mac arts
West Midlands

In January 2012 I was invited to attend and write about a conference organised by Designer Maker West Midlands (DMWM) entitled New Contexts: Contemporary craft in historic settings. The conference took place at MAC, formerly Midlands Arts Centre, in Birmingham, and was eagerly attended by a bustling crowd of practitioners, curators and representatives from a variety of craft/art organisations.

Directed by Heather Rigg, DMWM has supported numerous makers over the years encouraging artistic development through events, networking and funding opportunities. New Contexts was born out of New Routes (a DMWM research project undertaken by Barbara Gunter-Jones which sought to investigate new pathways for making work) and provided an opportunity for artists to exchange knowledge, experience and ways of making new work in historic settings.

I have always been fascinated by the relationships between contemporary arts/crafts and the heritage sector. It seems to me as though England has a wealth of treasures hidden in some of the world’s most remarkable properties, and that a creative project is the perfect excuse to show them in a new light. Perhaps the creations of today can form new conversations with the creations of yesterday, giving new relevance to history. As our first guest speaker Kate Stoddart said in her introductory talk: “In the past, all art was contemporary”. What better place to present a contemporary exhibition than amongst the ancestors of art – the museums and collections of the UK?

As an independent curator, Kate Stoddart has worked with a number of artists to produce a variety of projects. Amongst those discussed at New Contexts was a commission for Nottingham Castle with the Danish artist Peter Callesen. Asked to respond to the property’s extensive Wedgwood collection, the artist took an unusual approach. Not convinced that Wedgewood was for him, he began with an old door left in the grounds of the castle and used it as a starting point for the work. This particular example demonstrates the way in which artists are able to respond to any project, regardless of how interesting they find the stimulus. Such inventive problem solving might be seen as a strength for many historic properties; to find new ways into talking about heritage is a crucial part of keeping the past alive today and encouraging audience growth.

But not all opportunities come through open doors. A point repeatedly raised throughout the day was the importance of being proactive. As a curator, Kate sought out projects with the Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, proposing to build on their existing interest in contemporary art. A historic property has a different set of rules to that of a gallery; negotiations must take place, and relationships formed between those who work there. There’s a constant sense that projects evolve in spaces like these, which have a life of their own, and unfortunately the project at Chatsworth was unable to come to completion. However, the experience was not lost and valuable lessons were learned. The project also provided the chance to think on a bigger scale and look beyond the walls of the property and into it’s past.

Also driven by the desire to make “bigger work” was Jeweller, Laura Baxter, second guest speaker at New Contexts. She introduced her project at 78 Derngate, Northampton – a house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh – and spoke about the progression her work took from small-scale jewellery to a large wall installation. Inspired by botanical forms and nature, Laura’s work investigates the narratives and relationships formed between different plants, and celebrates shape, line and graphic form. She makes everything by hand and the wall piece for 78 Derngate grew quite literally out of a multiplication of the single object; an appropriate form of organic growth for an object inspired by nature.

78 Derngate was Laura’s first public art commission and has provided her with insight, experience and skills in the field. Drawn to the space by its history and location, Laura designed Leaf Fall, a waterfall of leaves cascading down an interior wall. It was a well-earned piece, as the application procedure cost much in the way of time and hard work. If one thing stood out during Laura’s talk it was the distance she was willing to travel without a guaranteed reward at the end of the application stage. Such an example is worth taking note of; the first stage of application, the ‘expression of interest’, is crucial to applicants and judges – the more you can give the better. Many of these properties need a little extra convincing; it may not be the curators you’re trying to win over but the gardener, or builder, or property manager. In a non-conventional art space other factors count. It’s important, therefore, to be completely sure you want the project and, as Laura advised, visit the place and talk to the staff – can you work with them, is this somewhere you can contribute to?

Compromise is a necessary middle ground occupied by most artists and curators at some point during a project. Working within the heritage sector this becomes a little more prominent. Up against a tight budget and an unsuspecting audience can be challenging enough, but many buildings of historic value have serious restrictions when it comes to installing new work. You can’t just knock a nail into the wall whenever you feel like it – so problem solving is key! Learning to take new routes, manage the expectations of various staff members and complete the paperwork is all par for the course when working within this sector. But the payoffs were definitely worth it for Laura, who went on to work at The Bowes Museum with Museumaker and invest her portfolio in new, expanding public projects.

With the opportunity to use new materials and techniques, forge good commercial links and bring some wonderful collections to life, working in the heritage sector can provide great possibilities and be a good way to further your career. Linda Florence, Designer of bespoke hand printed wallpaper and installation artwork, spoke at New Contexts about the way working for venues such as the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) and National Trusts Tattershall Castle (Lincolnshire) enabled her to see the world afresh.

Her early piece, Sugar Dance, began life in a Church hall in Scotland. A dusting of sugar was sieved through carefully crafted templates of ornate patterns, leaving a beautiful crystalline coating across the hall floor. These temporary patterns were then left to blur into the night as two dancers swept across them in time to music. By its very nature Sugar Dance is ethereal and momentary, but it is not confined entirely to memory and can be re-staged in the appropriate setting. Such a setting presented itself a few years later and led to an event at the V&A in which the dance floor was explored on a larger scale, with a bigger audience.

And its not just the size of work that can grow in a public domain, the time span of a piece can also develop. For example during “The House of Bling”, an exhibition at Tattershall Castle, Linda hand cut a pattern in the grass inspired by a piece of ceramic. When the grass began to grow and the artist had left the work did not cease to be – staff members and volunteers made it their own, cutting images into the ground for Halloween events and parties.

Another form of growth that seemed to occur for artists working in the public sector was an increase in publicity. Getting your name out there can be an arduous task as an artist, but working for the heritage sector provides a great way to reach new people. New people also bring new things to the table, and as both Linda Florence and Laura Baxter discovered during their commissions, new people create new inspirations.

At the end of the day, as New Contexts wound up, the three guest speakers took some last questions and gave some lasting advice. From this discussion I’d like to highlight a few brief points. Firstly, it was widely agreed that as a creative practitioner in any sector it is important to be flexible and realistic. Often it is easy to get caught up in the idea of the project and not focus enough on how the project might come into being. It’s always good to remind yourself of your skill-set, have realistic expectations of the client (and vice versa), and not be afraid to make suggestions when something does not sit right with you. In addition, properties are beginning to gain more autonomy, especially within the National Trust who have seen a surge in contemporary art orientated programmes recently, and it can be worth writing to properties to begin dialogue even when opportunities are not advertised. Finally, though it can be daunting and hard work, starting up a dialogue with the heritage sector can be a solid investment for the future. Many artists find that it goes a long way to proving their capability in the commercial sector, and as DMWM demonstrated so well at New Contexts, towards seeing their practice in a new light.

For any National Trust related enquiries contact Kate Stoddart: [email protected]