During the timespan of Mount Stuart Trust’s Contemporary Visual Arts Programme artists including Kate Whiteford, Thomas Joshua Cooper, Christine Borland, Langlands & Bell, Anya Gallaccio, Nathan Coley, Mark Neville, Lee Mingwei, Lorna Macintyre, Kate Davis, Sarah Staton, Steven Claydon, Martin Boyce, Moyna Flannigan, Katya Strunz, Ilana Halperin and Lucy Skaer have worked together with the trust and responded to the context of Mount Stuart.
On the programme’s anniversary, twenty years after its inception in 2001, Mount Stuart was in lockdown due to Covid 19. The nineteenth century neo–Gothic house closed to the public from April 2020 through May 2021. The landscaped gardens also remained closed, running a little wild due to the furloughing of many of the gardening team – the grasses long and the borders unruly. Located amidst these grounds, Martin Boyce’s 2019 seminal sculptural work An Inn For The Phantoms Of The Outside and In, lay alone and unseen. Boyce had requested zero maintenance, yet lockdown emphasized the poignancy of the work’s gradual return to nature and the patina of the passing seasons.
Ilana Halperin was due to open her exhibition of new work There Is a Volcano Behind My House at the time of the first lockdown in April 2020. Installation and photography were about to take place, and the usual preparations for a preview and opening. A project with Canadian based Abbas Akhavan was due to follow later in the summer. Associated events and educational programming were embedded in the plans for the programme. All these plans froze and have been reprogrammed into this year, 2021 (we opened in May), and next year (Abbas Akhavan will open in 2022).
It has been challenging for the artists to reframe their work in the current context. In Ilana Halperin’s case, for instance, although the work was made and ready to exhibit, her entire thinking around the project expanded during lockdown, embracing grief and loss following the death of her mother during the period. In response she has written and performed adjunct material around the exhibition. For Abbas Akhavan and future artists, their practice is clearly affected by the past year, logistically and emotionally. For the audience too, reading the works has changed in the light of the pandemic and its consequences. The reactions to Halperin’s first works opening after lockdown has been both moving and celebratory.
The impact of the lockdown unfolded in multi-faceted and unexpected ways. Those conditions have in turn influenced our ways of working and how we have unlocked the programme and reintegrated into a changed cultural environment. Concerns over funding, programming, internal and external stakeholder relationships and contingencies are key factors and above all we have had to become accustomed to living with increased levels of uncertainty. The positive side of these concerns have included a renewed view of our programming, its pace and its content, and an extended relationship with digital communication, including films, behind the scenes insights and audio materials. Collaborations within the cultural sector have strengthened, as organisations and people have worked together to keep the sector alive and relevant.
Thinking on our feet is a skill we have honed since we began the programme in 2001, and one which has benefited us during these difficult times. More than ever, it is crucial to nurture relationships within the organisation and with external partners. We are all in the process of unlocking; emerging with fresh ways of thinking, and planning with extra care and foresight. Art is transformative. We need to work with the changed times, and to be part of the future.
Sophie Crichton-Stuart is Chair of Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute. Ilana Halperin There Is a Volcano Behind My House runs until 15 August 2021. Arrange Whatever Pieces Come Your Way will exhibit and work on a community project from 21 August 2021. Abbas Akhavan opens Spring 2022. Find out more about the Visual Arts Programme.