Examining the impact of commissioned contemporary art in post-industrial heritage sites


‘High-quality and innovative art can change lives and affect communities for the better – by enabling people to see the world and experience heritage in new ways. We also recognise that the art of the past and the present are interconnected and dialogue between them is essential. That dialogue – in the form of the juxtaposition of contemporary art and historic setting – stimulates artists and audiences and facilitates new perceptions and innovations.’ (Arts Council England, 2014)

Susie MacMurray, Shell, 2006, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester.
Photograph © Susie MacMurray

In the last ten years it has become increasingly common to encounter contemporary works of art as part of the visitor experience at sites of historic interest. From churches to country houses, former mill buildings to specialist social history museums, organisations are turning to contemporary art as a means of engaging with visitors. Many have commissioned artists to make new work in response to the specificity of the site, often to draw out alternative or overlooked narratives. The above statement is taken from the Memorandum of Understanding between Arts Council England and the National Trust regarding Trust New Art, a major commissioning programme established in 2009 that delivers projects in diverse locations across the UK, aiming to provide new opportunities for artists and new experiences for audiences.

The Heritage Consortium studentship offers me the opportunity to reflect on an aspect of my own curatorial practice and to identify the role it occupies in the wider context of cultural and heritage discourse. In particular, I want to interrogate the statements made by commissioners and funders about the transformative potential of contemporary art commissions. Why has this trend in commissioning programmes – as distinct from the more established artistic practice of place-based art or art interventions in museums and galleries – proliferated in the last ten years? Is this linked to current policy demands on the heritage sector to provide evidence of its social impact? (Department of Culture, Media and Sport, March 2015) And does contemporary art contribute to this goal, particularly with regard to those audiences whose histories have been marginalised in the heritage experience, and how is this impact measured?

My research consists of a critical analysis of key case studies in the UK using project evaluation documentation; interviews with commissioners, artists, curators; and other material, such as visitor feedback or press reviews. I will select current case studies where I can observe audience interaction and conduct 1:2:1 interviews and questionnaire-based research with individual visitors and focus groups. I will also develop my own practice-based case study, taking the form of an exhibition or event linked to a heritage site, running in parallel with my other research. Through this I aim to identify the use of contemporary art in heritage sites and how if forms part of the heritage performance, the interplay of place and memory that creates meaning from the past and in the present (Smith, 2006).



Arts Council England (April 2014). ‘Memorandum of Understanding between Arts Council England and The National Trust’.


Department of Culture, Media and Sport (March 2015). ‘A Review of the Social Impacts of Culture and Sport’.


Smith, L. (2006). The Uses of Heritage. Routledge: London.



My research topic draws on my experience as a curator at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester where I worked as Head of Collection and Exhibitions from 1998 to 2009. Among other responsibilities, I curated artist-in-residencies and contemporary art interventions in the 18th century townhouse in response to the collections, architecture and history of the site. More recently, at The Hepworth Wakefield, I developed the collection and exhibition programme in the years immediately before and after the launch of this new art gallery (2009-15).

Through these roles, my art historical research and writing has focused on Modern British and European art. I have contributed essays to publications on the collections at Pallant House Gallery and The Hepworth Wakefield as well as exhibition catalogues including ‘Eye-Music: Kandinsky, Klee and all that Jazz’ (Pallant House Gallery, 2007). My most recent curatorial project, an exhibition on painter, poet, sculptor and key figure of the European avant-garde, Hans (Jean) Arp, will open at the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands and Turner Contemporary, Margate in 2017.

Following a Polytechnic Certificate in Foundation Studies in Art, I studied art history at the University of Manchester, graduating in 1989, and stayed on to take a Post-Graduate Diploma in Art Gallery and Museum Studies (1990-91). My early career was in social history museums, firstly at Manchester Jewish Museum (1991-92) and then with Croydon Museum Service at the new library and arts centre, Croydon Clocktower (1992-98).

I am based at Northumbria University under the supervision of Dr Susan Ashley and co-supervised by Dr Becky Shaw (interim) at Sheffield Hallam University.

Twitter: @FranJGuy