On Friday 9th June The Guardian published an article, Cumbrian shrine to modernist art may be sold off to developers by Hannah Ellis-Petersen, announcing Littoral Arts Trust’s apparent threat to sell off the Cylinders estate and with it the so-called Merz barn, the near derelict shed in which Kurt Schwitters created a fragment of his last, unfinished Merzbau sculptural relief. See the full article here:
Since Littoral acquired the Cylinders estate in 2006, Mills has sought to expose what he believes is Littoral’s shameful exploitation of Schwitters for personal and financial gain through cynical misappropriation, misinformation, distortion and outright lies. Believing the article to be no more than a minimally re-jigged press release penned by Littoral’s so-called directors, Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, Mills has written to the Guardian and numerous other publications (print and online), analysing the article and revealing the disturbing details of Littoral’s dictatorial governance, the huge and disquieting disconnect between Littoral’s aims and objectives, the extremely generous funding it has siphoned from both private donors and the public purse, and the actual outcomes for which these sums were awarded or donated. See Mills’ letter below.
Regarding your article: Cumbrian shrine to modernist art may be sold off to developers by Hannah Ellis-Petersen (The Guardian, Friday 9th June 2017)
Dear Sir or Madam,
As an artist, long time admirer of the work of Kurt Schwitters, and as a resident of Ambleside, I feel compelled to respond to your article to inform you that it is woefully misinformed and consequently hugely misleading. It also neglects to mention its disturbing back story. This could be because that, as suggested by the articles’ numerous and familiar fallacious claims, it has the fingerprints of Littoral Arts Trust’s own directors Ian Hunter and Celia Larner all over it.
You should be made aware of, not only the specious distortions in your article, but also some highly disturbing facts regarding Littoral’s governance, its finances, and its continual warping of art history, contrived to garner press attention, sympathy, and crucially, yet more funding for its activities at the Cylinders Estate.
Littoral Arts Trust is a company registered as ‘Littoral/Projects Environment’ (Company number 2526443, Charity number 1002365), described as “… an arts research and development Trust, which promotes new creative strategies, artistic interventions and cultural partnerships in response to issues about social, cultural and environmental change’. Major aims of the Trust are to: “… promote the arts and rural regeneration’, to “… cultivate new metaphors for environmental sustainability’, to “… curate critical art interventions in new agricultural contexts’, to “… re-embed the crafts in the discourse of environmental sustainability’, and to “… recover the ideological, social and aesthetic purposes of the crafts”.
Since it acquired the Cylinders estate in 2006, Littoral’s declared priority commitment has been to, “… first saving the Merz Barn”, before pursuing any further development of the site. Yet the Trust’s numerous press releases and public statements, and particularly its recent relentless stream of appeals for bailouts, lay bare the fact that it has failed miserably to honour its primary objective.
On the strength of its re-writing of the Schwitters’ story, Littoral have gleaned considerable sums of money from numerous funding bodies. In so far as Littoral’s funding can be understood by examining records freely available on the websites of ACE, Open Charities and the Charity Commission, it seems that contrary to its repeated claims of having received only modest sums, Littoral has actually been the recipient of numerous significant sums from a multitude of sources. These have included donations of artworks for auction in 2006 (a Damien Hirst “spin” painting, which sold for £143,393, and others which realised £30,000), and grants from charitable organisations such as the now defunct Northern Rock Foundation (two awards totalling £168,000), and the Henry Moore Foundation (£40,000). In addition Littoral has been claiming £12,000 a year as ‘payment in kind’ for use of the Wierside Bunk Barn in Chapel Stile, Elterwater (despite accommodation fees being levied on participants at its Cylinders events). And just last year it gleaned £65,000 in donations in response to its bogus flood damage appeal. None of these can be perceived as small sums.
Generous awards for its rural and its inexplicably conjoined Schwitters/rural events received from local county and town councils are dwarfed by those from ACE, the Heritage Lottery Fund, DEFRA and the Cumbria Fells and Dales Local Action Group. Indeed it is the funds that Littoral has siphoned from the public purse that surprise. The Trust’s income from public bodies between 2002 and 2015 totalled a remarkable £1,229,645, of which £859,272.96 was awarded since the acquisition of the Cylinders Estate in 2006. Between 2006-09 Littoral received £150,000 from ACE and annually since then it received further substantial ACE awards of £40,228 (2010), £45,497 (2011) and £43,014 (2012), and in 2013 a further £25,255 from DEFRA. Littoral’s claim to have received no funding for the past five years is incorrect. While its true that its ACE Regular Funded Organisation (RFO) grant was revoked in 2012 (and the directors’ recent claims to be subsidising Cylinders Estate from their pensions and savings may be true), the Trust has, from 2012, continued to receive funding from the Arts Council: £48,000 (27.11.13) and £38,700 (02.05.14).
Between 2006 and 2013, Littoral’s declared expenditure for the renovation of the Merz Barn and the Cylinders Estate, to the Charity Commission, was £261,359: a surprising amount, considering the noticeable decrepitude of much of the site, as verified in Ian Hunter’s statement two years later in the Westmorland Gazette (10.01.2015), that, “…the Merz Barn and the buildings on the site are now in an advanced state of disrepair”.
Whether Littoral’s funds have come from public bodies or private organisations and individuals could be considered as irrelevant. The fact remains that there is a huge and disquieting disconnect between Littoral’s aims and objectives, the extremely generous funding – public and private – particularly the amounts received since 2006, and the actual outcomes for which these sums were awarded or donated. As Littoral’s hill of money has seemingly dissolved into thin air, the so-called Merz barn has remained near-derelict, its condition deteriorating year on year to the point of near collapse. Under Littoral’s self-serving governance, the barn has become an asset-stripped carcass, probably the most expensive, publicly funded, empty and dilapidated shed in the UK.
The question must be asked; where has this hill of money gone if not on the repairs and restitution works for which it was awarded and gifted?
For just one example of Littoral’s habitual and inappropriate use of public money, consider this … In 2012 Littoral received £30,459.96 from the LEADER/RDPE (Rural Development Programme For England) for “the repair of the barn and the creation of a surrounding piazza to include a platform for a memorial to all the artists persecuted by Hitler as ‘degenerate’, including Schwitters.” The bulk of this grant was expended on the “memorial piazza”, while very little was spent on the barn, which remained near derelict. The final cost of the piazza and its ‘sculpture’ was £39,257.00 – taxpayers’ money. Littoral’s justifications for this memorial are as ill informed, morally dubious and as crassly insensitive as is much of its characterisation of Schwitters’ legacy.
The Entartete Kunst exhibitions started up in the spring of 1933, but Schwitters left Germany months before the famous Munich exhibition of 1937 was even planned. Many others like Hausmann had left far earlier, even before 1933: Max Ernst left Germany as early as 1922. In addition, about half a dozen artists whose work was exhibited in the 1937 exhibition were already dead. Only three artists – Max Beckmann, Ernst Wilhelm Nay and Johannes Molzahn – emigrated at the time of the 1937 Entartete Kunst exhibition. Of about 50 participants – selected and researched at random – who were represented in the 1937 exhibition, roughly half stayed on in Germany, some for a few years, some till the end of the war. Other artists like Hannah Höch were not included in the 1937 exhibition, perhaps because she was female and considered unimportant. During the Nazi regime Höch, Otto Dix and many other artists stayed on, simply keeping a low profile. Others whose art was branded as degenerate and who were included in the 1937 exhibition were actually Nazi sympathisers Emil Nolde joined the Nazi party in the early 1920s. Even worse, some actually worked for the Nazis after 1937, normally in the propaganda department. Heinrich Ehmsen, for instance, was given about 30 commissions personally by Göring and also worked for the Luftwaffe and Goebbels. This may explain why there is no monument to the defamed artists as a group in Germany – certainly Schwitters would not have regarded many as colleagues.
To the specifics of your article:
Cumbrian shrine to modernist art may be sold off to developers by Hannah Ellis-Petersen
A small stone barn nestled in the Cumbrian hills revered as a pioneering piece of modernist art is under threat from property developers, after arts institutions including Arts Council England refused to save it.
Merz Barn is the unfinished work of artist Kurt Schwitters, who fled Nazi Germany after his work was deemed degenerate and made his home in Langdale in the Lake District.
What is “revered as a pioneering piece of modernist art” is not the “small stone barn”, the so-called Merzbarn, but is the unfinished relief sculpture that Kurt Schwitters created on one wall inside the barn. The barn itself, a former hay barn built in the early 1940s, is no more than an empty, damp, near derelict lean-to shed, which contains no evidence of Schwitters’ work. As the article later states, the actual art, the Merzbau sculpture, was removed to Newcastle, in 1965.
Schwitters did not flee Germany “after his work was deemed degenerate by the Nazis”, as your article claims. He left Germany months before the famous Munich ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937 was even planned. His departure from Germany with his son Ernst was actually impelled by the latter’s youthful political activities and imminent military call-up to the Hitler Youth, which he resisted. The Nazi authorities never revoked Schwitters’ passport, nor was his property in Hannover confiscated or his bank account frozen, which would have been the case for an ‘enemy of the state’.
Schwitters did not “make his home in Langdale”, he lived in Ambleside.
Littoral’s directors and their credulous acolytes have a long history of shameless dissemination of misinformation, distortions, half-truths and barefaced lies about Schwitters, cynically concocted to gain publicity, induce sympathy and ultimately to siphon money from ill-informed potential donors. Amongst the numerous falsehoods advanced by Littoral includes claims that Schwitters was threatened with his life by the Nazis, that his escape to England had links to the politically and racially motivated Holocaust and the death camps, and that, having escaped from Norway following the Nazi invasion in 1940, on his arrival in the UK, he was arrested as a spy. All hyperbolic balderdash.
Littoral have also claimed that Schwitters “spent a significant amount of his life in Elterwater” and that he actually lived at Cylinders, while paradoxically, he allegedly “walked the ten miles return journey between Ambleside and Elterwater every day”. In actuality he spent less than three years in Ambleside, where he lived, and less than three intermittent months at Elterwater, where he occasionally worked on the Merz sculptural relief.
A recent addition to Littoral’s fanciful re-writing of history, has Schwitters, in 1947, entering Ambleside’s pubs, leaping on to tables and reciting his phonetic poems while the locals patronisingly tossed coppers for him.
These (and many other) mendacious claims are contradicted by the fact that during his short time in Ambleside his health was declining rapidly, so he was physically incapable of undertaking most of these activities. Throughout 1947 he was bedridden for over eight months. When he could get out he could barely manage to walk twenty yards without resting, let alone manage to walk a ten mile round trip.
In his short time in Ambleside he had suffered high blood pressure and asthma, he broke a leg, which became severely ulcerated, developed influenza followed by pneumonia, and soon after a brain haemorrhage and experienced temporary blindness. There followed a lung haemorrhage, bronchitis and another bout of pneumonia before he finally died of pulmonary odema and myocarditis in January 1948.
The winter of 1947 was the coldest on records, with icebergs sighted off the East Anglian coast. As the severe conditions in the Lakes restricted the already meagre bus services between Ambleside and Elterwater, Littoral’s claims that he spent every day at Cylinders working feverishly are romantic nonsense. It’s likely that his visits were infrequent, and his frailness meant that most of the physical work on the Merzbau sculpture was done by others under his direction. For all that, what was achieved and what has survived is remarkable. However on his death the work itself was no more than a tenth of what Schwitters envisioned and it’s actual artistic merit in this unfinished state is highly debatable.
And despite Littoral’s frequent assertions, there is no evidence that, “…. Schwitters said he wanted the place (Cylinders) to be somewhere artists could come and find support, and a place to stay and work”. Nor are there any accounts of any explicit wishes by Schwitters (on his death bed or otherwise) that he desired Cylinders Estate to be developed as a ‘rural art museum’. Like so many of Littoral’s claims these are simply delusional.
Schwitters used the barn as a studio in the 1940s and turned it into an experimental dada-inspired artwork. He covered the walls in a collage of materials, from glass to found objects and sculptures, but died of pneumonia three months into the project, in January 1948.
The barn was not “an experimental dada-inspired artwork” – as Littoral have often claimed. Schwitters was not a Dadaist; a fellow traveler certainly, but not a member of the gang, hence his own movement Merz, and hence the use of the name Merzbau for his immersive sculptural reliefs. The wall was not “dada-inspired”. And the only evidence of the so-called “architectural experiment” is the remaining fragment of the unfinished Merzbau that is in Newcastle. What remains at Cylinders is nothing more than a pitifully neglected empty 1940s lean-to shed.
Schwitters did not “cover the walls with a collage of materials”. He worked on one wall only, which he failed to complete.
The building is considered an important piece of national heritage, and artists and architects including Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley, Bridget Riley and the late Zaha Hadid have made financial donations towards its upkeep.
The building itself is not “an important piece of national heritage”, although Schwitters’ Merz relief sculpture that it once housed is.
While Hirst did donate a ‘spin’ painting to be auctioned as part of Littoral’s fundraising campaign to enable it to purchase the Cylinders estate in 2006, he has not made any financial contribution towards the upkeep of the barn.
Hadid’s £25,000 donation came through Zurich-based Galerie Gmurzynska. The publicity generated by Gmurzynska’s substantial donation triggered further grants from the Cumbria Community Foundation (£15,000) and the University of Cumbria (£5,000), and undisclosed amounts from the Dulverton Trust and the Sir John Fisher Foundation. Galerie Gmurzynska’s apparently altruistic offer has to be considered alongside other possible motives, and in the context of the gallery’s history. Galerie Gmurzynska has been involved in several highly dubious, and in some cases illegal, dealings concerning the movement of art works from Russia to the west, the avoidance of tax and VAT payments, and attempts to avoid payments regarding damage to an artist’s work. It’s on record that it has been in trouble with Russian customs, the American courts and the Swiss Federal Customs Administration. Equally damning is the fact that it also represents and exhibits the paintings of Hollywood hulk Sylvester Stallone… More significantly perhaps, Gmurzynska’s donation was made a month before it opened its Kurt Schwitters: Merz retrospective exhibition. It could be perceived that it was made, not as an act of genuine philanthropy, but as a shrewd way of garnering a wealth of highly valuable publicity.
