“The ecstasy of drudgery” says Adam Sutherland, quoting Eric Gill, with only a hint of the fanatic in his eyes. We are standing in the hall of the Coniston Institutive in the Lake District and Sutherland, Director of Grizedale Arts, is telling me what artists can expect when they come on residency here. Over the past 15 years, Grizedale has become the most radical arts organisation in the country. “Which is odd,” says a bemused Sutherland surveying the craft-making workshop going on around him “because what we are doing is actually very ordinary”. But then sometimes it takes an extraordinary effort to be ordinary.
Grizedale Arts, as it is known today, began in 1999 when Adam Sutherland was appointed the new director of a small arts organisation based in the forest of Grizedale. It is now a research and development agency for contemporary artists, running a curatorial programme of community events and artist residencies. Inspired by places like Dartington Hall in Totnes, which embraced the philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s ideals of progressive education and rural reconstruction, and John Ruskin’s early workers’ education movement, Grizedale promotes art that is useful to society.
From the start Grizedale Arts caused controversy, splitting locals into two camps, those who embraced its cultural democracy and those who saw the organisation as cynically exploiting the community. Sutherland, ever the belligerent optimist, devoured all criticism, even going so far as to invite the inhabitants to decide the fate of a much-hated public art work commissioned by Grizedale. They did so with rueful pugnacity by burning it to the ground.
Its impact on the art world was also immediate. Grizedale offered an alternative to the neo-liberalism dominating contemporary art at the time and became a place of refuge for a group of young, post-yBa artists who were at odds with the prevailing climate. Artists like Olivia Plender, Nathaniel Mellors, David Blandy and Bedwyr Williams. By 2004, when Alistair Hudson joined as deputy director, Grizedale had become something of a right-of-passage for socially engaged artists.
A kind of Grizedale aesthetic began to emerge, often involving animal costumes, craft and subversion. Marcus Coates confronted rural romanticism, literally head on, by attaching dead birds to his skull in an attempt to excite the Sparrow Hawk population, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane started their Folk Archive*, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope won the Northern Art Prize for work made as part of the Grizedale commission The 7 Samurai in which seven artists traveled to work with a local community in Japan.
Then, five years ago, Grizedale stopped encouraging artists to make art. They were still invited on residencies, but were expected to dig in the garden, print tea towels for the honest shop or run activities in the local village. What happened? Did Grizedale become anti-art? “Not at all”, says Sutherland, “I think art can change people’s lives, but for me creative success is the practical application of an idea that is integrated into the everyday and then sustained by a community inspiring involvement and development”.
Grizedale’s fifteen years are currently being celebrated with an exhibition in multiple venues across the Lake District called ‘The Nuisance of Landscape’- a suitably truculent title for an organisation that’s impossible to get to without a car. The exhibition starts with a blurred photograph of Marcus Coates crawling across a field in one of his many attempts to commune with nature. I’ve always enjoyed Coates’ art, he does no harm, although he invariably puts himself in potentially hazardous situations, politically, physically and emotionally, yet everyone comes out with their honour in tact, and as Grizedale’s longest serving artist resident it is fitting he starts the show. There is also a video of Sutherland describing the public burning by the local community of the contentious piece by Roddy Thomson and Colin Lowe.
A retrospective is a great way of testing the waters of contemporary art, and what becomes apparent is how much of an impact Grizedale has had on the British art world, not just for its humour and DIY punk aesthetic, but its collective subversivism - they even make a key cutting shack look political (we don’t do Chubbs). But mostly I like the fact that Grizedale is a respite home for art’s superannuated Trojans, those who have fallen foul of contemporary cultural Imperialism. There’s a great film of Olivia Plender earnestly attempting to rehabilitate the late Ken Russell as an auteur while he barks on about tits and ass and John Ruskin is celebrated for his progressive ideals, rather than his pathological fear of pubes. In many ways, Russell and Ruskin are good mascots for Grizedale. Both were uncompromising bastards who spent much of their lives in conflict with the prevailing orthodoxy.
As Sutherland says, “Why should the shit version win? Lets reclaim a role in art; we will give back to people's lives what is missing and it will act as a catalyst to get other disconnected activities back into dialogue.” For those in the public arts sector, crippled by cuts and directed by a deluded government into approaching an utterly indifferent private sector for money, Grizedale suggests there might just be another way.
* Jeremy and Alan's Folk Archive definitely didn't start at Grizedale although they did come to stay during the collecting phase and decided that any local folk art was tainted by the proximity of so many artists so consequently inadmissible.