Bristol’s once troubled Arnolfini gallery starts

A dynamic director – and Grayson Perry – are helping to turn the fortunes of Bristol’s Arnolfini around

Grayson Perry’s wall-hanging tapestry, entitled Battle of Britain, at the Arnolfini.
Grayson Perry’s wall-hanging tapestry, entitled Battle of Britain, at the Arnolfini. Photograph: Richard Baker/In Pictures via Getty Images
Mark Brown Arts correspondent

Mon 1 Jan ‘18 20.17 GMT Last modified on Mon 1 Jan ‘18 22.00 GMT
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On a midweek lunchtime approaching Christmas, more than 300 visitors are in the busy, buzzy Arnolfini gallery in Bristol. Around a dozen people are rooted to the spot reading Grayson Perry’s social media tapestry Red Carpet; downstairs, the cafe and giftshop are packed.

It’s a far cry from a busted arts organisation, one that was judged so troubled that in June it was removed from the national portfolio of Arts Council England.

The main reason the Arnolfini is busy is that it is staging Perry’s self-fulfillingly titled The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! It was first shown at the Serpentine in London, where there were queues to get in.

Claire Doherty, the Arnolfini’s new director, approached Perry about staging it before she formally started in August. She recognised she needed a big-bang moment, a catalyst for the future. It was even before the bombshell day on 27 June when the gallery was removed from the national portfolio.

In an interview with the Guardian, Doherty chose her words carefully about the day. “The decision was made. I think it is really challenging … but it was made on the basis that the financial model was not perceived to be viable by the Arts Council.

The Arnolfini ‘should be an engine, with the heat going out, rather than coming in’
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The Arnolfini ‘should be an engine, with the heat going out, rather than coming in’ Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA
“My priority has been to come and look at the organisation and devise a financial model that is viable, and it is absolutely critical going forward. That involves also rethinking the Arnolfini in terms of its future vision.

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“One of the reasons I took the job was that I was ready for rethinking what an arts organisation with this history, and this reputation, could be for the future,” Doherty said.

In the art world, Doherty is seen as the right person for the job. Innovative and dynamic, for 15 years she ran the internationally respected arts producers Situations, a company she founded.