This month National Coordinator Julia Bell talks to Judith King and Timandra Nichols of Arts & Heritage about their work and how they bridge the gap between contemporary art, museums and heritage.
Julia: Judith/Tim, you both have a long history of commissioning contemporary art in offsite locations including museums and heritage sites, in particular across the north. What made you join forces and develop Arts & Heritage as an organisation?
We first worked together back in 1996, initiating and delivering Living at Belsay as part of Visual Arts UK. This event started an interest in presenting contemporary art in venues not traditionally known for showing work. This was a fairly new curatorial direction and English Heritage was one of the first organisations to embrace this new way of looking and interpreting history. Judith continued the programme at Belsay for 14 years, curating large scale shows such as Sitooteries, Fashion at Belsay, Picture House and ExtraOrdinary Measures, to great acclaim. These events proved that a historic house and garden provided a rich resource for artists, designers, architects and other creative professionals to make new work in response to its location and history. They also attracted large numbers of extra visitors.
Judith undertook a period of research into what else was happening within this curatorial area across the UK during 2007/8 and, following this period, Judith and Timandra developed a business case for a new agency – Arts&Heritage – which we set up formally in 2010.
Over the last 15 years we have both engaged in other different ways to offer opportunities for artists to create new work in response to heritage or unusual settings such as coastlines, metro stations, agricultural fairs and forests as well as bringing in existing works that respond to specific locations - Janet Cardiff’s Forty Part Motet at the Great Hall in Winchester (2012).
Both of us firmly believe that showing work in non-gallery situations increases the audience for contemporary art and also provides interesting opportunities for the production of new work
Julia: Who are your clients and what kind of work have you undertaken?
Our clients include a variety of heritage organisations and museums. We have worked for a long time with English Heritage at Belsay Hall, and more recently with the National Trust in the North of England. This work has involved working with a number of properties to identify how contemporary art can add to their visitor offer – there is no one solution, so we approach each property differently, listening to the challenges and the special characteristics of the place before presenting ideas for discussion that can be taken forward.
We have also worked with organisations such as Compton Verney, to look at how commissioning art can assist in developing a holistic offer across both house and grounds. We are currently working with the National Railway Museum in York, assisting them in developing a contemporary direction for their exhibition programme, as well as supporting the Cumbria Museum Consortium in selecting an artist as part of their contribution to New Expressions 3 (2015).
We also initiate our own projects, such as the Cultural Olympiad “The Great Boxing Booth Revival” - a contemporary take on the old boxing booths that travelled the fairgrounds during the 19th and 20th centuries. We commissioned new work from opera and dance companies as well as bringing in the martial arts and ancient sports such as Cumberland and Westmorland wrestling. We took the Boxing Booth (designed and made by artist Mel Brimfield) to large agricultural fairs and small village fetes as well as BALTIC centre for contemporary art during the summer of 2012.
We are currently working with Newcastle University developing an AHRC bid and planning for a conference in 2015 and planning for another A&H touring project to Northumberland agricultural fairs.
Julia: Arts Council England now have the responsibility for Museums alongside the Arts, and the visual arts sector and museums are often encouraged to collaborate. What potential do you see for museums/heritage sites to work with contemporary artists?
It goes without saying that museums and heritage sites offer wonderful opportunities for artists to respond to and there is immense scope for collaboration. However, it is important to acknowledge that any work must be sensitive to the needs of the museum and its visitors as well as respecting the fabric of buildings and grounds.
Previous programmes such as Museumaker and New Expressions have already demonstrated that artists can offer different and unusual ways of inviting visitors to look at and understand collections (see www.newexpressions.org). Our own work with artists and historic sites has been very successful in revealing different perspectives and narratives. Often there is an issue within the heritage and museum industry that visitors ‘scan’ – that is, don’t really take in or absorb the information or do not emotionally engage with it. Artists (of all disciplines) are able to bring a new way of looking and often suggest approaches that no-one has thought of before. We often quote artist Nathan Coley in our work – who said, “I do not make work that the public want, I make work the public realised they wanted all along.”
There is still huge potential within this area of working, especially within the smaller museums which often offer an unusual resource for artists to respond to.
For the larger sites there is also huge potential. For example, we have been working recently with the world heritage site Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal in Yorkshire who want to encourage visitors to explore further the exquisite eighteenth century pleasure grounds. Creating a new way of looking and animating some of their folly buildings and viewpoints will encourage that exploration. We are really looking forward to working with this National Trust site and the commissioned artists.
History is such a rich foundation upon which contemporary practice can respond – and for the museum and heritage sector there is a huge potential to increase their audience and for their context to be seen in a different way. In 2013 we worked with the Audience Agency on a contract that saw them identifying the cross over and potential for contemporary projects within heritage settings to attract different audiences. The results were very interesting – there really is a huge opportunity for both sectors to benefit from each other.
Julia: Do we still face barriers in developing projects, such as a common language or a shared purpose?
The main barriers probably are the usual ones – lack of funds and lack of capacity. Our experience shows that there is usually a willingness to embrace new ideas but a fear of dipping one’s toe into an area that will create more work and cost more money. Often the smaller museums or heritage sites have little time to develop projects and that is where we can assist. We have worked on strategic professional development programmes that offer insights into how to develop an arts project – this involves some very basic activity that explores why a museum might engage with contemporary art and also how to select an artist. We also encourage and introduce people to new ways of thinking about audience development by bringing people together such as artists/heritage staff or other curators and organisations so that they hear and learn from each other.
It is important to understand that the language used is often different, as are the drivers for developing projects. However a shared purpose can be achieved if both parties are very clear from the outset what the aims and objectives are. This will always necessitate some form of compromise, but hopefully never to the detriment of a good and innovative project.
Julia: what advice or guidance would you give artists/museums considering working together?
We have produced some guiding principles for working with heritage organisations as well as a number of case studies. We are adding more case studies from time to time.
These can be found on our website: www.artsandheritage.org.uk
We have also provided some links to toolkits that have been produced by other organisations; rather than re-inventing the wheel, it is useful to learn from other people’s experience.
We produce a monthly newsletter that highlights activity in the heritage field as well as providing links to events and exhibitions. Do sign up to receive this by emailing email@example.com and also let us know if you have an interesting project/event that we can include. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
We are always interested in hearing about other projects, artists and curators who work within this field. We do as much research as we can to identify those artists whose practice fits within the context in which we are working but we are also keen to spot the potential in an artist’s practice, which is why we work with a wide variety of visual artists, designers, performers, architects etc.
Our agency really offers professional advice on how to develop projects and how to find and engage with artists as well as initiating project ideas and steering them through. We really enjoy working within this particular area and working closely with people. We have been doing it for quite a long time now and we never tire of researching a new context, meeting organisations and getting a new project up and running.
Judith King is a mentor on the New Expressions 3 which establishes a national approach to collaboration between contemporary artists and museums. All details can be found here: www.newexpressions.org