Grounds for what?

Eleanor Mills, 17.08.2016
It’s time to find new ways to enliven historic houses
In recent years it’s become fashionable for historic houses to show off contemporary art in their grounds – new-fangled objects displayed in front of traditional backdrops.
For instance this season, there’s quite a host of exhibitions going on.
Michelangelo Pistoletto’s arte povera works will adorn the English baroque masterpiece of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire from 15 September until 31 December.
Sotheby’s auction house puts on its annual contemporary sculpture show, Beyond Limits, in the grounds of Derbyshire’s Chatsworth House, from 10 September to 30 October.  
There's a healthy collection of contemporary art – from Phillip King’s new asymmetric steel sculpture to James Turrell’s meditative Skyspace – on permanent display at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, until the house closes to the public on 25 September.
And Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, built in the style of a French chateau and owned by the vineyard owners, the Rothschilds, is showing contemporary ceramics by Kate Malone until 16 October.
Does contemporary art make more people visit these great country stacks? What are the pros and cons of such shows?
Hatfield House in Hertfordshire put on an exhibition of Henry Moore sculpture in its grounds back in 2011, and how brilliant it was to see those works in such an idyllic setting, where Queen Elizabeth I spent the first 25 years of her life.
The cost of putting on one of these shows does spring to mind though, and I’m not talking money: I’m talking damage.
The installation of such large sculpture, whether steel or stone, is a considerable effort, and can damage well-kept, often historic, gardens.
So do historic houses need to be putting on these shows? For whose benefit are they?
There are dedicated sculpture parks across the UK – Jupiter Artland, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Roche Court – that have much more expansive landscapes to show work in, and one could argue that they have markedly better facilities for moving and installing large works.

Their ‘wilder’ environments lend themselves to displaying art better because there’s less possibility of harming tended heritage garden beds and topiary, and it becomes more of a surprise coming across works ad hoc, rather than in more confined grounds of a historic house.
This might all sound rather glib, but I ask you to question whether you think putting contemporary art shows in the grounds of grand properties is actually worth it for visitors and proprietors alike.
It’s nice to have things to see and do, like September’s chilli festival at Waddesdon and Hatfield’s frost fair in November. But considering the cost, to landscape and bank balance, how much do we value seeing conceptual art in Britain’s best loved gardens?
Maybe it’s time to come up with a new idea to enliven the UK’s great heritage properties.


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20.08.2016, 21:37
A few years ago I was lured to Chatsworth by a Caro exhibition in the grounds. The exhibition was so-so, but Chatsworth as a whole was absolutely brilliant. So I guess drom one point of view the exhibition worked.