The EY Tate Arts Partnership

Tate St Ives

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An interview with Tate St Ives' Executive Director Mark Osterfield

The small coastal town of St Ives, Cornwall, has been an important part of the UK arts world since the 19th century. It gained particular prominence in the 20th century as home to influential British modernists such as Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon. Tate St Ives opened in June 1993.

Mark Osterfield joined Tate in 2006 and has been Executive Director of Tate St Ives since 2007. He spoke to us about safeguarding the town’s artistic history, while also bringing pioneering contemporary work to a local audience.

  • What makes Tate St Ives unique?

    Mark Osterfield: Very simply, the location of St Ives geographically, historically and culturally is what makes the gallery unique. The town has been a thriving artists’ colony since the 19th century, and there are still artists living and working here. The town became especially noteworthy in the mid-20th century, when artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who were at the vanguard of the British modernist movement, lived and worked here. This period left St Ives an artistic legacy of local engagement twinned with international vision. Tate is in St Ives because of this legacy.

    Barbara Hepworth is effectively a symbol of this local and international sense. Her sculpture “Single Form”, which was made here in St Ives, is in the plaza of the United Nations Headquarters in New York. Hepworth moved here in 1939 and lived here until her death in 1975. She had a studio and garden that she worked in, and when she died she left this to the nation. In 1980, Tate took over the running of the Barbara Hepworth Museum. In 1985, there was a major exhibition about the St Ives artists at Tate Britain. That exhibition created a real surge of feeling in Cornwall – people wanted to see a gallery where this art originated.

    Ultimately, Tate St Ives was opened in 1993. Since then, it has strived to celebrate the legacy of the St Ives modernists and to complement this with the best of international modern and contemporary art. We’re a bridge: we aim to be engaged with the local community, but still look out at and engage with the world.

  • How do you decide which exhibitions to put on?

    Mark Osterfield: The St Ives modernists’ work was quite radical and innovative, and it was rooted in this place, but also had a freshness about it. Trying to capture the spirit of the work of that time is our modus operandi. Exhibitions such as A Continuous Line: Ben Nicholson in England (2009) or Peter Lanyon (2010-11) highlight the amazing work of those artists. But, at the same time, we want to uphold that sense of being innovative and radical by showing international contemporary artists.

  • Which exhibitions have been the most successful?

    Mark Osterfield: Probably our most successful show of the last 10 years or so was Barbara Hepworth Centenary in 2003, which attracted about 145,000 visitors. We’ve also had great success in presenting interesting and innovative work. For instance, the Summer Exhibition 2011 showed the work of seven contemporary artists. The exhibition included Martin Creed’s "Work No. 200: Half the air in a given space", a spectacular installation, where visitors were invited to go into the huge, curved, glass fronted gallery overlooking the Atlantic ocean, which was filled with 23,000 white balloons. This was an amazing experience for our audiences, an example of pure thrill. We had children coming after school just to be part of that exhibition.

  • Which exhibitions have been your personal favorites?

    Mark Osterfield: One of the exciting things for me is that every time a new show goes up, I feel as if we’ve suddenly got a new gallery – the whole building changes and feels completely different. One show that I personally enjoyed, but also had something for everybody, was Aquatopia (2013-14), which has just closed. It was a collaborative project with Nottingham Contemporary and curated by its director Alex Farquharson, in collaboration with St Ives’ last artistic director Martin Clark. The show had a wonderful range of work: from very early Mantegna drawings to contemporary pieces, such as a film of Japanese artist Shimabuku taking an octopus on a tourist trip around Tokyo. Aquatopia was about the fact that we know less about what’s under the sea than what’s on the moon. So the sea becomes a site of imagination and projection. The works on display were looking at our fantasies of beneath the sea – both the terrifying and the beautiful.

  • Are most of your visitors from the local area?

    Mark Osterfield: No, quite the opposite: 80% or more of our visitors come as part of a trip away from home. Only 15%-20% of our audience is local, depending on the season. So it’s a balancing act for us, because we’re really keen to engage with our local audience and we run a lot of programs that are specifically aimed at local people. For example, we’ve started a new program called Toddle Tate, which is for children under five and their parents and carers. It has been a great way to bring in people who wouldn’t necessarily have thought of engaging with art or a gallery. We’ve been running that now for about six months and it’s had a really positive impact on the people participating and us.

    We do a lot of other work with families and young people too. At the moment we’re part of the Circuit program, which is supported by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation. Circuit offers young people opportunities to engage with their own creativity, but also to engage with others at the organization. In turn, this helps us to change, so that we’re more responsive to young people.

  • Is it important to you to be actively engaged with the local community?

    Mark Osterfield: Local engagement is important nationally, but it’s certainly a priority in a region like Cornwall, which is the poorest county in England. Giving people opportunities to see themselves differently, to build their confidence and their sense of aspiration and potential, this is a really important thing for us to be doing.

    We’re also embarking on a major scheme to extend the gallery. This will double the gallery space: we’re building new learning spaces, a new collection care suite and new visitor facilities. This project had been in development for some years, but we really made substantial progress when we started working very closely with the local community to develop our plans.

    For an institution like us to be successful, dialogue with the local community is essential. And it’s not just essential for our survival. You can do so much more than survive – you can really thrive, by engaging properly with local communities and local audiences. However, we are also engaging with our general visitors, with fantastic exhibitions, a broad range of public programs and innovative ways to get involved with the gallery. For instance, I Spy Tate, which is a simple puzzle, designed to engage, occupy and excite families.

  • Tell us more about the refurbishment you’re undertaking at the moment.

    Mark Osterfield: The gallery is closed for three months for work in the existing building. We are creating new reception and cloakroom areas and a new resource room. We reopen to the public on 17 May 2014 and we will be spending the summer celebrating our 21st birthday. As part of this, we’ve planned a major exhibition, International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives, 1915-65. It will be a lovely way to reflect on the last 21 years and the history of the gallery and the town. It will also point to our future: when we open our extended galleries, we will have year-round displays of the work of the St Ives modernists alongside exhibitions of international modern and contemporary art.

  • Do you work collaboratively with other galleries in Cornwall?

    Mark Osterfield: We do work extensively with other publicly funded galleries in the local area, and beyond. Tate St Ives is part of Plus Tate, which supports the development of the visual arts across the UK. Tate also contributes its resources to a network of organizations and individuals for the benefit of the wider public. Locally we’ve worked with the Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange in Penzance, which are both Plus Tate partners, on exhibitions and on young people’s programs. Within the Plus Tate network, we also work with galleries such as Nottingham Contemporary, Turner Contemporary, the Hepworth Wakefield and many more.

    We have relationships with several other cultural providers in Cornwall. Cornwall is a bit like a small city: its population is about 540,000, although it is 100 miles long. So it is a big place, with this dispersed “city” across it, but there’s a really strong sense of personal network. If you live and work in Cornwall’s cultural sector, the chances are you’ll know everybody else who works in it too. But this means that we can work really closely together.

    For instance, we’ve worked with the Hall for Cornwall theatre in Truro and we’re also in discussion with the Eden Project about collaboration. We feel that being a national gallery in a rural location, it is part of our job to support a wider network of cultural organizations and to work with them.

    A few years ago, we were part of a campaign to create a “European Region of Culture” as a counterpart to the European City of Culture. We didn’t quite achieve that, but we did get funding for different projects where we worked with other European countries and other partners to build Cornwall’s cultural profile. As a result of this, we’ve had notable support from other funders, such as Arts Council England and Cornwall Council. I think that by just investigating the idea we became a “region of culture”. In the past five years, the county council has invested significantly in culture, during a time when many authorities have stepped back from culture completely.

  • Has Tate St Ives’ successful Artist Residency scheme come to an end?

    Mark Osterfield: No, it has just been relaunched as the Artists Programme. Under the old Artist Residency scheme, we’d bring in an artist who would work with us for six months to a year and then we’d give them an exhibition at the end of their residency. Under the new scheme, we are trying to be a bit more flexible. Firstly, we’re no longer asking people to come and do work for an exhibition – it’s much freer than that. We’re now bringing practitioners from diverse creative disciplines here who will benefit from the time to research and develop their work. We’re hoping that collaborations with us might arise out of this.

    The first artist on the relaunched Artists Programme is Linder Sterling, who’s now spending six months with us. She is working on her own material, but at the same time she’s got involved with Circuit and has been working with young people on various projects. Some really interesting ideas have come out of this collaboration. Before her residency, Linder created a ballet based on the Barbara Hepworth sculpture “The Family of Man”. This was produced with the Northern Ballet and premiered in Paris. She has been able to bring down Northern Ballet for a one-off performance at the community-run St Ives Theatre. We are really pleased that Linder has connected the St Ives legacy with a new form of arts practice, the ballet. The result was a phenomenal, moving and exciting performance.

    Linder will be with us for six months in total. After that we’re running two parallel three-month residencies in the autumn and then we’ll have another single, six-month placement.

    In addition to the Artists Programme, we’re developing an Associate Programme that will engage artists on specific projects without them necessarily having to live here. We’re trying to create more opportunities for artists to be right at the heart of Tate St Ives and for their creative and innovative practice to have an impact on the way we work, and ultimately on what we can offer our visitors.

  • What are the key challenges for St Ives and the arts world in the UK as a whole?

    Mark Osterfield: We are at a critical point: we face huge challenges, but it also feels like there’s a real recognition of opportunity. Other business sectors are becoming more open to seeing what engaging with the arts can do for people. Locally, it feels like there’s recognition that to give young people and families the opportunity to engage with creativity is very positive and has far-reaching and long-lasting benefits. I also feel that there is still a general public interest in the arts – the popularity of the four Tate galleries alone is indicative of this.

    But on the other hand, in economic terms, the situation is much tougher. Government funding has dropped and tourism has been in decline. The number of visitors to Cornwall has fallen by about 20%, which is quite a challenge for us. Partly because of this, Tate St Ives is constantly working to refresh its business model, to engage in funded projects, and to make sure we’re delivering to broader audiences.

    Despite the decline in tourist numbers, there are still 4 million visitors to Cornwall each year. We want to welcome every one of them to Tate St Ives and invite them to have a great day out in the gallery. Visiting Tate St Ives is about taking part. No knowledge of art is required and everyone can express their own views on what’s on show at Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum. With art, there are no right or wrong answers!

    Finally, we also need to develop new relationships with other sectors, and with businesses, such as EY, in particular. Thanks to the EY Tate Arts Partnership, EY is now a business member of Tate St Ives. Increasingly, we’re building our relationships with local and national businesses. And that kind of support has a beneficial effect for those businesses and it’s also very useful for us. We enjoy benefits beyond just financial support: having a close relationship with business helps us to think differently about our own organization, and how we can develop it in the future.