I belong to an organisation called Designer Maker West Midlands, and from time to time they organise various seminars. In the Peak District, an area which stretches across quite a lot of Derbyshire, Cheshire, South Yorkshire and the Staffordshire Moorlands, and which is surrounded by a number of large towns and cities (Buxton, Macclesfield, Sheffield, Manchester, and many others), there are a fair number of historic houses and estates which are a wonderful day out and a chance to see our amazing heritage in land, architecture and objects.
Some of these historic houses are now owned by the National Trust, whilst others are still in private hands, but open to the public (a much-needed source of income!). Other places are under the protection of English Heritage.
In the UK, we are so fortunate to have many of these wonderful properties still available to visit and enjoy, but they are not preserved in aspic! In order to keep them attractive to people, and as a way of providing extra interest to visitors, and gaining repeat visitors, many of these properties are becoming sites of contemporary art, utilising house, gardens, and landscapes.
This particular seminar was to introduce designer makers in my area to the inside story of how to work with these various bodies to get the best results for both contemporary art and the historic site. On this occasion, there were three speakers, curator, Kate Stoddart; jeweller/public art maker, Laura Baxter; and contemporary artist/public art maker, Linda Florence.
Each speaker presented their work with the various historic houses they have worked with, giving the audience insights into how best to put their work across to volunteers within the historic houses, the funding bodies and the audience.
The most important element is two-way communication – ensuring that expectations are managed from everyone’s perspective. There are many restrictions in what can be done (usually Not done) to the fabric of the building, for obvious reasons. However this can lead to creative solutions for siting work.
Everyone needs to understand what the work is about and why it is there. That means all the volunteers who help with the stewarding of the work, everyone involved in the installation, and the publicity people who are helping to educate the public. There needs to be lots of integration with the publicity department so that the visitors are not taken aback by suddenly coming across contemporary art which they weren’t expecting in a historic setting.
This was something I hadn’t appreciated. If the public aren’t aware that there is contemporary art in such a setting, they may well dismiss it before considering further. If they are made aware about the art before the visit, or at the beginning of the visit, they are much more accepting of the juxtaposition.
So to my mind, this is a way of acclimatising a broader swathe of the general public about art. Many people visit period houses, and this is increasing as a result of several high-quality productions of period dramas such as the recent Downton Abbey series on ITV. People expect to see a certain style of building and gardens. If there is contemporary art within these settings, it needs to be done in a sensitive way that allows the two styles to work well together, sometimes in obvious juxtaposition, sometimes very discretely.
It’s certainly something to think about as a maker, especially with such a diverse range of properties, gardens and landscapes that we are so fortunate to enjoy in the UK.