Cumbria Community Foundation’s donation of £15,000 came from a fund (of donations from the public) set up specifically for Cumbrian businesses and organisations that had been adversely affected by the December 2015 floods. The average grant given was £5,000. The December 2015 floods did not affect the Cylinders estate at all and yet it received £15,000. Having been conned into dishing out £15,000 of this publicly donated money, when contacted about this massive discrepancy, Cumbria Community Fund failed to respond. N.B. The Armitt Museum in Ambleside, which was badly flooded, only received £5,000.
The money donated by the University of Cumbria should also be considered against some more disquieting facts. The University currently stands at 118 out of 121 in the UK’s 2017 university rankings. It has one of the lowest entry standards and one of the worst research records in the country. It desperately needs to raise its game. It craves research “points” (points mean prizes, and prizes mean money). To this end it has, with suspicious haste, established a Kurt Schwitters PhD Scholarship, which is being run in association with – you guessed it – the Littoral Arts Trust, which similarly yearns for some academic/research credibility. The University has also appointed Littoral Director Ian Hunter as a Research Reader (whatever that means?), and – surprise, surprise – its first and only PhD student is a long time Littoral acolyte, an “ artist” whose primary medium is fancy dress costumes. As far as can be ascertained this scholarship was not advertised – locally or nationally – as is required, and it’s highly unlikely therefore, that any applications were called for, and that no interviews took place, as are also usually required. This strongly suggests that the selected student was simply shoehorned into the post without having to undergo the required rigorous application and entry procedures. Credible PhD’s offered at most respected universities usually take between three and five years to be set up and gain accreditation, and are usually for a minimum of three years study. The University of Cumbria’s Kurt Schwitters Scholarship PhD was apparently established in an alarmingly short space of time and is for just two years duration.
In 2011, Arts Council England withdrew funding for the maintenance and restoration of the barn, meaning that the Littoral Arts Trust – comprising Celia Larner, 80, and Ian Hunter, 70, who look after the property – have had to use their savings, pensions and even the sale of one of their houses to keep it going.
Last month, Arts Council England turned down an application for £75,000 of funding for Merz Barn for the fifth consecutive time.
Of course it did. Having pumped hundreds of thousands of taxpayer’s money into Littoral and its projects since before 2006, Arts Council England tellingly rescinded the Trust’s regular funding in 2012, quite simply because the trust has persistently squandered public money and consistently failed to fulfil its objectives. Littoral’s last, recent five applications to ACE have failed for the same reasons.
Hunter has also offered to hand the building to the Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York for free but both declined, and he said the trust now only had the resources to look after the barn for three or four months before the directors would be forced to sell it off.
This claim may be true, but I doubt it is. It sounds suspiciously like yet another example of Littoral’s disingenuous sophistry. By making such claims Littoral casts the Tate and MoMA New York as unsympathetic, thereby shaming not only the art world, but also arts funding bodies. This is typical of Littoral’s modus operandi. Most respectable museums with any genuine interest in Schwitters know enough about Littoral to ignore its protestations and increasingly querulous demands. In recent years the Tate, MoMA, the Sprengel Museum and Kurt Schwitters Archives in Hanover, the Armitt Museum and the Kurt Schwitters Society have all kept Littoral at a long arm’s length.
Cylinders was purchased in 2006 with money from, among others, the Northern Rock Foundation and the Arts Council. As public money was used in its purchase, should the estate be put up for sale on the open market, then Littoral’s Directors, Hunter and Larner, cannot be allowed to simply pocket all the proceeds, which, given the location, acreage and beauty of this highly desirable piece of real estate, would be considerable. As part of Littoral’s agreement with the Arts Council, on receipt of its initial award, Littoral would surely be obliged to reimburse the Arts Council. It may also be the case that Littoral, having failed abjectly in its declared objectives, could be forced to pay back all of the ACE money it has received since the purchase of the estate as well. Such a sale would also inevitably raise awkward questions as to, not only Littoral’s charitable status, but also with regard to its apparent commitment to honour Kurt Schwitters’ legacy.
““We’ve already had two developers approach us in the last six months about buying the land, offering us £300,000 cash,” Hunter said. “We’ve sold one of our houses to put into Merz Barn, we’ve used up our savings and our pensions are negligible, so our backs are against the wall here.
We’ve turned both of the developer offers down as they wouldn’t offer us any protections for the barn, and we would prefer not to sell it on the open market. But we don’t think we can hold off for much longer.”
Where is the proof of these alleged unnamed property developers and their unsuccessful offers? It’s highly likely that these supposed offers are yet another shameless invention i.e. a lie, vamped up by Hunter and Larner to milk more sympathy and dupe some credulous donors to cough up more yet more bailouts. Similarly unambiguous sophistry has worked very well for Littoral in the past, as evidenced by the £65,000 in donations that it received in 2016 following its bogus claims of damage incurred at Cylinders in the December 2015’s storms and floods that devastated much of Cumbria.
Littoral’s claim of rejecting the offers as the developers “wouldn’t offer us any protections for the barn”, is a bit rich considering that, despite having received substantial funding, it is Littoral’s negligence and mismanagement that have allowed the barn to deteriorate year on year.
It must be noted that the Cylinders estate, being located in what is arguably the most beautiful valley in the Lake district, in the middle of a National Park, is protected by far more stringent planning policies than elsewhere. Its environment is fragile and precious. The likelihood of a developer being granted planning permission for any development there is zero, and any developer who has purportedly offered any amount (in cash or otherwise), to purchase Cylinders, without first investigating the implications of the National Parks’ planning policies, is an idiot.
Further protection is offered by Harry Pierce’s 1944 National Trust Covenants (still active), which he drew up specifically to prevent the land from being despoiled by the kind of activities that Littoral has been and still are undertaking on the site, and from its proposals for the contextually and environmentally inappropriate and disproportionate development that it desires. The covenants expressly forbids the erection of “any temporary or permanent building or erection on any part of the land hereby conveyed except such of a kind as may be approved in writing by the National Trust …” They also forbid “… any building or erection except those needful for agricultural or horticultural purpose (which purposes shall not be deemed to include housing accommodation)”. Littoral, in its typically cavalier fashion, has flagrantly ignored these NT covenants: the estate resembles an edgeland camp of rusted static caravans, piecemeal yurts and patched tents in a mire of rubbish. Rather than honouring Pierce’s wishes and his legacy, Littoral has betrayed and trashed them.
The historical and artistic importance of this modest building has been emphasized numerous times by figures such as Melvyn Bragg, who described it as “an outstanding contribution to the understanding of contemporary art”.
While the elaborate swirling wall of art created in the barn was removed in the 1960s and brought to Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery, the stone studio is considered a powerful and emotive spot central to Schwitters’ legacy as an artist in the UK.
