Rebecca Spooner, Arts Development Manager, reports on a visit to Fermynwoods Contemporary Art in Northamptonshire and Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridgeshire.
Artist Morag Colquhoun, was at the wheel as we made a four-hour trip east, to the flat fields of Bedfordshire. Our mutual friend and artist, Jackie Chettur, kindly put us up for two nights in her beautiful home, Gardener’s Cottage, on the Woodbury Hall estate, near Sandy.
Jackie and I met on our Fine Art MA in Cardiff in 2003 and she now has a studio at Wysing Arts Centre. Jackie had done a great job lining up introductions for us over the next two days.
9th July 2014
We met Yasmin Calvin, Director, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art (FCA), at their shop front office in the small town of Thrapston in Northamptonshire.
We chatted over a cuppa, sat round a large table in their resource space, which is available for artists to meet, read, talk and present. The space had an array of journals and catalogues to pore over. FCA’s promotional print was more than a well-designed booklet, it was a hand held platform for presenting their artists and projects; a mini exhibition space and archive.
This small organisation developed from ecologically concerned beginnings, encouraging artists to directly respond to the rural environment. As well as an ongoing programme of projects, FCA manages Sudborough Green Lodge, a site with two cottages, owned by the Forestry Commission, one of which is used for artist residencies. Since Yasmin’s appointment as Director in 2009, FCA has shifted its focus from responding directly to the rural situation, to one which supports artistic practice through opportunities for reflection, research and play. This fluidity of ideas and creativity was to run throughout the next two days.
Artists work with the organisation to develop local audiences for projects and events. Many of the artists that work with FCA have a socially engaged practice but this isn’t an explicit requirement. Projects are always driven by the artist’s practice, and a huge amount of trust is, quite rightly, bestowed up on the artist. Yasmin is interested in people and responding to the social environment is as relevant (if not more so) as a rural/urban environment.
Morag spoke about her experience with an artists’ residency project in the Elan Valley, instigated by a partnership between theArts Council of Wales and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water. Morag has been encouraged by the approach that ACW has taken, offering artists a reflective period of working on site, in exchange for their feedback to develop the future residency programme. This demonstrates a confidence in the artists selected and the need to offer artists a sincere experience in order for creative practice to evolve.
FCA is a peripatetic organisation, with a small staff team based in the shop front office, delivering projects in alternative spaces and venues throughout the region. We spoke about the challenges of not having a gallery space. Negotiations to develop art for a partner venue take considerable time, effort and energy as well as a skillful balancing of competing priorities.
Working off-site, you may not only have to impress an indifferent audience but indifferent partners and their associated staff and volunteers. Jackie shared an unfortunate exhibition experience with a national institution (that shall remain nameless) in which much of an exhibition by contemporary artists was dismantled in favour of more lucrative craft fairs and a dinning club, much of the work wasn’t reinstalled and some of it broken.
Yasmin reiterated, the most important resource is time – time to develop relationships, to communicate and to invest in the artistic process. Articulating our opinions and feelings, and having our preconceptions challenged, are all part of the messy subject of contemporary art.
Yasmin whisked us away to the Lodge, FCA’s artist residency facility, set two miles down a track through Fermyn Woods.
[A surreal aside – Fermyn Woods is one of the few places in Britain where rare Purple Emperor butterflies grace us with their presence for a week every July. The ‘most attractive of nature’s children’ had chosen this as their week. We sat in the car for fifteen minutes patiently waiting for an eager crowd of spotters to snap their photos of a specimen sunning itself on the track ahead. These out of the ordinary encounters are one of the joys of working in the countryside.]
The lodge is comprised of two cottages, one leased to a family (which contributes to the Forestry Commission rent on the Lodge) and the other is used as a work space and accommodation for residency artists. As the forest opened up and we passed though a wild flower meadow we become aware of how remote the Lodge feels. There’s solitude and then there’s isolation – it doesn’t suit every artist. FCA are careful how they describe the Lodge and its situation before an artist arrives for a stint in the sticks.
It’s important to FCA to maintain a balance between local/regional artists and international artists. It is the local artists that have a strong understanding of the context the organisation is working in but diversity is hugely valuable – and this includes artistic diversity. The ideal of ‘artistic diversity’ was one of the essentials I gained from our visit to FCA and feel it’s important to encourage this in the Black Mountains.
10th July 2014
Wysing Arts Centre is situated nine miles south of Cambridge and comprises of ‘ten buildings including studios, live-work space, specialist new media facilities, a large gallery, education facilities and a 17th century farmhouse used as accommodation for residencies and retreats.’
