Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Flexible friends

I’ve done several posts in the past featuring new uses for redundant red telephone boxes. An art gallery in a creative dialogue with the art in Henry Moore’s former house nearby, a village information centre, the vibrant planters in central Bath – these have been the stars. There are also telephone boxes where coffee is served or defibrillators housed, boxes housing miniature libraries, and, in a gloriously self-referential bit of recycling that I wish I’d photographed when I last passed it before lockdown, a business offering mobile phone repairs. Here’s one very close to where I live; or rather, here are six, because these K6 boxes on The Promenade, Cheltenham’s main shopping street, are a throw-back to the time when phone boxes congregated together in groups. In my teenage years I remember making a call or two from one of these boxes. In fact, I remember queueing outside them to make a call, so well used were they in the days before everyone had a phone in their house, let alone a mobile in their pocket. On this street, on a broad stretch of pavement near what was once the General Post Office, there’s this group of six and, a short distance away, another clutch of four.

These six were for a while a sort of outstation of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Museum and Art Gallery. They have housed various art installations that have entailed peering through the glass at items variously rich and strange. When I last passed, the display was bolder and attached to the windows themselves. It was like a combination of gallery and advertisement: a 3D billboard for a group of artists, with samples of work and contact details. It was part of a project called Art in YOUR Quarter, curated by the Cheltenham Trust and showcasing art created in the community during lockdown and its colourful, bold work had to be able to hold its own in the uncompromising red frame of the glazing bars, and to work across the eight large glazed panels of each outward-facing wall or door.*

If to outsiders this might seem a trifle brash for leafy Regency Cheltenham, that may true only up to a point. In recent years, the town has made a bit of a name for itself as a place that hosts an annual festival of street art. This means that, each summer, a group of artists descend on the town and apply themselves diligently to an agreed stretch of wall. The chosen sites are often tucked away in unregarded corners – unlovely end-walls on street corners, boundary walls in car parks, subways that frankly need brightening up, and so on. It’s a form of sanctioned graffiti that has won over many, including many sceptics. This display on the telephone boxes is not part of the festival but its aesthetic and its street location are compatible with it, yet also on a scale that works better in its town-centre setting. I for one am grateful that it has been brightening up a world that in these times can feel dull, or worse.

And another thing. For many of us, art is an important, even necessary, part of life. You don’t have to be a painter or sculptor to look at it that way: you just need eyes. But not everyone feels that art is ‘for them’. Putting it in phone boxes is one way to make art more visible to more people. And adding the contact details helps too. It’s not just that people might want to buy work from the artists, or to commission them. If these are local artists, it reminds people that art isn’t just in London galleries, isn’t only on rich people’s walls. It’s here, now. And importantly, you don’t need to take a train ride to London to find it. Now more than ever, that’s a message worth remembering.

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* The six boxes featured: illustration by Luna Lotus, photography by Danielle Tipton, illustration by Jose Casey, collage by Ross Morgan, illustration by J.P McCrossan, illustration by Emma Evans, illustration by STISH, illustration by Tom Graham, illustration by Martha Kelsey and illustration by Art Lad.


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