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Gallery in the Trees

Location: Birmingham, UK

Artists: Kate Allen, Iris Bertz, Sabine Gollner, Kate Green, Ian Hinde, Nayan Kulkarni, Colin Pearce, Heather Steele and Pamela Wells

Overview

Gallery in the Trees is an environmental arts initiative which set out to pilot a strategy for commissioning public art with community involvement, participation and consultation. It is led by Birmingham City Council Museums and Arts Department and started in 1999.

It comprises four interwoven strands:-

  • The creation of new temporary and permanent public art works
  • Training in public art practice for artists
  • A digitally based programme of community participation
  • High profile one-off public events

The following artists have been commissioned over the past three years:-

Kate Allen, Iris Bertz, Sabine Gollner, Kate Green, Ian Hinde, Nayan Kulkarni, Colin Pearce, Heather Steele and Pamela Wells.

Gallery in the Trees explores and finds links between Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the city centre and the Lickey Hills Country Park to the south west of the city, through the eyes of artists and the wider public. Both are enormous places which are free to the visiting public to explore in their own way, and both deal with the landscape and the natural environment, conservation and preservation, public usage and access, albeit in different ways.

Background

The Parks Department and the Museums and Arts Department of Birmingham City Council have developed a commitment to working together with contemporary artists over the last ten years. A five-year artist in residence programme was run at the Lickey Hills Country Park during the 1990s which resulted in a series of open workshops and five sculptures across the park. Gallery in the Trees has built on this earlier experience, extending to embrace new technologies, to promote a greater understanding of contemporary art practice, and to increase public participation and increased access for all.

Gallery in the Trees meets a number of objectives:-

  • Artists are supported to develop new work in response to particular locations;
  • Local residents have the opportunity to experience a range of temporary site-specific works at the cutting edge of contemporary practice;
  • A limited number of strategic new permanent works are commissioned following public feedback about the temporary works;
  • Local residents are able to participate themselves in the making of an art piece;
  • The high profile public events stimulate understanding and debate about contemporary art and the environment, and raise the profiles of the Museum and the Country Park.

1999/2000

Temporary Works and Events

Four artists, Ian Hinde, Nayan Kulkarni, Colin Pearce and Heather Steele, were commissioned to undertake 20 days of research at the Museum and Art Gallery and the Lickey Hills Country Park in the twelve months from May 1999, and to propose works for temporary public display. The artists’ work was displayed to the public at two events:-

The Urban Forest was an indoor installation by some of the lead artists and selected trainees (see Training) which used the sights, sounds and smells of the Lickey Hills to create an indoor virtual environment. It was shown at the city centre International Convention Centre for two days in early January 2000.

After Dark was the high profile public culmination of the first year of the project. It took place after nightfall over two evenings in late April 2000 when over 7,000 people across the whole community walked the 1.5km route through Lickey Hills Country Park to see 19 works using projections, lasers, light, sounds and aromas, as well as mirrors and raw materials suggested by the history of the area. Responses from the public were gathered on the night, and the event was recorded on video.

Community Participation

Digital artists Kate Green and Pamela Wells were commissioned as artists in residence and to lead a community participation programme spread over the year. They produced a work in four sections, also shown during After Dark, which explored the notion of social space and the different ways in which artist and the local community can interact during the making of a public artwork. The installations ranged from the artists’ personal response to place, Illuminating the Obvious; Bearing Witness which used CCTV footage where the public were unaware of their involvement; a work incorporating traces, conversations and photos provided by the public, May I Have the Pleasure; and works made by local residents facilitated by the artists entitled Breathing Out.

Training

From July to October 1999 a course was run for artists to gain skills and experience in public art. Supported by the European Social Fund, and run by the lead artists commissioned to make temporary work, it offered 20 unemployed recent graduates a full-time course over 16 weeks, accredited to NVQ 4 level. Units included responding to a brief, making presentations, working with people, public art and professional development. The course participants were also able to develop a paper proposal and to realise small temporary works, and had mentoring and shadowing opportunities to work alongside the more experienced practitioners during The Urban Forest and After Dark.

