving display of material drawn from the Bonington Gallery Archive. If you have any materials relating to the programme, especially before 1989, please contact: joshua.lockwood-moran@ntu.ac.uk