Lawson Park at Grizedale Arts is the kind of place that you imagine in your most well-crafted of dreams when your hope is for somewhere to focus a keen artistic rigour. There are spaces for writing and spaces for thinking. There are spaces for cooking together, for dining together, for enjoying a late cup of tea. Perched overlooking the valley that extends across the lake towards the village of Coniston, there are ample open spaces to arrest the gaze and rest the mind.
Director Adam Sutherland takes an admirable approach to the balance between structure and provocation, offering a range of working constraints that enable good practice. The summer day begins with stillness as the sun lights the vast 4:30am sky. We gather for a post-breakfast meeting at 9:00am to make the day’s plans. Lunch will be a punctual 1:00pm, dinner at 7:30pm. (The property is too meandering and the context too peaceful to yell out the mealtime warning!)
Across my days here, I meet Korean curators, Jin Kwon and Jina Lee; London curator, Olivia Leahy; Spanish artist Fernando García-Dory; UK architect, Charles Sutherland; Swedish curator, Maria Lind and her son, Primo; and Grizedale’s outgoing Deputy Director, Alastair Hudson, soon to be Director at the Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art. I also participated in the New Rurals symposium at Littoral’s Merz Barn. Together and apart we write, research, develop work, cook and share meals, look after the vegetable garden and the too-clever pigs, swim in the lake and tell stories from our homelands. Fernando’s mobile cheese production unit, Jina’s exhibition on the politics of craft, Adam’s Grizedale retrospective exhibition, The Nuisance of Landscape, and Maria’s Sunday night lecture, occupy our discussions, forming a rich context for my investigations into artistic leadership. Adam’s encyclopaedic knowledge on a broad range of topics makes him a ready advisor across all our discussions.
Grizedale Arts is renowned internationally for its residency and commissioning program, and collaborators have ranged from local and UK institutions to PS1 in New York. While not explicitly orienting his artistic framework to the rural, Adam is committed to working honestly and authentically, as well as working in long-term critical engagement. A former director of the neighbouring Grizedale Forest arts park (also owned by the Forestries Commission), Adam laments its drift from a sophisticated approach to the visitor experience, to a theme park in a forest complete with flying fox rides. Art in the rural condition must exceed the urban gaze with its perception of an undifferentiated expanse of landscape to be dotted by sculptures and inflatables. Adam’s local programming includes workshops and talks at the Coniston Institute, a former Mechanics’ Institute hall which a theatre space come vintage shop, an honesty shop for local makers and bakers, and a commercial-sized kitchen for cooking village meals. Lawson Park (from whose library I write) accommodates several residents, allowing for something of an induction experience prior to volunteering, internships, residencies or other projects.
It’s difficult to think of an Australian organisation whose approach is comparable to Grizedale’s. Arts Mildura and its biennial Palimpsest, Punctum in Castlemaine, and Gertrude Contemporary in Melbourne each share some elements – however, Grizedale’s located and year-round work also understands Lawson Park and the Institute as public spaces, and there’s also Parkamoor, an off-grid artist or retreat residence on the property. Grizedale’s ongoing work is itself an extended curatorial project in constant relation to the complexities of its rural situation, and as such, artistic process is a problematic as well as something in which to engage the community.
One of my research questions for this current adventure is: Is there a regional artistic framework? While I had hoped to lead a roundtable on the topic while I was here, the ‘New Rurals’ symposium took a different turn, offering instead new insights into areas of policy and strategy. The work of Regional Arts Victoria (among Australia’s other state-level regional arts organisations) lies somewhere between the focus of that roundtable and the symposium, leading a strategic approach to regional arts development while setting new ideas and approaches into play to inspire new thinking. A fine balance to be struck between structure and provocation. Meeting Adam and experiencing the model he leads has galvanised my resolve for an organisation with an honest, generous approach. An artistic framework might be energised and propelled by its geography, but first and foremost it must understand its role as a part of that geography – an element that, albeit contingent, can be a valuable catalyst.