Lisa Edgar is an artist educator living and working in Cardiff, and for the past 30 years she’s been involved in the visual arts in Wales through a wide range of roles and responsibilities as an artist, arts manager, curator and writer. Lisa welcomed us at The National Museum of Wales, where she now leads the Art Department as Keeper, and invited us to see Women in Focus, a year-long exhibition exploring the role of women in photography, both as producers and subjects of images. She also showed us around the Museum’s permanent art collections and treated us with a behind the scenes glimpse of some of the prints recently gifted to the Museum by Magnum photographer David Hurn. We ended our get-together at her home, chatting about the milestones of her career in arts education and the contemporary art scene in Wales.
For people who don’t know you, who is Lisa Edgar? Tell us a bit about your background.
Welsh, artist educator, curator. I trained as a photographer, my career has been gallery based, curating and producing exhibitions, arts initiatives, festivals, large scale community engaged arts projects, and learning and participation opportunities.
I am Keeper of Art at the National Museum of Wales.
How did you get into art? What was your journey like?
Like so many young people, I was advised against studying art in favour of more academic subjects, and I initially trained as a teacher. In my early 20s, after my first daughter was born, I took a photography class at my local arts centre. It transformed the way I looked the world. I was fortunate enough to be able to go on to study photography at Newport School of Art, and went on to become involved in Ffotogallery, as a volunteer, then freelance, before becoming the Exhibitions Manager.
My role evolved to combine my creative and education practices and I established Ffotogallery’s learning and engagement programme, working on a range of high profile projects with commercial and educational partners. We won a number of awards for our projects and published a book detailing our work, Make Light Work, and the website, Lightbox, which has become a core resource for the WJEC Art curriculum across the UK.
At the same time, I was involved in setting up an organisation called Contemporary Temporary Art Space with a group of friends, which evolved into g39, a gallery, and artist network dedicated to promoting emerging artists. The Diffusion Festival, an international biennial photography festival, grew from Ffotogallery, and I directed its public programmes.
In 2018, I joined the National Museum Wales as the Senior Curator of Photography on a temporary contract, and went on to lead the Art Department as Keeper, where I’m now working with a brilliant team on one of the most important international art collections in Europe.
How did you make the transition from art practice to art education? What motivated you to become an educator?
I wanted to challenge the notion that creative subjects were merely hobbies. I’ve experienced the transformative effect of creative study, abandoning hard learning outcomes and conventional problem solving ‒ and embracing critical thinking, risk and imagination. I believe that these are the skills that really equip you for life and work. I think a lot about the future of work. It is a rapidly changing landscape, where skills learned today become quickly obsolete. I believe that the best way to equip young people for the future is to foster brave dynamic thinking, and an ability to apply knowledge, understanding and skills creatively in any new situation ‒ exactly what an arts education provides.
Who has been your greatest influencer in your career?
You were the Head of Education at Ffotogallery. How has the photography and lens-based media scene in Wales evolved since you’ve taken on this role?
The medium has changed. A technological revolution has taken place and more photographs are being taken than ever before. When I began working in Photography people often put a single roll of film with 36 shots a year through their camera ‒ most young people take more than that a day. It is now the medium through which people communicate, on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat… It’s a new visual language.
Throughout the years you have collaborated and developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales and beyond. Can you tell us about the biggest challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in Wales at this moment in time?
Practically, it’s becoming harder to sustain a career as an artist. The increased cost of living, the precarious nature of employment, and a contraction in the level of funding available for arts projects such as commissions, residencies and exhibiting opportunities make it more difficult year on year. My concern is that in the past, the formal study and practice of art has been the preserve of the privileged who were free from concerns such as paying the rent. I think the brilliant reputation the UK currently enjoys across the world for brave and innovative arts practice comes from a richer cross-section of society than that.
Out of all the art projects and exhibitions that you’ve created, what have been the most successful or rewarding for you and why?
I worked with the Ghana Think Tank, an American artists’ collective that work with a network of artists across the developing world, using social media. We collect first world problems randomly from people in Wales, and send them to the network. The network propose solutions ‒ third world solutions to first world problems. We carry them out, literally. Shocking, brilliant, hilarious.
What would your advice be for someone wishing to pursue an artistic career?
Get involved in professional arts practice; volunteer, apply for exhibitions, residencies and internships. Organise yourselves ‒ generate your own projects, exhibitions and publications. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, start straight away.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don’t over focus on the outcome.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
Thank you, Lisa for your availability and wonderful company.