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"The idea here has been that we don't fund village activity, we take part in it as a participant."

Based at Lawson Park Farm in the Lake District, Grizedale Arts curates and commissions contemporary art both within its local rural and international contexts, but with an emphasis on process, rather than product. Founded by the Forestry Commission in 1968, it has been led since 1999 by director Adam Sutherland, and has only one other core staff member, shared with the nearby Coniston Institute and the Ruskin Museum. All other staff are employed on a freelance basis; artists who attend its residencies as volunteers will often stay on with the organisation, at a standard pay rate of £100 per day. Its turnover is approximately £400,000, of which roughly 50% constitutes earned income, roughly £130-140,000 is funded by Arts Council England, and approximately £10,000 comes from the district council.

Mission: make art useful

Under the leadership of Adam Sutherland, Grizedale has developed a mission that is essentially civic in ambition: “We’re not trying to make art, we’re trying to create a stronger, more cohesive community.” The community in question is Coniston, a village of roughly 1,500 people with whom Grizedale engages in an ongoing process of exchange. “Creating a functional community isn’t dependent on artists: you can do it without artists – but I don’t think you can do it without creativity, which isn’t exclusive to artists. There are lots of very creative people in the village, who artists learn from a lot. The process of learning is one of the real strengths, and that’s going on on all sides.”

Art isn’t the teacher in this reciprocal relationship, but a tool that can be used to enhance the creativity of everyday life.

Complicated ways of not making art

There are three elements to how Grizedale operates:

  1. The local, everyday programme

A turning point for Sutherland was the realisation that: “if we work to invitation and respond to things that are already happening, that people want to do, and have asked us to help them with, we have a much better chance of making things and integrating creativity into the everyday”. Grizedale has worked to invitation since 2009, collaborating with its local community to “make the village interesting for everybody to live in”.

This has included working with the village to create The Honest Shop, “a shop that sells things that people in the village have made, from cake to vegetables to crafts”, and The Village Table, an amateur catering company; and on two large-scale redevelopment projects, rebuilding the Coniston cricket pavilion and restoring the Mechanics Institute as an adult education centre covering everything from health to arts. “The programme is very much about supporting existing groups and existing culture, and expanding on that. That’s very successful in terms of an arts organisation being integrated into the community: not, as is often the case with arts organisations, standing to one side to comment on it or try to help and develop it, but to be part of it.”

Sutherland mentions integration often because it is fundamental to bring “creative approaches to things other than art, for instance food and health”, and to participate with the full spectrum of local society, from people in their 90s to people with learning difficulties. This integrated approach enables Grizedale to step away from the projects it initiates, so that they become “something that people own and value and sustain. The things that are most satisfying are those that are taken away from us and people evolve and develop themselves.”

  1. The residency programme

Artists come to be embedded in this community through Grizedale’s residency programme: a week of “domestically oriented, disciplined and concentrated” work on Lawson Park Farm. “The ambition is about talking to artists about working in a different way, to think of how they make art as something that is valued by communities. That’s not a very familiar position for artists: they usually expect to have quite a confrontational role with the world. But there’s a genuine understanding from the local community that an artist is a useful, good thing, that’s introduced richness to their lives and their economy.”

3 The international programme

This element also expands from the village programme, and creates opportunities for “research and development, to try things out that aren’t necessarily going to work, and also to bring groups of people together, from the local community, as well as artists, academics, intellectuals”. Whereas Grizedale and its collaborating artists need to work delicately with the local village, always following the community’s ideas, in international contexts it can be more gung-ho and have fun, “because it’s just art people – it’s not our world”.

A challenge from tourism

One of the challenges of Grizedale’s world is the ongoing negotiation with a tourist industry that believes “Grizedale, as an arts organisation, should be making tourist attractions – in effect, large-scale land art that attracts people to come to the village”. This is what Grizedale did, very successfully, in the 1980s, and what Sutherland specifically seeks not to do, because: “That’s not public art, it’s an extension of studio practice and a way for the Arts Council to fund artists to make work. What we’re proposing is rebuilding local culture and a local authenticity.”

“What we’re proposing is rebuilding local culture and a local authenticity.”

In seeking to shift the perception of tourism among the community, from a force over which it has no control to something it can shape in its own interests, Grizedale proposes creative new strategies for tourism. “We don’t intend to make tourist attractions in the same way that we don’t intend to make art. In fact, we have impacted quite strongly on tourism: a project like the Honest Shop, which really reflects the community and the aesthetics that people in the village hold dear, is obviously a huge tourist attraction.” Other local businesses were initially wary of the competition – but have since come to adopt Grizedale’s methods as their own.

What next?

A healthy community, Sutherland argues, is one that periodically reinvents itself through a burst of energy and creativity. The cycle of change and decline “is often very long, 30 to 40 years – whereas you really want to turn those over much more quickly, every five to ten years”. Grizedale is committed to this ongoing process of change, and to “fundamentally creating new models for how communities and society work”. And Sutherland resists the suggestion that Grizedale needs more funding to achieve this: “The idea here has been that we don’t fund village activity, we take part in it as a participant. If it needs funding, we’ll help different groups do it, but we don’t want to hold the control, we don’t want be the decision-maker.”

“If it needs funding, we’ll help different groups do it, but we don’t want to hold the control, we don’t want be the decision-maker.”

His approach draws inspiration from the work of John Ruskin: “Ruskin used to own the farm that we’re based on and was a key person behind the development of the institute. ‘There is no wealth but life’ is Ruskin’s only famous quote and his idea in his later life was that art had its functional role in communities.” Ruskin established a museum, intended to educate people, and three craft schools – dedicated to metalworking, woodwork and lace-making – which would generate income and boost the economy even as they built local schools. This is the “historical precedent” Sutherland looks to when thinking about Grizedale’s future, and how it might continue to question ideas and values around education, financial aspiration, gentrification, nature and more.

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