MY STORY Letting contemporary art breathe
A Swiss-born French citizen, Anne de Charmant founded Meadow Arts 20 years ago and has been its curator ever since. It celebrates at the Hay Festival in May with the launch of a book, Meadow Arts: the first 20 years.
What is Meadow Arts, where is it based and why did you start it?
Meadow Arts brings ambitious and inspiring contemporary art to unexpected, often rural places. It was born 20 years ago in the rural West Midlands. I’d recently settled in the area and realised there were hardly any contemporary art outlets in the region. There were small galleries but they were very craft orientated, so I decided to experiment with a contemporary visual arts programme of my own.
Right from the start I realised that launching a contemporary art project from scratch would not be viable and that it would be more interesting to work in partnership with places that already had audiences. This also meant that I could build things up faster.
The first project was in Burford House, a Georgian house with a beautiful garden open to the public. The heritage proportions of the different spaces in the house gave a very interesting context for showing contemporary art. One early collaboration was with Ikon Gallery in Birmingham,
We then decided to move outdoors to a wildflower meadow, which is what inspired our name. We planted a series of hedges delineating spaces in a meadow and put on shows there.
However, we didn’t want to be associated with just one place so decided to collaborate with all sorts of different venues and organisations, covering more ground in a wider region, which is what we still do. The different partners and venues also brought a variety of landscapes, narratives and contexts; from the beginning Meadow Arts was about investigating the spirit of place.
What was your own background before you started Meadow Arts?
I was an arts writer/journalist writing for French speaking magazines and broadsheets. I arrived in London as an arts correspondent from Paris in the late 90s. It was a great time to be in London, which was in full YBA mode.
The late 90s was very urban time for contemporary art, especially in the UK. I’d always been interested in curating and was curious to see what would happen if urban art was transplanted into a rural, heritage or landscape context, which is how Meadow Arts was born. All the artists I approached were very interested in working in new ways. Also ACE got involved very early on and were very supportive in terms of helping me to set up an organisation from scratch.
Chinese Bridges in Landscape by Pablo Bronstein, in Weston Park
What have been your best projects and most memorable sites and venues?
There have been so many, but working with Yinka Shonibare at Hereford Cathedral was an extraordinary experience. The cathedral has a map from the 11th century, the Mappa Mundi. It’s one of the world's unique medieval treasures and represents the physical and mythical/spiritual map of the world as it was understood it in the 11th century. It’s a dive into the mindscape of how people were thinking about their place in the world. It’s a very bizarre and precious thing.
I proposed the Mappa Mundi to someone who I thought could make sense of it – Yinka – and he agreed to work with us. He drew a number of quilt designs, based on the map and his own imagination, and worked with groups and communities to make the quilts together. They were all very optimistic and fantastical. At the opening event Yinka spoke about the project and his view of the world to a packed cathedral, it was a very special moment, a moment of grace.
How has Meadow Arts developed since you started it?
It’s grown a lot, but it’s still not a big organisation. There are five of us – all working part time – but we’ve been able to really develop our engagement and education strands, which are now almost equal to our art output. That side of our work allows us to develop strong bonds with local communities; contemporary art has an extraordinary power to develop conversations, contribute to wellbeing, bring communities together. We lead two networks, Creative Practitioners, which brings together talented, regionally-based artists to create projects for schools, colleges, universities and partner venues, and Young Meadow, a network of young people in our region initiating contemporary art projects.
In normal times I travel a lot. I’m regularly in London seeing exhibitions and artists’ work. I never miss the Venice Biennale and I also love the quirkier biennales. Art nourishes me and I go and get whatever I need personally and professionally. I also spend a lot of time researching new artists, and of course artists often approach me as well.
We are also the only contemporary art organisation in the region that has an ACE NPO status, which give us a certain responsibility and means we can help the arts ecology of the region.
Is commissioning a big part of what you do?
We show quite a lot of existing work, which allows our audience access to artworks they would otherwise need to travel quite far to see. However, we try and commission as much new work as possible, and this is very important part of what we do. Commissions are what help artists to develop their practice. That moment when you visit a site with an artist and the creative ideas start to flow is always extraordinary and it is the thing I love most about my work.
For example, we recently worked with Alex Hartley at Witley Court and it was a wonderful experience to see him starting to formulate his response to the fabric of the ruins. He was seeing things in such a radically new way, noticing the way the walls were being held by metal and concrete. rather than the romantic ruin.
A few years ago at Ironbridge I was crossing the bridge ( he world's first iron bridge) with Faye Claridge and we were talking about folk traditions and morris dancing. She suddenly had an idea to dress the whole bridge in a coloured tatter coat. It seemed quite impossible, but that’s what we did. I love to be able to catch an idea in mid-flow and make it happen. That installation – Weighty Friend – only lasted for a day, but it was so significant for the whole communityu, it had a huge impact.
Why do you think contemporary art is moving beyond the confinement of conventional galleries?
For a long time the art world has been on the front line for the wrong reasons. There is a perception of the art world as remote, specialised, unintelligible, but there are more and more contemporary art organisations outside London now doing great things and showing art in less conventional contexts. Things have changed a lot in the 20 years since we started because people have woken up to the different possibilities for showing and consuming art.
The money-making art world won’t change, but not-for-profits like Meadow Arts want to meet the audiences where they are – and that’s not in conventional gallery spaces.
How has the sustainability of a contemporary art business changed with the Covid lockdowns, and will we see art differently in the post-coronavirus light?
The pandemic forced the contemporary art world to very quickly adapt to working digitally and find new ways of engaging with audiences. When the first lockdown happened, we immediately launched a digital commissioning programme called RURALities which has been great and will most likely continue beyond the pandemic.
For many artists working digitally has helped develop new practices. From an organisational point of view working digitally has opened new perspectives and given us new ways to develop access to more people. For us, expanding our digital skills has enriched and widened the way we communicate with our audiences. This way of working, combined with real life experience, is here to stay.
More generally, how has the audience for contemporary arts changed since you started Meadow Arts?
People are much more used to contemporary art being around in non-arts venues or heritage sites or landscapes than they were 20 years ago. It was so bizarrely received before and now everyone does it. We’re definitely less out on a limb than before.
However, we are still unique in the way that we relate to our audiences and we’ve taken a lot of time to work thoughtfully with groups and communities to deepen our reach. Contemporary art is an extraordinary tool for encouraging conversations about our place in the world.
You work in partnership with locations often historic places. Have they become more or less responsive to your suggestions?
Definitely more responsive because it is now much more widely accepted, almost expected. Admittedly, Meadow Arts was a precursor in this way of working, but we develop and nurture projects in a unique way.
We remain fiercely independent and our partners come on the journey with us. We provide a unique opportunity for them to discover more about what’s possible in terms of the relationship between art and place, and its’ hugely rewarding for everyone involved.