Q&A | 'We wanted to use this period to come back bolder and more beautiful' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We wanted to use this period to come back bolder and more beautiful’

Charleston director Nathaniel Hepburn is looking to the future after the challenges of the Covid pandemic
Covid-19 Q&a
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Simon Stephens
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Nathaniel Hepburn, director and chief cxecutive of the Charleston Trust
Nathaniel Hepburn, director and chief cxecutive of the Charleston Trust Photograph by Alun Callender

Nathaniel Hepburn is the director and chief executive of Charleston, the site in Sussex that is dedicated to members of the Bloomsbury Group of artists, writers and thinkers.

Hepburn discusses how the organisation has emerged from the many challenges of the Covid pandemic and his plans for the organisation going forward.

How has Covid impacted Charleston and what measures have helped the organisation recover from the pandemic? 

I remember a meeting of the board of trustees in early 2020 when I presented several scenarios around how Covid would affect Charleston. One of the trustees pointed out that these were not technically scenarios as they could all happen. This proved to be the case.

Charleston is like many independent museums and has no core revenue funding from the local authority or Arts Council England. Charleston had only recently finished a long-running capital project, this combined with the time of the year for a business which was at the very beginning of moving out of a highly seasonal revenue model, meant our reserves were significantly depleted. 

We knew that we would have to launch an emergency appeal to ensure that the charity did not fail, but it was challenging to imagine doing so when other charities were fundraising for appeals which were literally a matter of life and death. However wonderful Charleston is, and however important our national cultural heritage is, we knew it was a difficult but necessary ask to fundraise for the charity’s survival in that climate.

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Our independence might have meant that the organisation was at more risk than other museums, but it also allowed the charity to act quickly and imaginatively. We decided to remain closed until the following spring, and to use this period of closure to complete 18 projects we developed as part of our Covid Recovery Plan.

We wanted to use this period to come back more resilient, more connected to our communities, bolder and more beautiful. This proved to be a compelling narrative for funders who wanted to support Covid recovery in a different way or were restricted to capital only grants.

In this year of closure, we were able to rebuild the collapsed access road, migrate to new customer relationship management (CRM) and ticketing systems, build a new website, restore the former pottery, open new access routes into the house, transform the visitor experience with the introduction of the Bloomberg Connects app, undergo a rebrand to reflect the shift from heritage site to cultural centre, and repaint key parts of the outside of the house.

We didn’t deliver everything we wanted to, but we were certainly able to accelerate the organisation to a point it would otherwise have taken over five years for us to achieve.

What role has digital played in your audience engagement? 

When we entered the pandemic, digital was not part of Charleston’s strategy. The charity earns 90% of its revenue through visitors to the site so we hadn’t thought more about our digital audiences beyond using social media to attract audiences. Like many organisations, the pandemic forced us to shift our thinking especially as we knew the site would be closed for at least a year.

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It now seems obvious that digital engagement is one answer to the significant physical, geographical and financial barriers that exist for many visitors to engage with Charleston. But pre-pandemic it was a luxury for the organisation to spend time developing digital content when all attention needed to be focused on bringing paying visitors to the site.

Charleston in November © The Charleston Trust; photograph: Lee Robbins

Although visitors are still critical to our income generation, we have started to make a fundamental shift in our approach to digital. I think it would have otherwise taken us a decade to get to this place and we need to be careful to preserve the gains of the pandemic as the pressures to grow visitors through the doors return.

It was Vanessa Bell’s son Quentin that said, “Charleston is not just a house but a phenomenon”, and we know that telling our stories through digital channels can reach the broad and diverse audiences that have a hunger to hear about Charleston and its stories.

It has been a huge joy to see online broadcasts of our events being enjoyed by audiences around the world, the growth of our social media, and the huge impact of commissioning a broad range of voices to create content for our website and our digital guide on the Bloomberg Connects app.

How important is equality, diversity and inclusion at Charleston? 

Central to all the work that we have been doing for the past four years has been broadening Charleston’s audiences. We all believe passionately that Charleston should be a public space which is welcoming and accessible for everyone.

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We have significant physical access challenges with almost no public transport options for getting to our rural, farm location and a tricky site which still requires significant investment to make it accessible for everyone.

But there are also many other barriers: we know that Charleston has often been perceived as unwelcoming and exclusive. There is no getting away from the fact that the Bloomsbury group had significant privilege, but we also know visitors are inspired by and love Charleston for different reasons – whether that is the garden, the queer heritage, the radical art, the interior design, the literature or the progressive social ideas.

Our rebrand, as well as the changes to our website and tone of voice are all driven by our objective to reposition the organisation and attract much broader and more representative visitors. The Bloomsbury group’s ideas provide us with the ability to programme across a broad range of subject matters and ideas.

We want our programming and our commissioning to reflect diverse voices. We have already started to see the impact of how changes to our programming are rippling through the organisation to broaden the demographic of our workforce and our board of trustees.

We have had a strong queer programme for many years at Charleston and many audiences are attracted by the house as a queer refuge and as a place to imagine the ideas of family differently. We are supported by an LGBTQ+ advisory group in our programming which includes an annual festival of queer politics, art and identity.

In 2020 Charleston was given a collection of previously hidden drawings by Duncan Grant that show, largely gay, sex. This gift was only possible because of our deep commitment to telling Charleston’s queer story.

We were overwhelmed by the number of applications we had when we recruited for an equity, diversity and inclusion advisory group. It was gratifying to see people from many different communities who had started to see signs that Charleston was becoming more welcoming and accessible, and they wanted to lend their professional and lived experience to continue this process.

There is still lots of work to do and I know it is what gets us all out of bed every morning! 

What are your key networks and partnerships?

Partnerships are at the heart of how we do things at Charleston. It is very important to me that we don't operate in a vacuum and that we continue to learn from how other organisations do things.

We have many programming partners that we work with to deliver our exhibitions, events and festivals - we couldn't be as ambitious without them, and they help us reach new audiences and attract a broader range of artists to work with. Our work with Marlborough Theatre in Brighton is a great example of a supportive and ambitious partnership.

Charleston is a leading organisation in Sussex Modern, a consortium of cultural organisations that developed out of a partnership I led in my role as director of Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, which brought nine museum collections together for an exhibition at London’s Two Temple Place in 2017.

Sussex Modern has grown to now include many of the amazing vineyards in the area to tell a unique story of Sussex as a place of world-class wine, pioneering art and stunning landscapes. From a £15,000 Arts Council England grant in 2016, we have in the last year secured nearly a million pounds for the visitor economy of the area. Something that could only have happened through generous and ambitious partnerships.

Charleston will be holding a conference on partnerships later in the year to explore the opportunities that collaborative working present for the sector. Despite some examples of innovation, the sector is still made up of many small museums with big ambitions but struggling with a lack of resources.

I hope the conference will help us understand some of the barriers which seem to remain for taking partnerships to the next level. We will be working to ensure that there are lots of finance managers, and chairs of finance committees in the room for the event!

What does the next five years look like at the charity?

When I joined the organisation just over four years ago, I knew that this was an organisation that I wanted to lead for a long time. These four years have flown by and I look with real pride on the changes that the team have made to share Charleston and its amazing stories with more people.

It is gratifying to see new audiences discovering Charleston for the first time and quickly becoming repeat visitors. But it still feels like we are in our infancy with lots of plans to bring into fruition.

It is now nearly three years since we have had a robust and impactful learning and community engagement programme at Charleston. We have big plans for how this programme can be really distinctive and can reflect the vision for Charleston as a place to imagine the world differently.

It is exciting to think of an interdisciplinary learning programme reflecting the ideas of the Bloomsbury group: exploring radical literature, art as a way of life, progressive economics and different ideas for love and families. We are keen to reopen our newly restored pottery as a social enterprise working in partnership with artists and a charity for refugees in our community. 

In addition to our recent gift of 422 of Grant’s erotic drawings, and the acquisition of the nationally significant Famous Women Dinner Service in 2018, we have a growing collection and the opportunity to secure significant gifts and bequests. However, to do this we need to provide better storage and improved access to our collections for our audiences and for researchers.

A learning programme and a collection and archive store will require more space as will mundane things like better office space - we currently have no accessible office space and no meeting rooms or rest areas for staff and volunteers.

We are currently exploring whether the charity will need to start a new capital building programme on the rural site, or whether repurposing an existing building in a town centre location could deliver the same benefits but without the embedded carbon impact of a new building, and with significant access advantages.

Our central drive for Charleston to be a place of radical art and experimental thinking will underpin all our decisions over the next decade, as will our commitment for Charleston to be a public place.

We will work to secure funding, including applying to join the Arts Council National Portfolio to allow us to incrementally remove and reduce pay barriers to enable this vision to become a reality.

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