Introducing the new at Ham

15 Nov
Tessa Fitzjohn talking to staff and volunteers at Ham House

Tessa Fitzjohn talking to staff and volunteers at Ham House

Last Friday saw myself and Tessa Fitzjohn speaking to a packed Orangery at Ham House, in Richmond. Tessa was appointed project curator to develop a programme of artistic activity to celebrate the history and richness of Ham using its garden spaces in 2011.

We were pleased to have a large turnout: 75 staff and volunteers came to hear about Trust New Art, before Tessa spoke specifically about the approach and artists that she will be using.

It is vital that contemporary art projects are ‘owned’ by the teams running the National Trust places where they happen. This means staff and volunteers understanding why art projects are happening, taking responsibility for their success, and advocating positively for them to other staff members and visitors.

In many National Trust properties, volunteers are at the front line of visitor experience. From car parking to room guides, and at many other levels, they can be the main points of contact while visitors experience a place. It can be a big step for a contemporary art installation to arrive in a space that is familiar and well-loved, even if only for a short while.

What we have learned from projects in the past and over the summer of 2010 is introducing the idea to people well in advance is vital. At Kedleston Hall, working with Susie MacMurray, only volunteers who felt positive about the project were asked to be on duty in the room during visiting hours. Some property volunteers had helped install the work, met the artist and the other project volunteers (mainly art students) over a period of a few weeks running up to the opening. This gave an appreciation for the project, and helped them speak about it to visitors. For some volunteers, it was not a project that they felt they could support. The property team appreciated this, and asked only that they explained the thinking behind it to visitors, even if they themselves did not like the art installation.

At a number of properties, including Ham, we will be working over the months – and sometimes years – leading up to project to ensure that the team of staff and volunteers at least know what is happening, and at best gain a positive appreciation and involvement with the work. This could include articles in volunteer newsletters, using volunteer noticeboards, getting project curators and artists to speak at volunteer meetings, inviting volunteers onto project steering groups, and (my favourite) working with artists to introduce some artwork behind the scenes of a property over a period of time to give a preview and an opportunity for discussion about what it happening.

Site-responsive contemporary art takes place within a complex web of relationships and opportunities. To ignore the perspectives of those we charge with presenting National Trust properties to the public will only compromise the success of a positive experience of the art for our visitors.

Tom Freshwater

Contemporary Art Programme Manager

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: