William Wilkins, Welsh artist and cultural consultant, describes how his involvement with Cardiff University led to becoming an Honorary Fellow.
I am an artist and heritage and culture consultant. I often use the term impresario of my consultancy work because I put ideas, money and expertise together. I don’t feel that I have any of them myself. I rely on other people for all that. My connections to the University were originally as an artist, but subsequently they owe much more to my activities as a culture consultant.
I was a member of the 56 Group Wales in the early 1970s, which was a pioneering group of contemporary Welsh artists. It was a time when there was no sense of the vibrant visual culture of contemporary Wales. I came across the university because a lecturer in the French department, Raymond Eyquem, was tremendously interested in the visual arts. Such people really were few and far between. Raymond was working to encourage the university to play a role in the visual arts. He had arranged for the Viriamu Jones space in the Main Building to function as a gallery and he organized exhibitions there which included the 56 Group.
There was then quite a long break in my involvement which lasted until 1992 when I started work on the National Botanic Garden of Wales at Middleton Hall. In the course of putting together the team of people needed to develop the project, I was introduced to Professor Diane Edwards of the Earth Sciences Department. She became one of the most valuable and expert members of the development team. Through her, I also met Professor D Q Bowen, a geologist, and other Cardiff University staff related to botany and geology.
My engagement with the university then moved from botanical sciences to cultural activity. In 2001, I was developing the idea for Artes Mundi, the international art prize, and I became anxious to demonstrate to Welsh institutions the value of visual culture both for itself and for the economy. Being visual in a society that has traditionally been uninterested and relatively inactive in visual culture, I have a slightly crusading spirit. I wanted to carry the prize’s potential out to other institutions, institutions of higher education in Wales. I approached Cardiff University to see if there were ways in which the university, albeit not having a fine art department or anything of the sort, would recognize its value and become involved. I was able to do so through my friendship with Professor Teresa Rees who I knew through the board of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. She was enthusiastic about the work I’d done in restoring Aberglasney. I approached her, and she gave me further introductions, particularly to her fellow Pro Vice Chancellor, Professor Ken Woodhouse. They organized a presentation at which interested staff from the university could learn about Artes Mundi. The turnout was astonishing. I was very impressed by the evidence of wide-ranging intellectual interest from so many different disciplines. We now have tremendously good relations with various departments and in due course, through the Vice Chancellor David Grant, the relationship escalated in a delightful way. Indeed, the university is now a partner of Artes Mundi.
These are the threads that led to my now permanent connection to Cardiff University as an Honorary Fellow, which took place in 2007. I think it was doubly an honour for me because I’d come to know such a wide range of professors and lecturers and to very much admire the university’s standards.
The occasion was a marvelous one. Distinguished friends had received this honour and I knew that I was in very good company. The warmth of the occasion, too, made it special. As an artist of no particular intellectual distinction, I felt the honour acutely and, when speaking on these occasions, I make a point of stressing to those who are unhappy about their degrees that I simply had a pass from the Royal College of Art, but I still have been able to go on and make something of my life.
I think the breadth of my acquaintance with the university has been stimulating. Though a painter, a huge part of my life has been spent working with good brains from other disciplines. I think what has been unique to me in my relationship with the university, and I hope will continue to distinguish it, is that I have such a wide range of friends and contacts. There’s a sense that it is an academic institution where disciplines really connect with one another and the outside world.
As 125 years passes and the Cardiff University looks to the future, I hope it continues to rise up the world league table of universities. Cardiff’s intellectual standing is vital for Wales, both for the perception of Wales and for what it actually feeds into the Welsh knowledge economy.