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February 2018

Vol. 160 / No. 1379

Country houses and contemporary art

 One of the most intriguing narratives in contemporary British art is the steady transformation of Damien Hirst from enfant terrible into Grand Old Man. Few contemporary artists have placed themselves so unequivocally in the old-master tradition. Early works such as A thousand years (1990), a vitrine containing a cow’s head, maggots and flies, demonstrated an engagement with themes of mortality and decay that have a long ancestry in Western art, as the exhibition of the work alongside five triptychs by Francis Bacon at the Gagosian Gallery, London, in 2006, made strikingly obvious.1 He followed this up with a display of his paintings at the Wallace Collection, London, in 2009–10 and the gargantuan faux-archaeological assembly Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable shown last year at Palazzo Grassi and the Punta della Dogana, Venice.2 This is the background to last month’s announcement that the old-master paintings at Houghton Hall, Norfolk, are to be temporarily displaced by fifty of Hirst’s new Colour Space works, a development of his spot paintings. They will be accompanied both inside and outside the house by six of his sculptures.3

Although this is the first time that Hirst’s works have been shown in the setting of a historic country house, there is a precedent on both sides. Hirst himself owns a large country house, Toddington Manor in Gloucestershire, which when restored will contain a gallery for his collection, and since 2000 the Marquess of Cholmondeley, owner of Houghton Hall, has been acquiring an impressive group of contemporary sculptures for the garden and park, including a Skyspace by James Turrell and works by Rachel Whiteread and Richard Long. Nor is the use of a private historic house for temporary installations of contemporary art especially novel – a programme of such events at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, launched in 2014, has included works by Laurence Weiner and Jenny Holzer.

The display of contemporary art in historic settings, and in particular in the context of historic art collections, has become commonplace in museums and galleries throughout the world, many of whom now have dedicated curatorial staff for the purpose. Although such initiatives are usually justified in terms of creating links between the increasingly divergent cultures of contemporary and historic art, there often seems to be an assumption that contemporary art is coming to the rescue of traditional art museums by introducing a youthfulness and energy that are presumed to be lacking. If establishing links between the new and old is really the aim, why do museums of contemporary art not regularly stage installations of old-master paintings and sculpture?

Yet although the appearance of contemporary art in traditional museums occasionally attracts criticism, it is usually directed towards the artist rather than the institution – Hirst received some of the worst reviews of his career for his exhibition at the Wallace Collection – perhaps because it falls within a clearly understood remit of what galleries do, which includes staging exhibitions. In private houses open to the public, as at Houghton or Blenheim, such initiatives are largely accepted as the prerogative of their owners. There is more space for contention if contemporary art is placed in a context that is, or is perceived to be, publicly owned. The most extreme example of this was the strong objections to the installation of Anish Kapoor’s Dirty corner in the park at Versailles in 2016, which were manifested in the vandalism of the sculpture. Nothing in the United Kingdom has provoked that level of controversy, but the ambitious programmes of commissions and loans of contemporary art staged every year at the historic sites and houses owned by the National Trust and English Heritage have on occasion attracted vehement private criticism from the institutions’ staff as well as visitors.

The commitment of such organisations as the National Trust to these programmes suggests that they must bring substantial benefits. Yet although, for example, an installation by Luke Jerram is credited by the National Trust with a 140 per cent increase in visitors to Nostell Priory, Yorkshire, last year, there is a striking lack of published empirical evidence about the impact of such initiatives on their audiences. That will change with the completion next year of a three-year project ‘Mapping contemporary art in the heritage experience: creation, consumption and exchange’ at Newcastle University. A collaboration between several organisations, including the National Trust, the Churches Conservation Trust, Arts Council England and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Newcastle, this ‘will explore in detail how contemporary artists engage with heritage narratives and how these artworks are received and consumed by visitors’. The project, which will encompass an international conference, will involve ‘the production of a new online resource that develops, expands and digitises an existing audit of such projects making this publicly available as a platform for further professional exchange’.

Presumably this project will include an analysis of the degree to which such initiatives fulfil what is often stated to be their primary purpose, to attract younger audiences. It should also be an opportunity to reflect on some fundamental issues. As with museums and galleries, the popularity of contemporary art as a strategy for drawing visitors to historic properties can suggest a patronising lack of confidence in both the innate ability of the art of the past to engage and excite and the skills of curators to interpret it. The insight of artists into the work of their predecessors is often of interest but is no substitute for historical understanding. Although this is a well-understood objection, less attention has been paid to the implications for contemporary art of using it as at best an instrument for interpreting historic art and at worst a marketing tool. As Damien Hirst for one well understands, if contemporary art is of value, it is of value for itself and not for what it can do to refresh the image of heritage organisations. 

1 Reviewed by Sarah Whitfield in this Magazine, 138 (2006), pp.643–45.

2 Reviewed by James Cahill in this Magazine, 149 (2017), pp.848–49.

3 Damien Hirst at Houghton Hall: Colour Space Paintings and Outdoor Sculptures, 25th March–15th July. The exhibition is part of the visual arts programme of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival.