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Interview with Juneau Projects, commissioned artists for the Gala Pool Arts Project. This interview explored their experience of working on Trust New Art projects and their thoughts on the role that contemporary arts plays in audience development at heritage sites.

Juneau Projects Interview

by David Viney | Birmingham City University

Friday the 31st of May interview wit Juneau Projects.

DV. Please introduce yourselves and tell me a bit about your professional experience, particularly about contemporary arts projects at heritage sites.

BS My name is Ben Sadler
PD. And I’m Phil Duckworth, and we work together as artists under the name Juneau Projects.
BS. So, we’ve worked together for about 20 years, and we’ve been based in Birmingham for pretty much all of that time. And more recently, as I’d say, probably within the last five, six years, we’ve been involved in more heritage linked projects, and had some involvement with the National Trust through projects of varying degrees of scale and engaged with the public as part of that. 

DV. So first question is quite broad. In your opinion, what value does contemporary arts activity add to heritage sites.

BS: I think, from our experience, it’s been quite a good way to make more of the story of a site or its heritage and find ways of teasing out the links to people’s lives nowadays, and finding ways to illustrate parallels between situations in history and of contemporary society. Whether that’s things that are similar, or things that are very different, but we found the artwork projects have been quite a good way of doing that really.
PD. I think specifically, engagement projects can bring a lot to people’s experience of a heritage site. And as Ben was saying, they can help illustrate or help people get hands on with something that was that was [historically] done on that site. Or, I think, in general, like visual art is another form of engagement, another way of showing you the research or reflecting the spirit or feeling of a place.
BS. I think, particularly with the National Trust projects we’ve done it’s kind of like a way of perhaps, meeting or engaging with new audiences for that venue that really haven’t necessarily, historically felt part of those venues.

DV. So tell me about a project you’ve been involved in, maybe in the last couple years. That was delivered at a heritage site.

PD. We worked at Cherryburn, which is a National Trust site in Newcastle, and the birthplace of Thomas Bewick the 18th century engraver. He was the equivalent of rock star of his time, because he produced the most detailed, most realistic, and natural looking engravings of animals and birds for the time. So with that project, we were thinking about his work and his legacy. We also, were working with printmaking, for the first time and our project was in partnership with northern print. So we visited them, and we were introduced to some techniques in printmaking through them.
BS. The sites a great site, and one of the one of the things they [National Trust] highlighted to us was that they don’t have a lot of repeat visits, it’s a lot of people, perhaps National Trust members like ticking off as one of the venues in their books that they visit. So they were keen to start thinking about how they might create more repeat visits, especially that were from the local community around the site.

So we developed an engagement program with them, looking at working with the staff there, but also with local schools to build up a new sort of demographic for their audience and to start thinking about how they might do that. And so through that project, we started thinking about your Bewick’s printing process, there is a lot on the site about his printing, but it’s not something that people were able to necessarily have a go at, in a way, so it could still seem quite an alien process to get your head around, really. So we kind of use that as a starting point, really, and work towards this idea of like a printing kit that staff could use with visitors, and it could be so through during an activity with them doing some printing, and it could be a way of chatting to them about Bewick, and also, you know about them, and people were able to take the kit away, which hopefully gave them an incentive to revisit, they could reuse the kit in lots of ways.

Participants that taking part and helped build the kit and what the printing blocks in the kit were. So you can make your own images from these print blocks. We’ve made the blocks using laser cutting, so they could talk about these modern processes and how Bewick pioneered the industrialisation of printing in a way through print block techniques. So we were able to give it relevance to today.

DV. So thinking about that project? Could you tell me what outcomes it set out to achieve? One would be repeat visits? I’m assuming for you, artists development?

BS. I think one of the things was one of the aims was a sort of legacy for the project as well, which was the aim of the kit. And so that’s continued as a sort of resource that’s there and is usable and is used by the staff. So that felt like a good result. I think it’s also helped sort of contribute to their wider engagement programs really about how they engage young people in their program. Our project was a sort of pilot project, and they now have an annual commission, so it’s become a bit of a feature as well, there are these contemporary art programs as part of their practice. So and that’s kind of pulling in an audience from the art sector in Newcastle as well, which I think has been quite good in a way sort of spreading that message about the place and making it it’s almost like a kind of contemporary arts venue now, as well as being a heritage venue.

DV. Did the project increase repeat visits? Did you get any feedback from NT about this?

BS. We haven’t had a huge amount of contact with them, but it was all very positive, so it might be worth chasing up. I think the thing that we’ve seen is that they have continued with it, so I think, hopefully, that sort of illustrates a benefit to them. But we haven’t got actual figures.

DV. Could you tell me anything about the processes used to target audiences?
BS. Shortly after we’d finish the project, the person who was the coordinator and moved on to a new job, another new person came in. So I think they’ve kind of brought that with them. Yeah. Yeah. We don’t know them.

DV. So what would you do differently if you did it again?

