- Date: 20 October 2011
- Artform: Visual arts
- Area: Midlands
Susie MacMurray's Promenade was a new commission installed at Kedleston Hall, a National Trust property in Derbyshire, between July and September 2010.
Promenade came about as part of museumaker, a national project designed to unlock the creative potential of collections through imaginative interchanges between the heritage and contemporary craft sectors.
It was also supported by Trust New Art, a programme created through an ongoing partnership between National Trust and Arts Council England. Through this partnership, the Arts Council funds the National Trust's Contemporary Art Programme Manager, Tom Freshwater.
'We are interested in looking at rich historic places, or natural places that the National Trust cares for, and seeing how contemporary art and craft can create a new way for people to enjoy them, either through bespoke new commissions, or by borrowing works from collections,' says Tom.
'We're a big organisation, with over 100 million visits to our properties every year, so to put art in those settings can create a very large audience. But we're also very interested in quality. We want to match the high quality of National Trust places with artwork and interventions of an equally high standard.'
Kedleston Hall is an 18th century mansion set in 800 acres of land, designed in a Neo-Classical style by the Scottish architect Robert Adam.
'It's quite a difficult house to show to the public,' says National Trust Property Manager Victoria Flanagan. 'Like Chatsworth up the road, it was very much designed as a show of wealth. It's generally seen to be quite blingy, and as such, visitors can find it difficult to empathise with.'
Through museumaker, Kedleston solicited applications from artists for projects that could help to tell the mansion's rich history. Susie MacMurray, an artist who works with installation and sculpture, with a reputation for site-specific interventions in historic spaces, was awarded the commission.
'We just really liked her, and thought she'd work well with our property and volunteers,' says Victoria. 'The volunteers are the front line to the public, and they can really make or break a project like this, which is something that is quite challenging, and perhaps "not what the Trust does". But Susie was just really personable - up for doing sessions with the volunteers, happy to talk about what she was doing and why she was doing it.'
Promenade draws on several aspects of Kedelston's history. Inspired by the mansion's opulent style and gilt fittings, MacMurray wound 200km of gold thread around the pillars of the Marble Hall, a reference to the way visitors would 'promenade' around the property's contents. The gold is a specific reference to the Peacock Dress, embroidered by Indian craftsmen and worn by Lady Curzon, wife of the Viceroy of India, who owned the property in the early 20th century.
To make Promenade, MacMurray sought the help of National Trust volunteers and of textile and fine art students from Nottingham Trent University.
'The volunteers got to talk to the students, to give them a taste of what it was like to work with art,' says Susie MacMurray, 'and it gave the art students a fantastic perspective on the house, because the volunteers have so much knowledge to give.'
Promenade was installed over two weeks, in full view of the public. 'I made it very clear to the volunteers that we were there as ambassadors for contemporary art, so every time you had a chance to chat to someone and interest them in the artwork, it was important to take it,' adds Susie.
'It was also important that people that installed the artwork would later be in the room to talk to the public about what it was. I felt they needed to feel like they owned it - that they could understand it, discuss it, and that they didn't feel threatened or put on the spot or ignorant. There was a lot of pride in the work.'
Both the artist and property managers were keen to create a dialogue around the work. Together, they developed the idea of luggage labels which visitors could write their thoughts upon and tie to the banisters of Kedlestone's Grand Staircase. Over 15,00 comment cards were collected and logged, with responses ranging from the very positive to the very negative.
'It ranged from "This is the best thing the Trust have ever done" and "We want more of this" to "Oh, my god, where are my scissors!"' says Victoria Flanagan. 'People were writing on other people's luggage labels, things like, "You philistine!" It really started a debate.'
Tom Freshwater notes the response was around 60 percent in favour of the work, an encouraging response for such a bold piece. He also notes the power that good quality art has in terms of changing attitudes:
'One of our curators initially had a very negative response - their attitude was "Why on earth would you install this here, this is one of the most important rooms in Europe!" But some weeks later, they were spotted lying prone in the room, watching the play of light over the piece. I think that's great thing - a real illustration of the way that artwork can change people's minds.'
Following on from her success at Kedleston, Susie MacMurray has linked up with the commissioning agency Meadow Arts to create a new piece for the House of Beasts exhibition at the National Trust's Attingham Park property near Shrewsbury.
Back at Kedleston Hall, Victoria Flanagan feels the success of Promenade has made the team 'far more open to thinking laterally'. Throughout 2011, the property has been working in collaboration with a silversmith, Theresa Nguyen on a project funded by The Goldsmiths Company. Kedelston are also developing an outdoor project for 2012, and Flanagan hopes that they may also invite back Susie MacMurray to make further work on-site.
'We wouldn't have done this if it wasn't for museumaker and the Arts Council funding,' she says, 'it's really opened our eyes.'