It could be argued that, art historically, “the stone studio”, is in itself is of little importance. A former hay barn built in the early 1940s, of breeze block construction, with some walls clad in Lakeland stone, and with a leaking tin roof, it has no architectural merit and, being devoid of Schwitters’ work or any evidence of his presence, its significance is, at best, purely nostalgic. Through Littoral’s persistent warping of historical facts, it has become a site of dubious mythologised pilgrimage. Claims for its emotive pull are Littoral’s alone.
Like Tim Farron and many other ’ notable’ figures, Melvyn Bragg’s knowledge of Schwitters, his life, work, and of the so-called Merz barn, is negligible. What little knowledge he may have has probably been fed him by Littoral’s partial directors, Hunter and Larner. When approached to endorse anything cultural in Cumbria, both Farron and Bragg as a matter of course, though not entirely for altruistic reasons, offer their support – with no questions asked.
In 2011, when the Royal Academy of Arts put on its major British sculpture exhibition, it erected a Cumbrian slate replica of the barn in the gallery’s courtyard, and at a conference about Schwitters’ legacy, at Tate Britain in 2014, then culture minister Ed Vaizey said: “Kurt Schwitters’ extraordinary Merz Barn and artistic legacy in rural Cumbria are our responsibility – in the north and also nationally.”
The Royal Academy of Arts 2011 exhibition was of “major British sculpture”. And yet Schwitters was not British but German. The Cumbrian slate barn was a reproduction not a ‘replica’, which is something recreated by the original creator. Schwitters had no hand in the original 1940s building nor in the RA version. The RA barn was sealed and empty and it was not the actual barn but a pretend barn. Schwitters’ Merzbau sculptural relief had been inside the barn, not outside it and the original barn was not a piece of sculpture but merely its container. As a sculpture it had no logic or contextual appropriateness, and Its inclusion in the exhibition was utterly meaningless. And it cost a small fortune. For Littoral, such discrepancies are of no matter as it served their purpose of garnering a huge amount of publicity, locally, nationally and internationally.
Littoral’s Facebook posting the day after the 2014 Tate conference vaingloriously revealed that Ed Vaizey’s endorsement was included in a speech that had actually been written by Hunter and Larner, and which was handed to him immediately before he spoke. The words and opinions he voiced were not his, but were Littoral’s. Following a letter I wrote to various publications in response to yet more articles reporting Littoral’s alleged troubles, offering evidence of Littoral’s litany of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies, in which the truth of Vaizey’s speech was also exposed, this posting was swiftly deleted.
The local MP, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, also gave his backing to the maintenance of the site in 2014 when he said: “I cannot overstate how important a site the Merz Barn is and what a boost for the Cumbrian economy if some sort of art museum or similar could be accommodated there.”
Following Farron’s ill-informed support for Littoral’s mission as quoted in the Westmorland Gazette in 2014, I wrote to him informing him of the facts regarding Littoral and to remind him of the need for someone in his position to exercise far greater discretion when considering any requests for endorsements. He suggested a meeting to discuss my findings, which we had the following week. Having been fully informed of Littoral’s history and practices (its murky finances, dubious behaviour and its serial failings), and having the good grace to acknowledge his lack of knowledge about Schwitters and Littoral, he has since distanced himself from Littoral and promised that he would no longer issue ill-informed endorsements in support of the trust.
Artists have stepped in to help fill the funding gap. Hirst put £150,000 and Hadid’s gallery last year gave £25,000 to the barn after it suffered major flood damage during Storm Desmond.
Hirst has not contributed to “help fill the funding gap” since ACE withdrew its funding in 2011-2012. However, in 2006 he did donate a ‘spin’ painting, which raised £150,000 at auction, towards Littoral’s funding campaign to enable them to purchase the Cylinders estate. See above re. Hadid’s contribution.
The barn did not “suffer major flood damage during Storm Desmond” as your article states. The Merz barn was not “devastated by Storm Desmond”, which hit Cumbria on 5th December 2015, nor by the subsequent Storm Eva, which hit on Boxing Day. Littoral’s Facebook entries throughout December 2015 make no mention of any damage being incurred by the barn or at any part of the Cylinders estate at any time throughout the month. Indeed a photograph of the Merz barn taken on 12 December and posted on Littoral’s Facebook page, showed the barn in a tranquil picture post card snow scene, with no signs of any devastation to the barn or the estate. It wasn’t until 29th January 2016 – nearly two months later – that Littoral posted, again on its Facebook page, news of the barn being hit by “some kind of whirlwind” – during the previous night the 28th January. Mysteriously and miraculously nowhere else in neighbouring Chapel Stile or Elterwater was such freak weather experienced that night. It wasn’t until March 2016 that Littoral launched yet another whining PR campaign, disingenuously claiming that the so-called Merz barn had suffered severe damage in the winter storms of December 2015.
The Arts Council said it did not usually publicly discuss the reasons for grant allocations but emphasized that “grants for the arts is a highly competitive programme”.
In 2014, the Arts Council gave a £38,000 grant for Littoral Arts Trust to compile a report into the future of Merz Barn and possibilities for its restoration. The report found that it was “potentially a major international success story for the UK, Cumbria and Arts Council England … there is likely to be increasing visitor demand for the preservation and interpretation of this artist’s work”.
It also warned that “stabilisation and restoration work at the site are urgently needed” to ensure its survival and to protect Schwitters’ legacy.
The report cost around £55,000, funded by ACE, South Lake District Council and the Granada Foundation: most of this largesse was taxpayers’ money.
Having received a hill of money since 2004.05 – from public funds and donations – much of it awarded or gifted specifically for the renovation of the barn, and much of it from ACE, the “stabilisation and restoration work at the site” should’ve been completed years ago. Indeed in 2009, just three years after acquiring Cylinders, Littoral were informed by its own architectural advisor, that the barn’s desperately needed restoration would require just £25,00 – £30,000: this advice was ignored. ACE, having been duped by Littoral for years, and wishing to avoid further embarrassment, wisely rejected the report’s questionable findings and highly prejudiced recommendations.
In 2014, in yet another appeal for financial assistance, Hunter stated (for the umpteenth time) that, “the Merz barn is not in a great state of repair” (The Westmorland Gazette 17.6.2014). And more recently, again in The Westmorland Gazette (10.01.2016) he stated that, “the Merz Barn and the buildings on site are now in an advanced state of disrepair.” Note that this last admission was made a month before Littoral claimed that the Merz barn had allegedly “been devastated” in the December 2015 storms. The fact is that the barn was already in a neglected, ramshackle state and has been allowed to steadily decay since Littoral acquired the estate. This mantra has become all too familiar in every media story about Littoral and the Merz Barn, becoming more frequent and increasingly querulous since 2012, when the Arts Council tellingly withdrew its annual RPO funding.
However, the Arts Council said the report did not “demonstrate a viable business case at that point nor did it cover other potential sources of capital funding beyond the arts council or offer any match-funding strategy”.
The public body added: “The Arts Council does not include protection and restoration of cultural heritage – this is the responsibility of other bodies.”
