Meet the Partners: Sunderland Culture

23 June 2020

In a new blog series, we hear from the teams behind our current National Partners Programme to find out more about their unique museum and gallery venues. First up, Posy Jowett, Public Engagement and Learning Officer at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens shares her experiences and insights working on the programme, as well as her personal highlights and route into the museum sector.

Sunderland Culture is one of three current Arts Council Collection National Partners and operates a number of venues across the city, including National Glass Centre and Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art as well as Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, with a combined audience of over 700,000. Over the next three years, Sunderland Culture will produce an ambitious programme of exhibitions and projects aimed at connecting the Arts Council Collection to diverse audiences who otherwise would have limited opportunities to experience it.


ACC: Can you tell us a little bit about your venue and what makes it special?


PJ: I work from Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens which is a beautiful old building right by Sunderland’s main shopping streets, home to the spectacular Winter Gardens, which houses heat and humidity loving plants and a pond full of Koi Fish! Every so often the gardener will ask me if I want a banana leaf or a huge piece of bamboo – I always say yes.

In the museum, we hold extensive collections which tell the story of Sunderland, which used to be a busy port town with lots of local industry. We have gorgeous art collections – including an extensive Lowry collection – and an exhibitions gallery where the Arts Council Collection Exhibitions and other temporary exhibitions are shown. In Sunderland, residents have a soft spot for the Museum. In living memory it’s always been free to enter and so lots of families bring their children along, teenagers use it to escape from the rain, and older people use it as a meeting place.


ACC: Can you describe your route into working in the museum sector and your current role at Sunderland Culture?

I loved art at school and studied Fine Art for my BA – but when I was there I realised that I didn’t love making art as much as I loved designing exhibitions, and talking and writing about artwork. I went on to study Cultural Heritage Management for my MA, and alongside my studies I picked up work in the Front of House team at a theatre in Newcastle. I continued working in theatre for a number of years as Deputy Front of House Manager (including taking our shows on tour to the Edinburgh Fringe!), and as a freelance Stage Manager with a local theatre company.

I built a huge portfolio of work and volunteer projects, as well as building two small businesses. I was also part of Team Juice – the group of young people who co-ordinated Juice Festival in Newcastle Gateshead every year during October half term. On this team, I met Rachel Hamer – now Young People and Communities Producer at Sunderland Culture. Rachel spotted an opportunity for me at Arts Centre Washington as Participation Co-Ordinator, and I was able to consolidate what were nine jobs at that time down to three!

The Arts Council Collection : Meet the Partners: Sunderland Culture

Within my current role, as Public Engagement and Learning Officer with Sunderland Culture, I'm working on the National Partners Programme, as part of a dedicated and ambitious team, whcih was a total dream job! A role working with high quality artworks and my local communities was the perfect challenge for me – and my experience of juggling multiple projects has definitely come in handy!

I work as part of a learning team at Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens, and more widely than that as part of a learning and education team across Sunderland Culture. 

I get to work closely with the Learning Manager for Arts Council Collection, Nat Walton, and with learning teams across the NPP venues. I really enjoy being part of this big extended team network!

My role is to introduce our local Sunderland communities to the works of the Arts Council Collection. I do this by working with specific groups on projects, as well as with the general public through family arts activities, tours and school visits. Some days I am beavering away in the office, contracting artists and planning activities, and other days I’ll be with hundreds of members of the public getting crafty! I love the variety of work I get to do in my role.

The Arts Council Collection : Meet the Partners: Sunderland Culture


ACC: What is Sunderland's best kept cultural secret?

PJ: Last year I coordinated ‘People’s Pyrex’ – a community exhibition of Pyrex dishes loaned to us from the back of pantries from across Sunderland. Sunderland’s Pyrex factory supplied Pyrex across the world for almost 100 years until the factory closed in 2007.

Friendships, relationships and families were forged and connected by Pyrex: from the domestic patterned pieces that were gifted at weddings and from which Sunday’s dinner would be served, to the handcrafted pieces made for loved ones on the factory floor during workers’ breaks.

What surprised me the most when we were collecting pieces for the exhibition was the number of bespoke and handmade objects made by Pyrex workers alongside those mass produced pieces. Sunderland has always been the home to craftspeople and makers! Find out more about ‘People’s Pyrex’ in this podcast I recorded with Arty Parti: listen here.

ACC: What is your favourite work in the Arts Council Collection and why?

PJ: One of the things I love the most about working with the Arts Council Collection is knowing that I am yet to discover pieces that might become my favourite! Having said that, my  favourite moment from last year was exploring Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008) for the first time at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) with the most fantastic group – Sunderland’s Art Champions.

We had travelled to visit the Arts Council Collection's Longside Gallery and sculpture centre and were able to spend the afternoon in the autumn sunshine, meandering around YSP. Seizure is a bedsit flat, carved from a condemned block in London and rehomed in Yorkshire, and it is filled from top to bottom with electric blue copper sulphate crystals. Walking through the space you’re confronted with the familiar – light switches, dado rails, a bathtub – but they have been transformed into this magical otherworldly version of themselves. For most of our Art Champions it was the highlight of their day, and I remember Debs (one of the Art Champions) saying to me that she didn’t know that art could do that. Watching Debs and the others discover the possibilities of art through this work, reignited my own feelings for the power and potential of art. So – for the time being – Seizure is my favourite work in the Arts Council Collection!

The Arts Council Collection : Meet the Partners: Sunderland Culture

ACC: What’s your favourite thing about being an ACC National Partner?

PJ: I remember vividly the first time I spoke on the phone with Beth, one of the Arts Council Collection Curators, when we selected artworks to show our Art Champions for our visits to the ACC stores.

We settled on a work by Francis Bacon, a work by Bridget Riley, and a piece by Wolfgang Tillmans amongst others. I studied these artists at school and thought back ten years to what my seventeen-year-old self would have thought about this phone call!

The other thing I appreciate about being an ACC National Partner is the opportunities it’s given me and my team to try new things and to take risks. We’re able to work closely, over long periods, with individuals and communities and watch them change and grow as a result of working with us. I feel like I’m constantly learning about myself and the people I share my city with – and that is really satisfying!


WATCH: 'Welcome to the Collection' follows the journey of Sunderland residents as they delve into the world of contemporary and modern art through the Arts Council Collection.

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The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.