Janet Axten, former Secretary and Coordinator of the St Ives Tate Action Group (1989-93), a local organisation created to raise funds to build Tate St Ives, looks back at when the gallery first opened in 1993
I ended my first blog by saying ‘the smiles on our faces on that June day, showed how proud we were of what we had achieved’. That is true, but behind those smiles was sadness because we knew the work of the St Ives Tate Action Group (STAG) was at an end; the gallery was now in the hands of the Tate staff.
The changeover was not sudden, of course. Mike Tooby, the curator, had been appointed as early as March the previous year, and the rest of the core team was in place in January 1994, so we had had plenty of opportunities to meet and work together.
Mike arrived when the building was barely half completed. That March contractors were excavating the old gas holder; its cylindrical shape being echoed in the loggia and main entrance to the gallery. Photographs show men standing deep in sludge while they tried to pump water out of the ground.
The new curator had come to St Ives from the Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield, and had a good knowledge of the St Ives artists. He and his wife Jane were introduced to the group at an evening session with a buffet, at the St Ives School of Painting. I see from the newspaper report that ‘Tate Curator impresses “slightly stunned” audience’. The professional expertise Mike was going bring was quite outside the experience of his audience.
Mike’s office was a small room in what had been the Palais de Danse since the early 1900s. Barbara Hepworth had acquired the spacious dancehall in the early 1960s to give her more space to work. A couple of small rooms by the entrance had been taken over by the Tate when the Museum was acquired in 1980.
Mike lent his support and experience to some of STAG’s fund raising projects. The most memorable was our Alfred Wallis fortnight. September 1992 was the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s death, and we devised a very ambitious programme. We arranged guided walks, a play, talks and film shows and Mike organised some excellent speakers. We did wonder what Alfred Wallis would have made of all this fuss? But we were thrilled at the professionalism of the programme and the additional money we were able to raise for the gallery.
By the time the staff arrived the building was still far from complete, and it was not possible to work there. A holiday flat was borrowed and the staff could be seen walking around the town looking for places to meet. One of the most convenient was the newly refurbished Porthmeor Beach Café, opposite the gallery. The owners cannily realized that by opening that spring they could provide excellent meeting facilities, together with endless cups of coffee.
From that June, the gallery belonged to Mike and his staff, but that is another story. The members of STAG and everyone in the town could only watch and wait to see what its impact would be.
Writer and Art historian Janet Axten was formerly Secretary and Coordinator of the St Ives Tate Action Group (1989-93) - a local organisation created to raise funds to build Tate St Ives. She works in the Programme Team at Tate St Ives, is a co-founder and now Heritage Manager of the St Ives Archive, and has acted as personal assistant to artists including Patrick Heron and Bryan Pearce