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Interview: Laura Purseglove, project curator, Art and Christianity Enquiry

17 March 2017

‘Art is an end in itself, something that the Church has historically supported’

Introducing art in churches is diffi­cult, and it’s often contentious. It is important that the projects are col­laborative, with a church partner that is really open to an artist, but also able to take an active role in developing what the artist produces. You’d hope that the people who are intimately involved with the build­ing itself would help to steer the project away from anything that works against it. Meanwhile, good artists can draw out interesting ele­ments in the architecture which might be overlooked.

 

Curating usually reflects a tem­por­ary assignment to a specific project, usually an exhibition. Mine is a two-year post to make people aware of Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE), and encourage them to get in touch for a particular church, or with a general idea. My job is to enable that connection between artists and churches, helping good projects to come about.

 

ACE was founded in the late-1980s by the late Tom Devonshire Jones, who formed a group of individuals passionate about art and Christian­ity. Following its first series of sem­inars in 1991, it became a charitable trust in 1994. We maintain a pro­gramme of lectures and events, and set up a biannual conference. In 1995, we began publishing our quar­terly newsletter for an international audience, now called Art & Chris­tianity. My post is funded by the Jerusalem Trust and the Headley Trust. We’re based in London, but work nationally.

 

I’ll be involved in the development of a number of exhibitions, and I’ll be writing up case studies on exist­ing exhibitions. I’ll also support churches and cathedrals by offering guidance on best practice.

 

There currently exists an ACE guide for commissioning permanent works for churches and cathedrals, but this is about the practical nuts and bolts of temporary installations, and working with living artists: con­tracts, payments, insurance, legal and administrative stuff. My experi­ence is in a museum context; so I’ll be learning how this works in a church, too. There are challenges working in old buildings which are not set up for showing art with the security that museums have.

 

I’m developing ideas for exhibi­tions, although it’s early days. The first is a project inspired by connec­tions between medieval ideas of liv­ing matter with the contemporary concern with materiality, or the dy­­namism of materials, in artistic practice. Matter was seen as quite powerful, kind of alive; so it affected how people interpreted art and ob­­jects. Lots of contemporary artists are interested in their materials and their inherent trajectory of change. I’m talking to artists to see who might be interested in exploring that in a new project.

 

The second is a collaborative pro­ject: an artist-residency programme in churches for refugees and resid­ent artists to respond to the theme of residency. I have a connection to Platformer, an organisation that supports refugee artists in all art forms. They have a festival in New­castle in November, and I hope to draw on their huge network of art­ists.

 

I began working for Artangel in 2015, following a longish spell working in temporary exhibitions at the British Museum. Artangel com­missions and produces art projects, typically by mid-career artists, in unusual spaces. For instance, in the past year I worked on a group ex­­hibition at Reading Prison, and a film installation in one of London’s earliest cinemas.

 

I’ve always loved churches; so, when I saw this post advertised, I saw an opportunity to bring some of the expertise I’ve developed to projects in these wonderful buildings.

 

I grew up in Cambridge, which is a great place to be a child. My friends and I would set out on our bikes to the many green spaces, or head down to the river. I was lucky that our house was full of books, in­­cluding art books, and we visited museums and historic buildings regularly as a family. Trips out often included visits to churches. I was resistant as a younger child and teenager, but began to appreciate them more when I started studying for my art-history A level. My inter­est in art and architecture really took off then.

 

The two shaping early experiences were seeing Hamlet with my dad in Cambridge, and visiting the Musée d’Orsay, both when I was about 11 years old. I’d always liked looking at pictures in books, but these encoun­ters were about art as a collective experience. I think the capacity of art to simultaneously engage the personal and the collective is still important to me. It’s one of the things that interests me about churches.

 

The relationship between the artist and the Church is fascinating, and it continues with some exciting new works in sacred spaces. For me, art’s always an end in itself, and I think the Church has historically sup­ported, and continues to support, creativity in ways which are open to individual creativity and interpreta­tion. If supporting and nurturing great art is your focus, education, new audiences, and so on will follow.

 

Things that people share together, like listening to the same music at a concert, creates a community. For me, living in London, this is quite important, because you can feel very isolated. I’m wary of using the word “ritual”, but I’m also interested in rituals and how anthropologists think of rituals, or entering a space where you are out of time. It’s powerful, transformative. Theatre is a classic example, because you enter another world. The installation art that Artangel does is very much about creating an environment in which people experience something transformative.

 

The other side of the coin is the sense that some kind of installation art can be overly a spectacle. Criti­cism can be launched against certain kinds of immersive art experiences that they are ultimately shallow, the “experience economy” — spectacu­lar, but ultimately a bit empty. That can be true, and it’s important to think about. You need to be grounded in something that is meaningful.

 

Cathedrals are quite used to having a programme for artists and getting funding, but churches don’t tend to do that so much, unless perhaps for a particular festival. Funding’s a big issue. Some churches, though, have a very strong connection with the arts, and it’s organic: people pull together to make something happen.

 

You should work with what’s already there rather than create something new. It’s certainly diffi­cult in such loaded spaces, full of history — so different from the white cube that contemporary art­ists are used to working in.

 

Any artist can enjoy this collabora­tion, and there can be an interesting pairing of the people who care for the church, and who have a deep theological understanding, with an artist who comes in with a different take; so I wouldn’t want to be con­fined to working with Christian artists.

 

Like many young women, I loved Frida Kahlo for her use of art to define and assert her identity. Her use of a traditional, culturally em­­bedded visual language, Mexican votive painting, to say something new, still interests me very much. Matisse and Cy Twombly delight me, while I look to Louise Bourgeois and Joseph Beuys for something different, which is their negotiation of space and metaphor, very pertin­ent to the kind of site-specific pro­jects I’m often working on.

 

I like waking up at night and hear­ing the sound of trains rumbling past.

 

My Dad read a lot of poetry to me as a child, and I find it a great joy and solace. Elizabeth Bishop, Don Pater­son, Derek Walcott, and Seamus Heaney are favourites. I find that jazz is good to listen to when I’m working: it seems to help me think. I like Charlie Mingus and Miles Davis; and my all-time favourite is Joni Mitchell.

 

There’s so much to be angry about politically. There seems to be plenty of thoughtful, sustained, productive anger channelled through protest and direct action at the moment, which is a good thing.

 

The way young people choose to vote gives me hope. They seem to be becoming more politically en­­gaged. It gives me hope that our immediate future is not our long-term future.

 

I’ve always loved travelling; I’m exhilarated by new places and new ideas. But, increasingly, I love being at home. London has endless new experiences to offer.

 

My parents have been the greatest influence on my life. My mum is a therapist, and my dad is an environ­mentalist. They’re both endlessly interested in the world, and have made such positive contributions to it.

 

If I was to find myself locked in a church for a few hours with some­one, I’d choose Louise Bourgeois. She was an incredible artist, and whenever I see her work I’m so struck by how complex and layered it is. I’d love to have the opportunity to talk to her about it. She did pro­duce some work for a church, and I imagine she’d be an incredibly sens­itive artist to work with in that kind of space.

 

Laura Purseglove was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. acetrust.org

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