Getting Back to where Appleton belongs, interview with Vera Appleton

It was born as Appleton Square, added a Box, then a Garage, and today it continues to reinvent itself. Appleton is a venue that brings today’s art world into context through the seamless coming together of different artistic pursuits, including visual and performing arts with an experimental edge. Nourished by interpersonal relationships, memories, affections and friendships, the artists claim to feel at home, and the team is daily in love with the project that, without this commitment, would hardly be able to fight for subsidiary backing. Just days away from its sixteenth anniversary, Appleton reopens doors to celebrate the programme’s resurgence; a testament to the stoicism of those who, in the background, championing culture, the recognition of others and the promotion of audiences, consider it all a delight and, more than that, a duty.

How did Vera get into the art world?

Despite having studied social communication, attracted by the innovative side of marketing and advertising, I soon realised that I was acquiring skills associated with irrational consumerism rather than stimulating more cognitive features. This is how my interest in cultural marketing came about. Through the work I did in this context and in strategic design, I matured my will to establish a cultural venue.

And that was when Appleton came about?

Yes, it was when I decided to become self-employed. At that time, not knowing how to manage a project of this size, I started nurturing the idea through references and collaborations. Upon finding these facilities, the alignment was perfect. Despite my proximity to theatre and performing arts, the atmosphere in this place has always been very appealing for visual arts. Cristina Guerra was an inspiration and a vital contributor to Appleton. She supported me in programming for two years and the doors opened in 2007 with Laurence Weiner.

What are Appletons core values that distinguish it from other venues in this sector?

Appleton privileges artists, in a balance between the freedom of artistic practice – always computed according to an ethical and professional responsibility, honouring Appleton’s values as a place dedicated to the promotion of art – and the quest for coherence and logic in programming, which is also liberating. The strategy is to put the focus on good teams and working conditions that can guarantee, motivate and dignify the artistic endeavour, while allowing the author to create autonomously without compromising the experimental and genuine character.

In Appletons history, what moments have redefined the project?

There have been three. The first in 2017-2018, when we adopted a non-profit model. On the one hand, we had a very thriving relationship with artists, but on a financial level we were going through some difficulties. We couldn’t apply for support, nor were we recognised as a gallery. The solution was either to become a commercial gallery – the opposite of everything I had always stood for – or to redefine ourselves. And the catharsis happened: the programming was transformed, the training cycles were left behind, and the dynamics started to happen on all the floors. The Garage was also born, due to our need to return to the essence of music, theatre and performance, to which I invited David Maranha and Manuel Mota to do the programming.

The second moment was in 2020 with the pandemic and the forced interruption of the programming. During that stillness, and to give a voice to those who didn’t have one at the time, the Appleton podcast was born. Although it was a pre-2020 idea, it became obvious given the isolation. It continues to grow to this day, with guests related to contemporary art who share with us their work and other related matters.

Finally, a third moment, which is still ongoing, related to the dependence on State support. We lost an essential aid for the 2023 programming. We still need to secure a second, more symbolic, support, but only from June. This has caused a half-year hiatus in our activity, forcing us to reinvent ourselves. We had to close our doors, a gesture that we also took as political. Our spirit became even stronger, we wanted to preserve our artists’ fees, working conditions and quality. We can’t back down on certain things. But the question remains: what if we don’t get support in June? What if the State refuses to fund us again?

Nevertheless, we are approaching Appletons anniversary. Against all odds, how has this 2023 celebration and programming been thought out?

The 16th anniversary launch takes place on April 10, on the anniversary day. We couldn’t be shut out on this date. We will have a Get Back which, after that, will once a year feature authors who have been here before at Appleton. The curator is Carolina Trigueiros, who calls specific artists and generates a synergy between the two moments – how they were 10 years ago and what has changed in their artistic practice. Vera Mota will return like this in June and, in the meantime, to bolster the celebration, we’ll have a Get Back with Susana Mendes Silva.

The 2023 programme, unlike the garage, which is mostly international, will have a Portuguese and intergenerational outline. Some of the artistic bridges between Appleton Square and the Box have works by Pedro Tudela and Sara Mealha; Patrícia Garrido and Sara Chang Yang; Vasco Araújo and Isabel Cordovil; António Julio Duarte and Gisela Casimiro; among others.

Appletons reach is visible in multiple partnerships. Can you briefly tell us about the consolidated ties and their ramifications?

Appleton has multiple partnerships nationally and internationally, which can either be exchanges of artists and exhibitions with other institutions, often in an artist residency format; or include itinerancies. This year we started a partnership with Ateliê Fidalga in São Paulo, to where we will send João Pimenta Gomes, on a creative residency with project presentation; and we will host Ding Musa for an exhibition in September. There are also other exchanges with the London venue SE8; and, in Portugal, with Córtex Frontal in Arroiolos. For the Itinerâncias project, we have collaboration with Fábrica da Criatividade, in Castelo Branco, or ARS Investigação e Desenvolvimento, in Fundão, for which we do programming two or three times a year. We must highlight the Fundación Didac which, more than the place where we took the artists Ângela Ferreira, Fernanda Fragateiro and Luisa Cunha, is a sister-partner in the ways of doing and thinking.

Another initiative is the Appleton grant, the result of the willingness to support a Portuguese artist and resident in Portugal to live abroad for five months. The project was launched in 2018, although due to the pandemic it only started at the end of 2022. The elected city was Brussels and the grant awarded to the artist Ramiro Guerreiro, who will come soon to the podcast to share his experience. At the moment, the second edition is being thought about.

Appleton also has educational action through the Sandbox project. What is the role of education in Appletons mission? And what are the fruits of this?

All venues where art is presented to the public should mandatorily have an educational project. It is through education that we can change the way arts and culture are seen, even from a political standpoint. In this context, the Sandbox project was born, a connection to universities and high schools that work with our team – Joana Patrão and José Costa – in certain exhibitions and also organize guided tours. It is an experimental environment, where QR codes are accessible in the venue to share information about the artists and exhibitions, challenging the public to engage more interactively. Despite not having a long life span and being suspended, the project has provided very interesting experiences, and today it is a starting point for us to think about other programmes and come up with more appropriate models.

Are there any dreams you still want to fulfil?

This place will always be the heart of Appleton. But, if I am allowed to dream, I imagine going beyond this physical building and growing as a cultural centre and a meeting place for education and community. This idea includes the dream of living in a country that appreciates culture and allows me – and everyone in this field – not to depend on the State and on a system of subsidies, which currently define my dreams, my growth or my end.

Master in Curatorial Studies from the University of Coimbra, and with a degree in Photography from the Portuguese Institute of Photography in Porto, and in Cultural Planning and Management, Mafalda develops her work in the areas of production, communication and activation, within the scope of Photography Festivals and Visual Arts - Encontros da Imagem, in Braga (Portugal) and Fotofestiwal, in Lodz (Poland). She also collaborated with Porto / Post / Doc: Film & Media Festival and Curtas Vila do Conde-Festival Internacional de Cinema. In 2020, and she was one of those responsible for the curatorial project of the exhibition “AEIOU: Os Espacialistas em Pro (ex)cess”, developed at Colégio das Artes, University of Coimbra. As a photographer, she was involved in laboratory projects of analogue photography and educational programs for Silverlab (Porto) and Passos Audiovisuais Associação Cultural (Braga), while dedicating herself to photography in a professional format or, spontaneously, in personal projects.

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