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National Museum of Art opens its doors

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Laura Chamberlain Laura Chamberlain | 15:10 UK time, Friday, 8 July 2011

The best of Wales' contemporary visual art now has a new, fresh and modern home at the National Museum of Art in Cardiff.

The new National Museum of Art occupies the entire first floor of the National Museum Cardiff in Cathays Park. Us press types were allowed a sneaky peek round yesterday morning before it opens to the general public tomorrow, Saturday 9 July.

Now, let's get this straight. This may not be the most objective blog post as I've always loved going to the National Museum in Cardiff. One of my fondest memories from my childhood is one of my little sister being scared witless by the roaring woolly mammoth, mean as that may sound.

A gallery in the West Wing, the contemporary arts space at the National Museum of Art. Photo: Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

A gallery in the West Wing, the contemporary arts space at the National Museum of Art. Photo: Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

It's been a while since I paid a visit so I was really looking forward to the opportunity to see the new gallery space. And though I'm certainly not an expert in the field of visual art, it really didn't disappoint.

Whereas previously it had only one gallery to showcase its contemporary art, the museum now has six enormous interconnecting galleries to show its modern wares. Before we were shown the contemporary wing we were given a tour of the entire gallery space at the museum.

We started on the balcony area, which now houses the museum's British and European ceramics and silver collection, before being guided into the Historic Galleries. This is where you can see art that explores Tudor and Stuart Wales and European Old Master paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries.

Image of the historic galleries. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

The historic galleries at the museum. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

We then moved into the 'art in 18th century Britain gallery', which features the work of Wales-born painter Richard Wilson and the collection of Sir Watkins Williams-Wynn, before taking a look in the Welsh landscapes gallery.

In here, the 2002 contemporary work by Welsh artist Carwyn Evans, Unlliw, has been reconstructed amongst the paintings and ornate columns of the gallery.

Unlliw is an installation of 6,500 cardboard bird boxes that addresses the debate about how planning policies can impact on the cultural balance of rural areas - a direct reaction by the artist to the then proposed building of 6,500 new homes in his home county of Ceredigion.

Carwyn Evans, Unlliw, 2002-2005. Image © the artist

Carwyn Evans, Unlliw, 2002-2005. Image © the artist

The installation even obscures one of the paintings - hitting home the idea of a housing development flooding into the Welsh landscape.

After this we had a brief walk through the centre galleries, which were refurbished and redisplayed last year. (During this a slightly late Ivor Davies stumbled through, interrupting the keeper of art Oliver Fairclough's talk with the enquiry of whether he was too late for the breakfast that had been laid on as part of the event!)

The centre galleries are where the Davies' sisters collection of art proudly sits.

The French Impressionism and Post Impressionism gallery. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

The French Impressionism and Post Impressionism gallery. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

There's a lovely timeline that tells visitors when the sisters bought notable paintings and also a screen that displays some of their family photos. It's a nice touch, and visitors can get a real sense of who these remarkable women - who went on to amass one of the greatest collections of French Impressionist paintings - really were.

We then headed to the pièce de résistance: the West Wing, the new home for contemporary art. No Martin Sheen jokes please.

The light is the first thing that hits you: it's bright and impressive, and the lightboxes in the ceiling makes the space look even fresher.

The West Wing at National Museum Wales. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

The West Wing. Photo © Amgueddfa Cymru -- National Museum Wales

The clean white walls really accentuate the art works and there's a lovely flow to the place too, as the different gallery spaces are all interconnected through flights of stairs and open large double doors.

Nick Thornton is the head of modern and contemporary art at National Museum Wales. He explained a little about the lay-out of the West Wing, told me what he thinks is one of the must-see exhibits in the new contemporary gallery and explained how the National Museum of Art is working with emerging new artists:

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All images in the slideshow are courtesy of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales and copyright of the respective artists

I also spoke to emerging contemporary artists Manon Awst and Benjamin Walther, collaborators who share their time between Caernarfon and Berlin. They have a sculpture and a painting on show in the West Wing, and Benjamin told me more about the latter, entitled Shine For Me:

"The painting is a piece in its own right, even though it strongly corresponds with the sculpture on display, and talks about the absence of the body. If you look on to it you see a shadow or a ghostly figure marked out with fragile, tender marker pen lines and there is a piece of clothing applied onto the canvas which suggests a three dimensional aspect of it, and the materialisation of something which was there."

Manon added: "I also think it talks about the breaking down of the body, and in a way it connects it to our work in general as it talks about the individual in our current society. So in relation to the exhibition, which talks of roots and identity, in a world where we're moving around so much it's questioning where our base is."

Manon Awst and Benjamin's Walther's work on display at the National Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the artists and Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Manon Awst and Benjamin's Walther's work on display at the National Museum of Art. Image copyright of the artists and courtesy of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales

Benjamin also gave his opinion on the National Museum of Art: "The interconnection between contemporary art practice coming out of Wales and the connection with international artists not living in Wales, that's something quite unique and new for Wales and very important."

There is also a dedicated learning space in the gallery for the first time, where schoolchildren and families will be able to get creative and learn about the exhibits in the museum. Arts learning officer, Eleri Evans, told me more about it and encouraged families to turn up for the opening day activities on Saturday:

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And before I left, Mike Tooby (the director of learning, programmes and development) told me a little of what National Museum Wales has planned for the future:

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Visit the museum's website, www.museumwales.ac.uk, for more - and if you do visit the National Museum of Art in the near future, tell us what you think of it by leaving a comment below.

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