Critical Mass: Making the Visual Visible

Carolyn Black examines the issues rural areas face when developing and hosting contemporary art programmes, taking our recent Critical Mass event as a starting point.

On arrival at the venue for Critical Mass: Making the Visual Visible (art outside urban contexts) we were greeted by a sign “Hestercombe Gardens: Paradise Restored”. The South West of England is notoriously rural, so it is not surprising to find so many art projects responding to Milton’s epic poem about the Fall of Man. And whilst we may enjoy living and working in this Garden of Eden, there are also terrible threats to Paradise. Those fears aren’t only felt in that mythical place – they are here today and threaten both our landscape and our arts ecology. So how can Hestercombe, a beautiful, newly opened gallery in rural Somerset, survive these challenges? How can the arts in a remote rural location work positively towards sustaining this ‘garden’ and also participate sufficiently within the material world to survive?

We had some excellent speakers in the room to debate these issues. Tim Martin is the curator of the new gallery space, in Hestercombe House, which first opened to the public in May this year. He gave a brief background to the house and gardens and referred to how the cutting-edge architects and landscape designers who created it were considered quite shocking in the eighteenth century. There had been a house on the site since c1280, but between 1725 and 1730 John Bampfylde took down most of the early part of the house and put on a typical Georgian facade with wings on either side - which still survives. It was shortly after this, in the 1750s, that Coplestone Warre Bampfylde created the fantastic landscape. Visitors even fainted at the sight of it.

The material world often shocks us. Artist Alastair Gentry pointed out that this fainting continues to happen with art, such as the Myra Hindley painting by Marcus Harvey in Sensation (1997). I prefer to think of it as swooning.

Swooning apart, we do have to operate within this material world and there was much debate about the economic difficulties of how contemporary art can survive in a rural context. Mark Segal, Director - The Artists Agency, who used to be the Director of Artsway in the New Forest, shared with the audience some of the challenges that Artsway faced. Their funding, ironically, did not allow them to be commercial, so they hosted artists in residence. This limited their activity and ability to generate income.  Eventually, they secured a place at Venice, which one would have expected to up the ante on their commercial viability. But sadly it didn’t and they eventually lost their Arts Council funding and had to close.

That conversation led onto discussion about the art markets and the London-centric nature of buyers and collectors. An interesting point was raised – that it is not true that there are no significant art collectors living in the countryside – they do – but the issue is they buy in London at the art fairs etc. They move to the rural areas to escape the London scene, so are unlikely to want to raise their heads above the parapet to support local galleries. An excellent suggestion was mooted – go to London to meet those collectors. They may live in the locality, but they operate beyond it. And so must we.

Tom Freshwater, Contemporary Arts Programme Manager, National Trust, contributed his acquired knowledge about attracting audiences to heritage locations. He has collated substantial evidence that critical mass can be grown, but it takes time. His experience is that new audiences are hard to come by and each place is different. When the artworks installed in a place have a direct relationship with the buildings the audiences can relate to them. At first, Barrington Court struggled to gain new arts audiences, until Field by Anthony Gormley arrived. Field connected with people, it reflected the many owners that had once lived there, or visitors that had passed through. History linked with the now and contributed to building up new relationships. And, importantly, nearby arts partners helped to cross-pollinate audiences.

Artist Alastair Gentry contributed to the dialogue about how artists survive in remote places by giving an artists perspective, particularly on residencies. There was a consensus in the room that residencies are brilliant BUT they could be construed as a privilege for some. Many residencies only provide accommodation and meals, without a fee. Fine if you don’t have to continue to pay rent in your absence, or have a family to feed at home. Mark also voiced the problems that residencies imposed when selecting artists, especially for artists with young families. They simply could not be accommodated. Tim pointed out that artist Jo Lathwood is currently in residence at Hestercombe. But it is not easy - partly because the house has 90 rooms yet no storage at all. And of course it is a listed building, with small doorways, making installing large works challenging, if not impossible.

With regards to Satan poisoning paradise, that is something that was raised (metaphorically of course) when Alexa De Ferranti - Artist and Director of Lower Hewood Farm spoke. Her projects are supported by the Land Workers’ Alliance who make it their business to ensure farms are ethically and sustainably run and respect the environment. (NOT to be confused with the Countryside Alliance!) The farm has an interest in communities and alternative living and sets out to examine the cultural side of agriculture. To do so, Alexa has done exactly what Tom advised to gain audiences, she has linked with Dorset Art Weeks and open studios, Open Farm Sunday annual events and worked with partners such as Shioban Davies dance company. They host artists in residence and also open their doors to families for Film Festivals and other community events.

The panel discussed other models of good practice in rural areas. Grizedale is always raised at this point, but it was notable that the more recent additions that are running successful programmes are mostly in Scotland. Hospitalfield Arts, near Arbroath, directed by ex-Spike Island Director Lucy Byatt, is representing Scotland at Venice with Graham Fagen. They have a house, a mortuary chapel and studios.

Deveron Arts has no building, their strapline is “The Town is the Venue” – functioning in a similar way to the Sculpture Projects Münster. Deveron engages throughout the town and community and do a substantial amount of socially-engaged work, such as the “Walking Institute” and a project called the “Shadow Curator” based on the idea of a Shadow MP.

Cove Park in Helingsborough was also discussed. Cove has had a many artists in residence since it opened in 1999. Time spent there unlocks the artists’ practice, providing time and space to focus.

All of the above mentioned organisations have two things in common – they host residences and they work internationally. I have heard it said many times that the arts in Scotland are so far from mainland UK that reaching out internationally is their preferred path. It’s an interesting perspective – maybe here in the South-West we should be looking out to Europe and beyond? We hardly even engage with Wales, yet it is close enough to share audiences. With Hauser and Wirth just opened in Somerset, now is a good time to build networks.

The intention of the day was to explore relevant models of practice to inform the development and vision for Hestercombe. Many useful conversations were had and the key issues include: being relevant to place; to be sure that residencies are well supported and create impact through collaboration. In terms of the rural nature of the location, it will be important to connect locally, nationally and internationally. Work wider than nearby and take the story of Hestercombe to other places, the reputation will travel and go viral.


Carolyn Black has extensive experience of the arts sector – initially as an artist, then as a writer, educator, mentor, project manager, curator and producer. For the last fourteen years she has been producing contemporary visual arts projects in unusual locations - beaches and woodlands, canal-sides, cranes and redundant buildings.

Images: These images are taken from the same room - one inside, an artwork by Mark Hosking, and the other from the window, showing the glorious gardens. The juxtaposition of the two tells a story of changing landscapes and cultures. How do we encourage those outside to enter our world?



A podcast of the whole event is available to listen to here:  http://timmartin.podomatic.com/entry/2014-07-28T09_48_42-07_00

What's On

Family Saturdays

Aspex Gallery, The Vulcan, PO1 3BF

Monday 01 October 2018 – Thursday 31 October 2019

Craft Workshops

Various Venues

Friday 08 February 2019 – Tuesday 31 December 2019

Jon England: Hour Hands

Market House Museum, 32 Swain St, Watchet TA23 0AD

Wednesday 27 March 2019 – Friday 08 November 2019

Visual Arts South West

Working towards a South West where talented artists thrive, and a resilient and connected visual arts ecology that inspires more engaged and diverse audiences to value and advocate for its work.

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