Permanent Works

Selected as a result of public response and professional appraisal of the artists’ works during After Dark, Nayan Kulkarni and Colin Pearce were commissioned to make permanent works for Lickey Hills. Nayan Kulkarni’s proposed work, At a Glance, comprises two viewing devices utilising aspects of early optical devices such as the periscope, magic lantern and camera. The devices are set near the edges of the park in groups of trees, one on a high point with a long view of the park, the other in a lower, more secluded woodland. The walk between them has a series of benches inscribed with text inviting the walker to stop and consider.

Colin Pearce’s work In the Picture was installed in 2002. His proposal comprises an exploded life-sized picture frame, cast in a revolutionary new material, which can be realigned to capture the landscape by viewing through one eye from a particular position.

2001

Temporary Works and Events

The following year, Gallery in the Trees ran a smaller scale programme. Three artists, Kate Allen, Iris Bertz and Sabine Gollner were commissioned to spend time researching objects, artefacts and artworks from the Museum’s collection. Kate Allen and Iris Bertz went on to develop proposals for environmental artworks at the Lickey Hills Country Park; Sabine Gollner focussed her work around delivering a community participation programme. The temporary works were shown as part The View Belongs to Everyone, a six day long daytime event in September 2001, centred around the Lickey Hills Visitor Centre and disabled access route. 24 works, each by a different artist, were shown, including temporary works by the 20 participants in the training course (below) and the first of Nayan Kulkarni’s viewing devices. In all, The View… event attracted an estimated 3,500 visitors who came as a steady stream over the course of the week, as well as attracting the attention of many of the park’s regular visitors.

Community Participation

Digital artist Sabine Gollner, assisted by artists Nigel Ansom and Michelle Bint, worked with over 60 children and adults at animation and video workshops at Lickey Hills Visitor Centre. A multi-media CD-Rom was produced showing their work which tells stories of how the presence of humans affects animal life on the Lickey Hills. The CD-Rom was launched at The View Belongs to Everyone.

Training

A full-time training NVQ4 level course for unemployed recent art graduates was run for twelve weeks, again with ESF funding. The 20 trainees were led by three arts professionals as trainers, with additional input from the lead artists, including one-to-one mentoring. The course focussed on three units, including business skills, responding to a brief, and making a work in public. Each trainee presented a completed temporary installation as part of The View Belongs to Everyone.

Permanent Works

Kate Allen and Iris Bertz were commissioned to make permanent works for the country park, on a smaller scale than the previous year. Kate Allen's stainless steel picnic bench in a glade of woods, and Iris Bertz's willow boat structure cast in bronze were installed in 2002.

Key Issues

  • Digital and technical equipment in outdoor location

    An event of the scale and ambition of After Dark was made possible through sponsorship in terms of equipment loan and expertise from three big Birmingham-based companies. There were issues of security, technical robustness and reliability, and electricity supply to contend with.

  • Public safety

    Especially during the After Dark event, which ran from 7 – 10.30pm in Lickey Hills Country Park, the need for careful Health and Safety risk appraisal and adequate stewarding was essential. In the event there were no incidents.

  • Training Course

    The European Social Fund financial support placed constraints on trainees who could be accepted onto the training courses. They had to have been unemployed for a minimum of 6 months, to have an artistic practice already in place (ie graduates) and to want to become self-employed as artists. There were also social exclusion targets to be met. There was difficulty in ensuring the course was relevant to all participants, who were at different starting points. It is absolutely essential that such courses involve practising artists and have mentoring opportunities for trainees in practical situations. Following the courses there was a debate about the need for a more formal method of appraisal and examination to include measuring soft outcomes.

Contact

For more information contact:

Rob Hewitt, Birmingham City Council, Leisure and Culture, Arts and Events, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH. Tel: 0121 303 2713; Fax: 0121 303 1394;

Email: Rob_Hewitt@birmingham.gov.uk

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2002.