The report recommends a development project that would absorb yet more sums of public money, with Phase 1 capital works requiring about £52,000,00. Further phases of funding would follow, estimated to be approximately £1.4m, for more restoration works, new buildings, landscaping and the implementation of some kind of mixed arts programme. The bulk of the money would have to be sourced from public funds.
The report claims to be independent, and yet it has been compiled by a group of consultants, some of who would undoubtedly benefit, commercially, if the report’s recommendations are ever allowed to proceed. Incredibly, also included in the group of consultants is Littoral’s own so-called Director, Ian Hunter. (While he calls himself a director he is not actually listed as one at Companies House.) Such a consultancy report, co-authored as it is by a consortium of vested interests, cannot be considered to be independent, objective or impartial.
The report’s proposals describe a hugely disproportionate, commercialised art theme park, an expensive vanity project that will betray the wishes of both Schwitters and Harry Pierce, the landowner who allowed Schwitters to use the former hay barn as the site of his last Merz sculpture. The proposals are not supported by the Tate, MoMA New York, the Sprengel Museum and Kurt Schwitters Archives in Hanover, the Kurt Schwitters Society or the Armitt Museum in Ambleside, and they are vehemently opposed by the site’s neighbouring residents of Elterwater and Chapel Stile, predominantly on the basis of the likely further detrimental impact on the environment.
Costs of upkeep for the barn are about £45,000 a year. Larner sold her own small Lancashire mill cottage for £ 90,000 last year to raise funds for maintenance. Hunter said he was now considering selling his own home as a last resort.
“Don’t get me wrong, we love it – but we’re two old people who realistically can’t be here labouring for much longer,” said Hunter said. “So what we’ve tried to do is keep it going as best we can because we feel like we have a moral responsibility.”
Over the past few years Littoral’s directors, Hunter and Larner, deflecting every lie and dishonesty, and portraying themselves as underdogs and maligned martyrs, have claimed too much sympathy, too often and for too long. Your portrayal of the pair as impoverished pensioners who “have been forced to use up their savings and meagre pensions’ incomes to keep the project afloat”, may prompt a reach for a hanky, but it belies the fact that, as stated above, Littoral Arts Trust (which is essentially a double-headed dictatorship of Hunter and Larner) have received a shed load of funding, from both the public and private sectors. This has evidently been either squandered or pocketed. Presumably Hunter and Larner have also been awarding themselves salaries and expenses? Your article also neglects to reveal the further bailouts of £65,000 which Littoral received in 2016. All in all, they’ve done very well out of Schwitters thus far.
The pair have also appealed to Nicholas Serota, the former Tate director who took over as head of Arts Council England this year, to rethink the organisation’s decision in light of his pledge to distribute funding across rural communities.
Littoral have often suggested, mischievously, that Sir Nicholas Serota (former director of the Tate and now Chairman of ACE), and the Tate, are fully supportive of its aims and objectives, with particular regard to its proposed developments for the Cylinders estate. While Serota is fully cognisant and supportive of the Merz project i.e. the artistic and cultural significance of Schwitters’ pioneering work in its totality, he has never stated that he or the Tate share or support Littoral’s aspirations for any kind of arts centre or museum at Cylinders. At a rammed Central Lakes Neighbourhood Forum convened on 15.7.2014, which I attended, Hunter outlined Littoral’s grandiose proposals for the site. During his presentation Hunter, trying to pimp up the proposals and impress his audience with some obsequious namedropping, claimed that, “the Tate and the Arts Council have aspirations to build a museum on the site”. When queried about that claim, Serota commented that “such aspirations may be in the minds of Littoral Arts Trust, but they are not ones which Tate necessarily shares.”
Hunter said he hoped another cultural institution would pledge to look after the barn on behalf of the nation.
Despite Littoral’s piecemeal despoliation of the estate, Cylinders deserves to be preserved and developed sympathetically. The estate still holds an essence of Schwitters’ presence and still bears, just, the hallmarks of the landowner Harry Pierce’s 1940s endeavours. With contextual and environmental appropriateness, a low-key museum, focusing on the complete history of the site, including its long period as a gunpowder works, as well as its important connections to Schwitters, could be developed that would satisfy the art world, the local residents and the needs of the Lake District’s tourist sector. Ideally such a project would be overseen and managed by a consortium comprising the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal and the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside, all of which have a legitimate claim to and interest in promoting Schwitters and his time in the Lake District. The Hatton has the actual Merzbau relief sculpture, Abbot Hall has a small collection of Schwitters’ works, and the Armitt, which is recognised as the home of Schwitters’ Lake District and UK legacy, has the largest collection of Schwitters’ work on permanent public display in the UK. It should also be noted that, unlike Littoral, the Armitt has never received any public funding. However in order to achieve such a project, Littoral’s bloated development proposals must be halted, its governance fully investigated (possibly by the Charity Commission), its two directors urged to step down, and the Trust itself dissolved and relieved of its ownership of the Cylinders estate.
If you’ve read this, bravo and sincere thanks. Due to its length (for which I apologise), I know you won’t print it in its entirety, but perhaps you might publish some kind of correction to the errors in your article? An ideal response would be that you might consider commissioning a journalist to thoroughly investigate this matter, especially as it involves, amongst many other disturbing issues, the use and/or abuse of public money, and as such it should be considered to be in the public interest. The least I can hope for is that, having read the above, you will approach any future Littoral-related stories and press releases with extreme caution, and be sure to thoroughly fact check all of their claims and assertions before you consider publishing anything regarding the trust or the Merz barn.
Should you need any further information, please do not hesitate to get in touch.
Russell Mills MA (RCA),
Honorary Visiting Professor, Glasgow School of Art
ART, HISTORY, and HOT AIR in the 21st Century Littoral Arts Trust: a wilful manipulation of Kurt Schwitters’ legacy in Cumbria.
Since its purchase in 2006 of the Cylinders Estate in Elterwater (Lake District), Lancashire-based Littoral Arts Trust (a registered charity) has raised substantial funding and garnered extensive publicity for its mission to restore the site of exiled 20th century German artist Kurt Schwitters’ last major art work (the Merz Barn 1947) and to promote Schwitters-related events. The artwork itself was removed for safe keeping from its barn at Cylinders to Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery in the 1960s, although in 2006 it was as though the site’s compact, mostly unaltered, but overgrown features would afford visitors to Cylinders and its few small buildings the opportunity to stand in the footsteps of one of the early twentieth century’s most renowned and influential artists.
So far as can be ascertained from records available in the public domain, Littoral Arts Trust’s funding since 2006 has totalled £859,272. In January 2015 the Trust announced that a further £350,000 of emergency Arts Lottery Capital Funding was necessary as “… the Merz Barn and the buildings on the site are (still) in an advanced state of disrepair”. In 2009 a professional survey of the empty Merz Barn estimated that the cost of repair works to the building would not exceed £30,000.
There may be a disconnection between the funding that Littoral has received since 2006 (much of it from the public purse), the renovation objectives for which much of the money was (and may be) awarded, and the actual outcomes.
