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    Artist Yelena Popova with volunteers at Upton House and Gardens (National Trust)

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    70x90 (2015) Yelena Popova. Commissioned by Upton House and Gardens as part of New Expressions 3

Commissioning contemporary art in historic buildings

Upton House and Gardens (National Trust) and Yelena Popova, artist

Upton House and Gardens collaborated with artist Yelena Popova as part of an ambition to embed contemporary art in the property's storytelling. Along the way, artist and property met many of the challenges most frequently encountered by museums and artists working together. This case study explores the dynamics of the relationships between artist, museum, volunteers and visitors and offers an insight into how and why the curators and artist worked through the issues.

Budget: £12,000

Upton House and Gardens, a historic country mansion and now a National Trust property, commissioned artist Yelena Popova as part of its ambition to embed contemporary art in the property’s storytelling. It was the first time that the property had worked in this way and also the first time the artist had worked in a historic environment.

The Upton House team was preparing for a major new interpretation of the building that explored its role during World War Two, as a safe place to locate the property owner’s banking business and private art collection. Yelena Popova was interested in the idea of men and women in history collecting, or putting assemblages of art together. The artist was inspired by the story of Lord Bearsted, the owner of Upton House, and his personal art collection, and wanted to explore it further in partnership with Upton House.

Negotiating different approaches

One of the key challenges of the project was reconciling the different approaches of an artist, used to working in a contemporary art gallery setting, and a historic property with particular audience expectations.

For the artist, the pressure to interpret or provide literal explanations for the artworks was at times uncomfortable. As Yelena reflects:

“You can see how important it is for the Upton House audience, when I showed the portraits from the historic collection as part of my artist’s talk, they could relate to them. For the audience here it’s crucial that they can relate my work to those historic paintings, and for me it’s not. In this work I had to make really close connections between the historic paintings and what I make, for what I make to be recognizable by the audience. That was difficult, personally, for me”.

From the property’s point of view, there was an important curatorial role to be played, in providing a bridge between the artist’s work and the expectations of visitors to the National Trust property. Upton House’s Rachael O’Connor-Boyd reflects:

“Yelena’s visitors, the people that would normally go to look at her work, have an understanding of the language of contemporary art that, by and large, our visitors don’t. And communicating that difference has been quite difficult. Work here at Upton House needs more interpretation; it needs to be communicated in a different way for our audiences.

“There is an important role for the curator where you’re bridging the audience and the artist and making sure that the art works for both in that space. Because that percentage of people that are mystified might actually find it interesting if they are given a way in, a few more hooks. And it involves carefully thinking it through and talking with the artist and that’s a learning point from this – it really does involve a lot more time than you think it does”.

“Perhaps more chance for Yelena to interact with our audience before deciding what the work was going to be would have been good”, adds Rachael’s colleague Michelle Leake.

Writing a clear brief

A further reflection for the Upton House team is that it’s important to allow time for the curator to think through and develop a clear brief. The team feels that this is something they would like to have spent more time on:

“Allow time for planning”, says Rachael, “at least develop a very clear brief. And that’s not necessarily saying, ‘I want sculpture in the garden at this point’, but it is about understanding what works. So for us, I’d be looking for an artist who communicates well. I would like an artist who can be reflexive about their processes. I might like an artist who, as part of the project, would be working here on site. I might like an artist who wants to work with our volunteers, who is interested in the dialogue between the historic and the modern. Those few bullet points would be useful for me. Everyone’s bullet points will be different. To get to those bullet points you need to have a strategy and you need to have an understanding of your audiences”.

Working with volunteers

For both artist and historic property, one of the biggest successes of the collaboration was the work that Yelena did with volunteers at Upton House. As part of the project, a core group of volunteers accompanied property staff to Nottingham Contemporary and visited Yelena in her studio.

Michelle explains: “We developed a group of 10-15 volunteers who’ve been really closely involved. Yelena’s developed a really good relationship with them. And some of them are ones we wouldn’t have expected to have got involved – some of our more conservative volunteers”.

To illustrate the impact that Yelena’s work has had, Rachael tells a story about one particular volunteer:

“We were listening the other day to one of our volunteers. A visitor came in and was a bit negative about the exhibition and was saying ‘I just don’t understand it at all’, and that’s quite difficult. But this volunteer, because she’s part of our group, because she’d been on this journey with us, was able to say ‘Actually, come with me, I’ll show you around and I’ll explain’, and ‘have you thought about it in this way…?’ … And the visitor went back to the exhibition and 10 minutes later we heard the response, which was: ‘You’re right! That’s amazing!’. So that volunteer had taken a visitor who was being a bit shirty and, just through the way she’d engaged, because of her own confidence, she’d managed to turn that around”.

Yelena’s view is equally positive. While the artist’s involvement has had a dramatic effect on some of the historic property’s volunteers, the volunteers have also made a big impact on the artist and artwork. As Yelena says:

“At the beginning the idea was something that would be manifest as an object, but where we end up now is much deeper than that – it’s less illustrative and more exciting and more engaging with the volunteers. I didn’t realise how much the workshops with the volunteers would be part of it. Over two years, they felt almost like a family. You never really get that with a contemporary institution. And communicating ideas to them, consistently, was really different to what you usually experience in a contemporary gallery. That’s the biggest asset – the volunteers and their interest and support”.

Audience response

68% of audience survey respondents felt that the artist’s work opened up the collections in a surprising way and 78% felt that it dealt with something unusual and unexplored.

“You could visit a number of times and have different feelings”

“A different feeling for art gallery visits – a good idea”