Since 2013 the small church in the hamlet of Discoed, near Presteigne in Wales, has mounted three exhibitions on a Lenten theme. All have been curated by the artist Charles MacCarthy and have been born out of community action to save the church, which in 2007 was in such poor condition it had been threatened with closure. That year the Friends of St Michael's, Discoed, was founded to raise money for essential repairs and for the refurbishment of the church so that it could remain active and also open to literary, artistic and musical events. Thus, from the outset of this endeavor, art exhibitions were conceived as a significant factor in keeping the church open. The congregation continues to see worship as central to the church, but a lively cultural programme brings in non-worshippers, and the church has a very inclusive reach.
This modest 'shepherd's' church is medieval with Victorian modifications, and sits on top of the hill, with a view out over the Welsh marshes and alongside an ancient yew tree, said to be 5,000 years old. The 2007 restoration project entailed work on the belfry roof, removing the rotting pews and re-laying the floor with a light-coloured wood. When needed, the chairs can be moved so as to create a spare, open interior, very amenable to exhibitions. The walls are relatively clear, allowing plenty of space to display two- or three-dimensional art work. David Hiam, Chairman of the Friends of St Michael's, attributes the success of the exhibitions so far to commitment, shared by all involved, to professional working practices and attention to detail.
Initiation and planning
As in previous years, Charles MacCarthy's strategy for this year's exhibition, titled '40 days, 40 works', was predicated on a mixture of careful planning and chance. His curatorial method involves the writing of a concise yet thorough brief which he circulates to artists known to him, roughly one year prior to the exhibition's proposed opening date. This year the brief was premised on the decision to present ten events from The Passion. However, each scene was to be represented by four different artists, so that the total number of paintings would match the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In addition, the brief stated that the artists, once allotted his or her subject by the chance method of drawing a title out of a hat, had to find the same subject in some form of earlier art which could then be referenced in their own depictions of the scene. Artists, therefore, were invited to interpret their theme, via the artistic legacy of the past, as found in any medium. A similar openness in the brief made it possible for the artists to draw, paint, sculpt, to work with glass or low relief. A time frame for production was also specified.
Once the list of participants was confirmed and the subjects allotted, production of the work took place in the artist's studios with only email contact from MacCarthy. His occasional group emails reminded the group of the deadline, enabled the sharing of images by showing works in progress and helped connect the artists with one another. This reflects his awareness that such practice helps the group to cohere and is encouraging. Group submission then took place at the church two weeks prior to the opening of the exhibition.
With the scenes of The Passion arranged in chronological order, the arrangement of the works is inevitably somewhat pre-ordained, permitting only limited freedom in the hanging or display of each subject group. Watch ing MacCarthy at work showed his approach to be visual and instinctive; placing works, then seeing how they communicate with each other, and then moving them around over the course of the afternoon.
Each work was accompanied by a wall label which gave the artist's name, the title, medium and dimensions, as well as the subject and a quote from the Bible selected by MacCarthy. This information was also available in an illustrated booklet made available to buy. In addition, an album has been put together, showing reproductions of the historical works, in response to one of which each artist had made their own piece. Visitors could then identify what kind of dialogue went on between the two.
Investment in a picture rail, which runs along the length of the nave on either side, proved valuable, as it permitted the hanging, by means of wire, of wooden boards on to which two-dimensional work could be attached without altering the fabric of the church, thereby removing the need to obtain DAC approval. The church also invested in small lights which clip onto the tops of the wooden boards, thus lighting each work individually.
The church is open daily from 10:00 to 17:00 during the run of the exhibition and is not invigilated, so a potential risk to the artwork is borne by exhibiting artists, most of whom do not insure their work. Artwork is well secured to the boards, and no incidents have so far occurred. The total cost this year of the exhibition has amounted 500[pounds sterling], with a great deal of labour gifted voluntarily. Although the hardware was paid for by the church when the exhibition programme began, there is no funding for the individual exhibitions, and it appears that MacCarthy and Hiam cover small running costs personally. The catalogue cost a further [pounds sterling]900 to produce though it is hoped much of this will be recouped by sales.
Hereford is home to many artists and the church benefits from its location within an area that has a vibrant arts community. The church has become a regular participant in the H-art festival (H stands for Herefordshire), and has hosted a number of exhibitions including one on contemporary ceramics.
One of the artists participating in the current Lenten exhibition, said of it that it 'brings people in who wouldn't otherwise come into the church. It offers a way of relating which doesn't alienate [the arts community]'.
Marketing for the exhibition is undertaken by volunteer Sally Butler, who designed the website for the exhibition as well as advertising it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media has been found to help in generating press interest. This year a volunteer will post a photograph of one of the works on each of the forty days of lent, using the hashtag #40days40artists. Another local volunteer, Andrew Giles, has designed all of the posters and catalogues giving of his time freely.
There has been no DAC involvement, as the hanging boards mean that no faculty has been required for the exhibition. The parish priest is very supportive of the project.
MacCarthy has said that 'Art and religion are joined for me'. Hiam suggested that the President of the Friends of St Michael's, Edward Storey, would say that anyone coming into the church is a good thing. 'It doesn't mean they take up the faith (though some have) but it makes them think a bit more.'
Laura Purseglove is ACE's Project Curator and also works at Artangel
Caption: Charles MacCarthy (left) and David Hiam (right) at the preview event for the 2017 exhibition at St Michael's Discoed
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|Publication:||Art and Christianity|
|Article Type:||Case study|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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