Littoral has, in recent years, disseminated an increasingly fabricated and misleading version of Schwitters’ complex history and his art for the purposes of publicity, self-promotion, and perhaps to satisfy the funding criteria of numerous arts and rural development bodies. A re-shaping of the Schwitters’ story and his legacy have been unchallenged by the press and funding agencies, whose editors and adjudicators may not always be well informed on the historical minutiae of the artist and his times. Unfortunately, the Cylinders Estate is now a locus of specious histories, a site of dubious and frequently mythologised pilgrimage, and a venue which inexplicably promotes Schwitters as a leading exemplar of artistic ‘ruralism’, mystifyingly aligned to Littoral’s wider provision as a rural ‘arts, crafts, and agriculture’ organisation. This is no doubt deemed an acceptable strategy by some within the wider remit of Lakeland’s cultural, pastoral and tourism agenda and its aspirations for ‘World Heritage’ status. Schwitters, celebrated for his ‘Merz’ collages made from urban detritus, was never a ‘rural artist’ in the present sense of the term. Schwitters’ name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at the Cylinders Estate which have no bearing on the artist, and which often pervert understandings of his life and work. Funding bodies no doubt require project justification from applicants seeking grant aid, and to support young artists is – in itself – a worthy cause, but there are no historical records to support Littoral’s disingenuous and oft-repeated claims that it was Schwitters’ wish for the Cylinders Estate to become a place where future artists could stay and work, that the Nazis had tried to kill him and that his exile had links to the death camps and the Holocaust.
The Armitt Museum in Ambleside, five miles from the Cylinders Estate, holds the largest permanent display of Schwitters’ art in the UK, primarily focusing on the artist’s final years in the town. While the Armitt receives no funding, its survival relying wholly on admission revenue and donations, Littoral – in stark contrast – has received and continues to receive substantial public funding yet holds no works by Schwitters. Littoral regularly asserts that ‘…there is no permanent gallery or museum in England devoted to the work and life of Kurt Schwitters’.
Against the wishes of the residents of Elterwater and Langdale, Littoral hopes to develop the Cylinders Estate as a venue reminiscent of a small commercially driven theme park with a ‘rural art museum’, contemporary art gallery, conference centre, ‘meditation’ room, café, accommodation, car park, and replicas of Schwitters’ works. Such aspirations will destroy the historical integrity of the site and transform it into a place unrecognisable, and anathema to, Schwitters.
A likely detrimental impact to the environment and the area, coupled with the historical fictions now advanced by Littoral, have accentuated the need for Schwitters’ legacy in northern England to be substantially re-addressed re-examined -, and for history to be separated from myth, fabrication and misinterpretation at the Cylinders Estate.
Littoral commendably raised funds to save Cylinders Estate from total decay, has raised public awareness of the site, and since 2006 has irregularly opened Cylinders to the public. Nonetheless, the Trust’s ‘go-it-alone’, increasingly grandiose, bellicose, and often misbegotten schemes to promote Schwitters and the site of his last major artwork raise vexatious issues of sustainability, and concerns that the Estate will be subjected to bland, widespread, and hubristic commercialisation within the Lake District’s notional tourist marketplace.
A solution will require the collaboration and co-ordination of all Schwitters venues in the north of England (The Armitt Museum, the Merz Barn, The Abbot Hall Art Gallery, and The Hatton Gallery) and a more environmentally sensitive, low-key and contextually appropriate approach by Littoral.
Prominence should be given to The Armitt Museum and The Hatton Gallery, as long-established primary research and information centres.
Cylinders should be considered as a minor venue accessible for interested individuals or groups. A lower profile in keeping with its location and the wishes of Langdale valley residents would preserve it from further historically and environmentally destructive development. Information for readers who may be unfamiliar with the life and times of Kurt Schwitters, and Littoral Arts Trust
“Kurt Schwitters and Cylinders Estate”
Schwitters was neither Jewish nor a member of the German Communist Party. Voluntary exile from Nazi Germany afforded him the freedom to continue making and exhibiting abstract art. Although many artists fled from Germany to Britain and North America, for similar reasons, none who were not Jewish were exterminated by the National Socialist regime, because of their art. Littoral Arts Trust has regularly claimed otherwise (see, for example, ITV Border News 30.6.2014 ‘Plans for a £1m Elterwater Arts Centre: “…. the Nazis tried to kill Schwitters”). The no doubt compelling fallacy that Schwitters’ escape to England had links to the politically and racially motivated Holocaust and the death camps is yet another falsehood advanced by Littoral. Schwitters’ exile, first in Norway, preceded the infamous 1937 Munich ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ by several months. Although life in National Socialist Germany was extremely difficult for him and his family after 1933, there is no evidence to support Littoral’s claim that the Nazis had tried to kill Schwitters. His departure from Germany with his son seems rather to have been impelled by the latter’s youthful political activities and imminent military call-up. The Nazi authorities never revoked Schwitters’ German passport, nor was his property in Hannover or his bank account confiscated, which would have been the case for an ‘enemy of the state’.
Schwitters spent just two and a half years living and working in Ambleside before his death in January 1948. During that time, remarkably, he produced almost 600 (catalogued) artworks. His health rapidly declining, he spent less than four disjointed months in 1947 working, with assistance, on the Merz Barn installation at the Cylinders Estate. The work, a fraction of what he had envisaged, was removed to Newcastle University in 1966. Despite Littoral’s claims, the Merz Barn is now merely a carcass containing no remaining trace of Schwitters’ hand, but only clues to its former occupancy: a curved ridge of plasterwork added to the north wall after the artist’s death.
There are no historical records to support Littoral Arts Trust’s insistence that “…. Schwitters said he wanted the place (Cylinders) to be somewhere artists could come and find support, and a place to stay and work” (Summerhall TV film posted by The Artists’ Information Company 8.1.2014) and “…. Schwitters said before he died that he wanted it (Cylinders) to be a place for artists to come and be supported” (Summerhall TV film on Merz Barn Facebook 11.2.2015). There are no accounts of any explicit wishes by Schwitters (on his death bed or otherwise) that he wished Cylinders Estate to be developed as a ‘rural art museum’ and a workplace and exhibitions venue for future artists. Nor, it seems, did Schwitters indicate a desire that the Barn might in the future serve any purpose other than to display his own work. (See: The Westmorland Gazette, 10.1.2015, 5.6.2014, and 17.6.2014).
“Littoral Arts Trust”
Littoral Arts Trust is a company registered as ‘Littoral/Projects Environment’ (Company number 2526443, Charity number 1002365), described as ‘…. an arts research and development Trust, which promotes new creative strategies, artistic interventions and cultural partnerships in response to issues about social, cultural and environmental change’. Major aims of the Trust are to: ‘…. promote the arts and rural regeneration’, to ‘…. cultivate new metaphors for environmental sustainability’, to ‘…. curate critical art interventions in new agricultural contexts’, to ‘…. re-embed the crafts in the discourse of environmental sustainability’, and to ‘…. recover the ideological, social and aesthetic purposes of the crafts’.