PD. I think because, so project outcome was an exhibition, as well as the print kit. And the print kit was something we use for making prints for that show, as well as working with the public and visitors. I think we might have focused more on the print kit and develop that further and less on the additional works, because there things we were of interested in and we were trying out a few approaches to make work related to the site and to printing. But looking back now, yeah, the print kit was the core of the piece.
BS. There were two strands [to the project], we felt like we were testing the ground for them, the one was the sort of engagement side of things, but the other was, how they could use the venue in different ways.

DV. In your experience, what’s worked best and what less so with arts projects at heritage sites?

PD We found the engagement model of working with people, getting them involved in both #the process of the making things. For us, that feels like a good reason for people to care about the fact that there’s an exhibition or a project happening at a place, it kind of allows for two layers of engagement – both in the physical kind of making or doing side of things, and the way that reflects the site. Then the second element of an exhibition or a kind of celebration element of what’s being produced, you know, I think if people are working towards a goal with an aim and it fixes things quite well.
BS. I think it’s not necessarily what hasn’t worked. But I think because a lot of this stuff, particularly with National Trust, is quite new ground for the staff, I think its not necessarily the kind of vocabulary that they’re comfortable with talking about contemporary art. So I think, I think that might be areas where, like, you know, you especially feel like in a contemporary art gallery, this stuff, they’re very comfortable talking about the artwork, and it might be a much more uncomfortable experience for the stuff at a heritage venue having to think about how you interpret and explain contemporary. So, I wouldn’t say it’s not being a success, but I think that it’s been quite important talking to the staff about the work and why it’s like it is, whereas you might almost gloss over if you were doing it in a contemporary art gallery.

DV. That’s interesting, in the evaluation of the Trust New Art Midlands, it seemed like projects that went well the artists developed good relationships with staff and volunteers at Trust Houses.
BS. We’ve definitely felt that the projects where we’ve been on site longer have definitely worked more and had more impact. Than just a couple of things where we just contributed work to a show.

DV. Thinking visitors and audiences responded to your projects? Please give a positive and negative example from your own experience.

BS. Positives, like Cherryburn, the printing kits were really popular and people enjoyed making. A lot of the kids who’ve been involved in the process came along to have a go on the days and got parents with them and family. And so from that sense, it felt like there was this direct engagement with Thomas Bewick and his legacy. And, and that felt like a positive for that project.
Negatives, not negatives as such, but not being quite sure how the work was received, when you’re not there. And how things were being used once we’re not involved in it, really. And looking back with hindsight, we probably build in a bit more almost like CPD or something as part of the project for staff and volunteers.

DV. Are you aware of any other campaigns to save heritage at risk other than Moseley Road Baths. If you don’t have an example, that doesn’t matter?

BS. I think mostly Mossley road Baths, we were aware of it in various ways, but a lot of awareness more recently has been to the art stuff and kind of seeing visibility. We are involved in there arts scene here you definitely become aware of things.

DV. So that’s interesting, one of the questions I asked the Friends [of Moseley Road Baths] was why artists were attracted to Moseley Road Baths? It’s a special building, in many ways, but why do you go there and not Stirchley Baths for instance – there’s lots of buildings at risk in Birmingham, and yet that one seems to have generated a real interest with artists, you know, it felt like artists have approached Moseley Road Baths, rather than the other way around.

BS. I wonder…I remember a project taking place in that quite a few years ago, and it was Maria, a South American Curator, put up a temporary exhibition. And I wonder of just seeing something there and it makes it seem like an approachable place. Yeah, they can get away. It’s almost like once someone’s done it, it feels a bit more like you might be able to do.

DV. I guess I’m trying to figure out why there? The location?

BS. I think it has a lot to do with the 50 bus. Lots of people live in Moseley or Balsall Heath, Or even if you don’t, if you’re heading out from town, I remember getting the bus and travelling to the Jug of Ale, friends would come from other bits of Birmingham and Moseley Road Baths, Jug of Ale, King Heath are like landmarks, you passed on the bus and orientate yourself, on your way for a night or something. And it’s close to the dance centre as well, you felt almost like there’s a bit of a relationship like you’ve got between these venues and this stuff happening there. The idea that the dance centre was a dance school, but also it was a club, these places could be venues as well.

DV. Are you aware of any activities that have been used to support campaigns to save heritage at risk? And could you outline any impact you think, to think you had?

BS. We’re having to think about earlier, nothing articulate springs to mind, to be honest. I think we’ve been a bit more involved in the National Trust projects, but it doesn’t feel like their campaigns to save but more about raising the profile.

DV. I guess, you are part of one now!

PD. I suppose it goes along with what I was saying about putting somewhere on the map within a particular circuit. And I think the images that were used along with the stage of the campaign that I remember seeing – one of them standing in the empty pool. I think he was clear that it was an artist or creative it wasn’t like a hired in photographer that was taking those sort of shots at that angle. Yeah. You know, there was just something about it and those elements can add into that feeling of the campaign.

DV. That’s brilliant. Thank you.