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Trust New Art: Tell it to the Trees, Croft Castle

  • Date: 20 October 2011
  • Artform: Visual arts
  • Area: Midlands
Sculpture of human bodies coming out of trees Close up of Witness Tree by Brass Art. Part of the Tell it to the Trees exhibition at Croft Castle. Meadow Arts commission, 2009, Photo: Meadow Arts commission, 2009

Tell it to the Trees was a year-long visual arts project that occupied the National Trust's Croft Castle and grounds in Herefordshire from July 2009.

Aims of the project

Tell it to the Trees received funding through Grants for the arts and was supported by Trust New Art, a programme created through a partnership between Arts Council England and the National Trust.

It was commissioned and sited by the Shropshire-based agency Meadow Arts who will enter Arts Council England's National portfolio of funded organisations in 2012. Meadow Arts specialises in creating temporary outdoor exhibitions and commissions in areas which lack arts facilities.

'By partnering with National Trust properties, we have been able to take exhibitions into these remote and rural areas, bringing art into venues where audiences already exist,' says Director Anne de Charmant.

Working on location

For Tell it to the Trees, Meadow Arts formed a fruitful relationship with the Croft's Property Manager, Ian Grafton. Together, they invited nine artists to make and show work to suit the location - an early 17th century medieval revival castle and grounds, set amidst the remnants of ancient woodland near the Welsh border.

Man's relationship with trees formed a running theme of the project, with the surrounding woodland providing raw material for the exhibition's flagship work; Bound by artist Philippa Lawrence, a 46-foot dead oak tree in the ground wrapped in red fabric, created an emblematic greeting point for visitors. This setting gave a striking new context to Lawrence's work which had previously been set in remote Welsh woodland. 

As well as breathing new life into historic locations, partnering with National Trust properties gives contemporary artists access to new and different audiences. 'The appealing thing about working at Croft Castle was that it reached a bigger audience, one that was aesthetically appreciative, but not necessarily an art or gallery crowd,' says Phillippa.

Other works at Croft Castle included Mariele Neudecker's outdoor commission A Thousand Ghosts, which featured three masts that evoke a ship submerged in a valley, alluding to the legend that the surrounding chestnut avenues were planted with trees recovered from the Armada. Using a more high-tech approach, Brass Arts developed two pieces using body scanning technology and 3D imaging, Witness Tree, in the walled garden and Rooted and Established, comprised of three miniature figures developed specially for the castle's Ante-room.

'Rooted and Established was very well received, with lots of repeat visits. You could tell people really related to the subject matter,' says Meadow Arts' Anne De Charmant.

Changing attitudes and widening audiences

Anne believes Tell it to the Trees visitor response has been largely positive: 'Around 80 percent of people that we've asked that would like to see contemporary art in another National Trust property.'

One Croft Castle volunteer told the National Trust that of every 200 people that arrived in the car park, 150 walked straight up to Philippa Lawrence's Bound. 'The artist knew her work was "art",' the volunteer wrote, 'however, it appears to have taken on another, greater role which cannot be easily explained.'

Croft's Property Manager Ian Grafton describes Tell it to the Trees as 'a very, very positive experience'. 'It raised the profile of Croft in different circles for a 16 month period,' he says. 'We were appearing in arts magazines we never would have appeared in before, and it brought in many different people that certainly wouldn't have visited otherwise. We had a record year last year, 79,000 visitors. And while I don't think the art was the sole factor, it was certainly a contributing factor.'

Ian notes the importance of matching art to location, and of fully explaining the work on show to the exhibition's attendees: 'Our visitors don't always like change, but we took care to talk to people about it, and the fact we had so few complaints shows it sat very comfortably. The few we did have were "Why is the National Trust spending money on this?" And when I was able to reassure people that this was funded by the Arts Council, people relaxed.

'I think it helps to break down the image of the Trust being very staid, never changing. I think it shows we have a sense of humour and can take a risk. It gives us a chance to support local artists, and it can help the local economy.'

Future work

The relationship forged through Tell it to the Trees will continue in 2012, when Meadow Arts return to Croft for a series of residencies based around the archaeology of the landscape around the castle. The organisation have also worked with the National Trust's Attingham Park near Shrewsbury in Shropshire on House of Beasts, an exhibition which features 40 contemporary artworks placed in and around the property. This exhibition runs until July 2012.

For Philippa Lawrence, the collaboration with Meadow Arts led directly to a new commission, Barcode: FB814, sited in Mortimer Forest in North Herefordshire. Lawrence is also in discussions with another National Trust property, Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire.

Funding

As well as Grants for the arts funding from the Arts Council, Meadow Arts received local authority, Elmley Foundation and Henry Moore Foundation support, and private sponsorship for Tell it to the Trees. They also received  National Trust and local authority in-kind support.