In so far as Littoral’s funding can be understood by examining records openly available in the public domain, the Trust’s income from public bodies between 2002 and 2015 has totalled a staggering £1,229,645, of which £859,272.96 has been awarded since the acquisition of the Cylinders Estate in 2006. Frustratingly, much of the Arts Council’s funding, especially, is listed simply with project names and no precise descriptions of the purpose of awards, or expected outcomes. It is thus sometimes difficult to ascertain renovation and maintenance expenditure at Cylinders against programme costs.
Littoral’s claim that they have received no funding for the past three years is disingenuous. While their Arts Council RFO grant was revoked in 2012 (and the directors’ claims in The Guardian, 19.10.2012, to be subsidising Cylinders Estate from their pensions and savings may be correct), the Trust has, from 2012 to 2015, continued to receive funding from the Arts Council (two awards of £48,000 and £38,700), and from DEFRA (£25,255). In addition £24,000 has been claimed as payment in kind for two years’ use of the Wierside Bunk Barn in Chapel Stile, Elterwater (despite accommodation fees being paid by participants at Cylinders events). Between 2006 and 2013, Littoral’s declared expenditure for the renovation of the Merz Barn and the Cylinders Estate, to the Charity Commission, was £261,359. A surprising amount, considering the noticeable decrepitude of much of the site, as verified in Ian Hunter’s statement in the Westmorland Gazette 10th of January 2015 that, ‘…the Merz Barn and the buildings on the site are now in an advanced state of disrepair’.
“Kurt Schwitters and ‘rural art” Schwitters was never a ‘rural artist’, in the present sense of the term. Neither in the spirit suggested by the Westmorland Gazette’s accounts of a proposed ‘rural art museum’ at Cylinders Estate, nor in the ways that his name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at Cylinders which have no bearing on the artist, and which pervert understandings of his life and oeuvre. Similarly, Schwitters’ Merz Barn relief cannot be perceived as an exemplar of ‘rural art’ other than by virtue of its intended location. Nor can it be claimed that the work drew inspiration primarily from its rural context. The relief’s softly curvilinear and biomorphic features (in marked contrast to the forms of Langdale’s rugged landscape and executed in a style which Schwitters had been experimenting with since 1930) are rather evidence of his life-long and uncannily magpie-like ability to adapt the artistic zeitgeist of his times to the purposes of his art. Many of his late abstract paintings and sculptures display Schwitters’ enthusiasm for a biomorphic art genre, which was fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s, but is now largely forgotten. A ‘non-geometric abstraction’ (or biomorphic art) was believed at the time to herald a new and important developmental phase in modern art. It is noticeable, for example, in the works of artists such as Arp, Miro and Kandinsky, in the earliest works of Moore, Hepworth, Rothko, Gorky and Pollock, and in traditions which pre-dated them, particularly in Germany where the term biomorphism had a resonance as the consequence of its evocation of Romantic and Vitalist traditions so firmly rooted in German philosophy. Despite the pervasiveness of an international biomorphic style by the 1940s (in design as well as art: witness, for example, the popularity of ‘kidney’ shaped domestic furniture into the 1950s), its formal characteristics seem nevertheless to have been so ubiquitous in the visual languages of the period that the genre failed to achieve a status above the commonplace and was never accredited (unlike, for example, Expressionism and Surrealism) in Modernism’s accepted canon of ‘isms’. Biomorphism today is thus a term only infrequently and inaccurately used to denote irregular form languages evoking organic nature. That is why it is now so easy to assert that the Merz Barn drew inspiration mainly from its environment and was somehow at-one with the English tradition of the Picturesque (a mainstay today of Lakeland’s tourism industry), and why it is unsound and misleading to promote Schwitters’ Merz Barn as a leading example of what is now termed ‘rural art’.
“Contextually misleading symposia and workshops”
Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing
Schwitters was never a ‘rural artist’, in the present sense of the term. Neither in the spirit suggested by the Westmorland Gazette’s accounts of a proposed ‘rural art museum’ at Cylinders Estate, nor in the ways that his name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at Cylinders which have no bearing on the artist, and which pervert understandings of his life and oeuvre. Similarly, Schwitters’ Merz Barn relief cannot be perceived as an exemplar of ‘rural art’ other than by virtue of its intended location. Nor can it be claimed that the work drew inspiration primarily from its rural context. The relief’s softly curvilinear and biomorphic features (in marked contrast to the forms of Langdale’s rugged landscape and executed in a style which Schwitters had been experimenting with since 1930) are rather evidence of his life-long and uncannily magpie-like ability to adapt the artistic zeitgeist of his times to the purposes of his art. Many of his late abstract paintings and sculptures display Schwitters’ enthusiasm for a biomorphic art genre, which was fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s, but is now largely forgotten. A ‘non-geometric abstraction’ (or biomorphic art) was believed at the time to herald a new and important developmental phase in modern art. It is noticeable, for example, in the works of artists such as Arp, Miro and Kandinsky, in the earliest works of Moore, Hepworth, Rothko, Gorky and Pollock, and in traditions which pre-dated them, particularly in Germany where the term biomorphism had a resonance as the consequence of its evocation of Romantic and Vitalist traditions so firmly rooted in German philosophy. Despite the pervasiveness of an international biomorphic style by the 1940s (in design as well as art: witness, for example, the popularity of ‘kidney’ shaped domestic furniture into the 1950s), its formal characteristics seem nevertheless to have been so ubiquitous in the visual languages of the period that the genre failed to achieve a status above the commonplace and was never accredited (unlike, for example, Expressionism and Surrealism) in Modernism’s accepted canon of ‘isms’. Biomorphism today is thus a term only infrequently and inaccurately used to denote irregular form languages evoking organic nature. That is why it is now so easy to assert that the Merz Barn drew inspiration mainly from its environment and was somehow at-one with the English tradition of the Picturesque (a mainstay today of Lakeland’s tourism industry), and why it is unsound and misleading to promote Schwitters’ Merz Barn as a leading example of what is now termed ‘rural art’.