We spent the day meeting staff members, Louise Thirlwall, Operations Director, Gareth Bell-Jones, Artists and Programmes Curator, and studio artists Erica Böhr, Soheila Sokhanvari, Caroline Wright and Lisa Wilkens.
Wysing delivers a contemporary programme neutral to its rural situation. As exhibition audiences are slim in this neck of the woods, the large gallery space focuses primarily on research and experimentation. Large-scale events such as this year’s music festival, Space-Time: The Future, are promoted heavily via social media, e-bulletins and online networks, attracting a large London audience. In addition to visitors from the capital, Wysing broadens its reach with local audiences through a broad programme of public talks, embracing history, politics, science and ecology, as well as accessible family workshops, youth projects and creative apprenticeships.
Wysing’s website gave me the impression of an organisation that was rather cool and austere. However, meeting the studio artists in the informal ‘window room’ at Wysing with coffee and conversation flowing, the artists were welcoming, open and articulate about their work.
Jackie told us she appreciates the commeraderie, peer support, the level of ambition amongst the artists and the intellectual/artistic stimulus of the Wysing experience. Discussing the fraught business of art is also important – the financial and professional practicalities, mistakes and challenges.
The opportunity of leasing a subsidised studio at Wysing (around £160 a month) warrants a competitive application process and studios are offered on a maximum five-year lease. This time limit ensures that artists remain focused, however, it can be unsettling to know this is a temporary situation and Wysing supports artists to develop opportunities in order to move on when their time is up.
Some of the artists had experienced inactive and apathetic studio groups in the past and a dire lack of studio space in nearby Cambridge, where house prices are high and redundant spaces limited. Artist Caroline Wright, travels over an hour to be in her studio, because there really is nothing like Wysing elsewhere in the region.
We also spoke about the perception of Wysing by regional artists outside the organsiation and there was an acknowledgment that some felt Wysing was a ‘closed shop’. However, I was impressed by how the studio artists proactively worked together to develop exchanges with other artist groups via their Expanded Studios programme, which is due to partner up with Primary studios in Nottingham. Naturally we posed the suggestion of an exchange with artists in the Black Mountains and a meeting of the lowland tribe and the mountain tribe was enthusiastically welcomed. We then spent a wonderful hour trawling round the studios speaking to the artists individually. I only wish we had more time – but I think we can look on this as just the start of further meetings and conversations.
Our afternoon conversation with Gareth Bell-Jones, was hugely informative and motivating. Gareth sharpened our focus and asked the question – who is PEAK for? Who are the artists we are aspire to work with and who are our potential audiences? Gareth encouraged us to explore various models and ways of working by looking at other examples across the UK – from artist studios, to exchanges and residencies.
The most recent artist residency opportunities at Wysing attracted 300 applications for 4 places. Gareth feels that artists are increasingly attracted to residencies in order to have complete freedom to do what they want – it’s something they can’t get elsewhere. A residency with undefined outcomes offers the opportunity to break out of the pressure that an artist can feel to constantly deliver, to exhibit, to sell. It’s a limited period to make mistakes and fail if necessary. Wysing spends time with an artist to prepare a residency before they arrive and develop an ongoing relationship after the event, tracking an artist’s future practice (and audience figures), recognising that a project with Wysing can lead to many other opportunities.
We bought it back to PEAK and considered the existing resources available to us in the Black Mountains: a diversity of active and interesting artists, the unique landscape, accessible location (roughly within an hour of Cardiff and Bristol), large festival audiences, Hereford College of Arts on the doorstep – I could go on.
How can PEAK make the most of those resources and contribute something vital and relevant to the mix?
We also talked about piloting new projects in a reflective and sensitive way to gain valuable feedback from artists to shape the future of PEAK.
The two days were inspiring and invigorating. I felt we’d learned a lot from conversations with artists and curators – about new approaches to how we work with artists, how we respond to the particular environment of the Black Mountains (social/environmental/cultural) and how we could develop PEAK with consideration and confidence. Taking the time to visit established organisations across the UK has given me a certain self-assuredness that we can learn from other people’s successes and challenges when developing our own projects. Putting in the time and effort to get it right is worth it.
– Rebecca Spooner
With thanks to:
Gareth Bell Jones
The Wysing studio artists
Jackie and Ben
During summer 2014, PEAK visited rurally based arts organisations across the UK as part of a research and development project funded by the Arts Council of Wales.