“Contextually misleading symposia and workshops” Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing ‘…. issues about rurality, food sovereignty, agriculture, environmental sustainability…. and artists’ projects related to initiatives…. addressing new aesthetic and critical interventions into rural and agricultural policy agendas’. At the same event Prof. Ute Meta Bauer’s Kurt Schwitters Annual Lecture was mystifyingly prefaced by daytime workshops on traditional woodland coppice skills, dry stone walling, the ‘construction of temporary sleeping shelters in the woods at the Merz Barn Project’, and unsuccessful attempts to ‘weave a 60m(sic) diameter bamboo geodesic dome’. Even more inexplicably, her evening lecture was preceded by a film on apple baking. It is as though Littoral‘s ‘rural arts, crafts and agriculture’ agenda is now so ingrained at Cylinders (the historic fabric of which also risks arguably inappropriate and widespread structural change) that a wholly misleading contextual framework engulfs Schwitters’ legacy. As most attendees at so-called ‘Kurt Schwitters DIY Schools’ are young artists and no doubt impressionable students, it is to be regretted that such fictions now comprise a substantial part of study and learning at Cylinders, often leaving visitors and temporary residents at the site with mythologised and disingenuous versions of Schwitters and his times. A Central Lakes Neighbourhood Forum convened on 15.7.2014 in Langdale Village Hall offered residents the opportunity to hear and discuss Littoral’s development plans for Cylinders Estate. Those proposals were overwhelmingly opposed by Chapel Stile residents on the basis of a likely further detrimental impact to the environment, notwithstanding Littoral director Ian Hunter’s inaccurate and misleading claim that “the Tate and the Arts Council have aspirations to build a museum on the site”. When queried about that claim, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota later commented that such aspirations may be in the minds of Littoral Arts Trust, but they are not ones which Tate necessarily shares. A day-long symposium (‘Housing Merz in the 21st Century’), funded by the Arts Council at Tate Britain’s Clore auditorium on 27.11.2014, offered a full programme of topics – sometimes with abstruse guidelines, such as ‘repositioning the regional and rural as new artistic and critical wild zones’. Some interesting national and international speakers had the opportunity to outline their experiences of managing like-minded projects, but unlike the Lakes Neighbourhood Forum, the Tate symposium offered little time for general discussion, comments from the audience or meaningful feedback. A Schwitters authority later reported: ‘…. very interesting speakers, but 99% of peripheral interest so not much nitty-gritty. The actual theme of the future of the Cylinders site was barely touched upon…. lots of hot air and a team of airy-fairy consultants…. where do they get the money to pay them, I wonder; but little in the way of concrete information’. Following a keynote address at the symposium by Ed Vaisey MP, a Merz Barn Facebook posting by Celia Larner (co-director) on 2.12.2014 stated: ‘…. when Ed (Vaisey) congratulated Ian (Hunter) on the carefully crafted speech the latter had written for him – which he used word for word – Ian said “Ah, then you liked the bit about the £2million?” causing Ed to do a rapid double-take before realising it was a joke!’.
“The ‘Degenerate Art Memorial”
Littoral director Ian Hunter’s inaccurate embellishment “…the Nazis tried to kill Schwitters” (see above) was perhaps tastelessly expressed to partly justify grant-aided rural tourism expenditure (£30,459.96 in 2012 from Rural Development Programme for England) for ‘the repair of the barn and the creation of a surrounding piazza to include a platform for a memorial to all artists persecuted by Hitler as ‘degenerate’, including Schwitters’. In 2015 the Barn remains, by Mr Hunter’s admission, “…. in an advanced state of disrepair” (see above). The piazza now adjacent to the west wall of the Barn, titled ‘Merz Platz’, and the ‘memorial’, have arguably destroyed the historical integrity of the building; notwithstanding structural changes made to the west wall of the Barn in the 1960s when Schwitters’ relief was removed. By way of introduction to this ‘Entartete Kunst Memorial Plaza Project’, Littoral’s website makes the wildly inaccurate claim: ‘…. Hitler regarded all abstract modernist artists, along with Jewish people, Gay, Romany/Gypsies and people with mental disabilities etc (sic) as sub-humans and who should be exterminated. And many were put to death in the notorious death camps; Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau, Theresenstadt etc (sic)’. Germany’s National Socialist government deemed ‘modern art’ to be part of an overall assault on ‘German art’ and culture by a Bolshevik, and largely Jewish, movement of artists who were working in tandem to destroy German and Western civilisation. Significantly, in Germany there is no monument to the ‘degenerate’ artists of the 1930s. This is perhaps explained by the unfeasibility of any memorial aimed to honour, collectively, a group of artists so diverse as to include those who were Nazi sympathisers, others who went on to join – or were already members of – the Nazi Party and some who subsequently sought (and were given) employment by the regime. Unlike artists who chose exile, such as Schwitters, many decided to stay in Germany, observing an ‘inner-emigration’. The German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit, widely regarded for its journalistic quality, predictably failed to publish a Littoral Arts Trust article about the Cylinders Estate ‘Degenerate Art Memorial’. The memorial sculpture itself, titled ‘The Roots of Modernism’, is no more than an up-turned tree root which had lain on the Estate for decades. The roots of Modernism in fact are to be found in the ideals of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and the flowering of the Modernist movement in the early twentieth century is usually ascribed to a period having commenced in the 1860s. By 1947, when Schwitters commenced work on the Merz Barn, what is now understood as ‘Modernism’ was long since dead: despite Littoral director Ian Hunter’s claim that the Barn is “the epicentre of Modernism”. Littoral’s tenuous grasp of history has misleadingly assigned Modernism’s ‘roots’ to Schwitters and a medley of German artists: many of whom Schwitters would not have regarded as his colleagues. It was Germany’s National Socialists who persistently sought to fossilise sentimentalised myths into overblown monuments.
“Development plans for Cylinders Estate”
A professional fabric survey by ADW Shepherd, published on 19.3.2009, estimated that the cost of repair works to the empty Merz Barn would depend on how they are procured. He stated that costs would be fairly minimal should repairs be carried out by volunteer labour. If professional contractors were to be engaged, Mr Shepherd estimated that all works to the Barn could be carried out at a cost within the range of £25,000 to £30,000 plus any VAT and professional fees liability. The report included a further requested estimate for the construction of a contemporary, glazed, ‘study/meditation’ room, with power and lighting, attached to the exterior east wall of the Barn at a cost of £45,000 to £55,000 excluding VAT, Local Authority Planning and Building Control and any professional fees. Despite assurances from Littoral in 2012 that the Barn would be repaired with the aid of the above-mentioned £30,459.96 Rural Development grant, the east wall of the building is now externally buttressed with temporary wooden and metal props, as though to prevent collapse. ADW Shepherd’s survey nevertheless noted that: ‘…. the wall…. is a modern intervention from 1947 in a single thickness of calcium silicate bricks…. it is very thin for its height and should be said to be structurally unstable, but it has performed through all weathers since 1947! Repair needs will be fairly minimal by way of some pointing up of settlement cracks and repair of the rotted timber lintel over the slot window opening formed in the wall. Some protection of the exposed ends of the roof purlins would be desirable….’ The Westmorland Gazette reported on 17.6.2014 that a meeting had occurred between Littoral Arts Trust and representatives of the National Trust, the Arts Council, Cumbria County Council, South Lakeland District Council, Lakes Parish Council, and the Lake District National Park Authority, with a view to exploring how substantial additional funds might be raised to give Cylinders Estate and the empty Merz Barn a ‘major overhaul’. It is reported that a Schwitters information and visitor centre (preferably subterranean) is envisaged, close to the Barn. An additional two-storey ‘rural art museum’ and contemporary art gallery is proposed on the footprint of the Estate’s long-since demolished Dutch barn: perhaps to include a café, a bookshop, replicas of Schwitters’ works, a conference centre and sleeping facilities for visitors. Major utilities and access work would no doubt be necessary, as will a car park. Text: Lloyd Gibson, Russell Mills 2015 Research: Russell Mills (Artist), Lloyd Gibson (Artist), Deborah Walsh (Curator of the Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside)