Alison Burke: Modern art in an ancient setting suits both

Art student Jessica Gassons work mirrors decorative patterns from inside Newhailes House. Picture: Neil Hanna
Art student Jessica Gassons work mirrors decorative patterns from inside Newhailes House. Picture: Neil Hanna
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CONTEMPORARY art can find a comfortable fit with historic buildings as the NTS has discovered, says Alison Burke

The walls of the National Trust for Scotland’s historic buildings are often adorned with impressive artworks from centuries gone by. At Drum Castle in Aberdeenshire, we are lucky to have works by Joshua Reynolds and Henry Raeburn and Cosmo Alexander.

Just because Drum Castle is 700 years old, this does not mean that we are stuck in the past when it comes to art. Increasingly our centuries-old walls are adorned with challenging, humorous and engaging contemporary pieces.

For the past two years, Drum Castle has been proud to be in partnership with the Aberdeen Art Gallery, presenting two very different exhibitions from their collection, all while the city-centre gallery undergoes an amazing £30 million programme of refurbishment.

To make the most of this opportunity, we have transformed unused space in the castle, into a museum-standard gallery that befits these important pieces.

Last year’s exhibition Human Presence was a challenging and unapologetically contemporary collection which completely captured the public’s imagination.

Featuring key pieces from Aberdeen’s collection, including the haunting Gallowgate Lard by Ken Currie, ‘Highly Sprung’ by Julia Douglas, a dress made from 12,000 clothes peg springs and ‘Restraining Coat II (Female)’ by Julie Roberts, a painting which implies a human presence with no body in it, was a real hit with visitors.

In total, we saw a 24% increase in visitor numbers. This means an increase in our income to help us conserve the castle and the estate, but it’s also about more people coming to Drum and finding out about Aberdeenshire’s oldest castle.

Many visitors said they felt closer to the art in a domestic setting; they felt they could get up close and personal with the works. Other feedback was they liked the juxtaposition of viewing a contemporary collection in an historic location.

We’ve just opened the 2016 exhibition, Northern Lights which is themed around light and I think there is something for everybody.

From historic art, we move on to influential art from the 20th Century, iconic works by Turner, McIntosh, DVD installations and sculpture. Drum is helping play a part in keeping these iconic works accessible to the public while Aberdeen Art Gallery is being refurbished, and we are building our own reputation as a place for modern art too.

There are more than 30 paintings, sculptures and digital video including a new addition to the collection, Watercolour by Elizabeth Blackadder and works by Joseph Farquharson, Joan Eardley, John Byrne, John Bellany, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and SJ Peploe and the challenging performance work Gralloch by Henry Coombes.

So far the visitor feedback has been fantastic, so 2016, the Year of Innovation, Architecture and Design looks set to be another great year for Drum.

It’s not just in Aberdeenshire that contemporary art is thriving. Sister properties all over the country are also working with exciting artists to add a new perspective to traditional heritage settings.

At Newhailes in Musselburgh, an innovative partnership with Edinburgh College of Art has seen students create bespoke pieces inspired by the setting and stories of the East Lothian estate.

The wonderfully diverse artworks include Rachel McLennan’s mirror-clad pyramids, a T Rex skeleton created by Kenny Hunter, Director of the ECA Sculpture Programme and a bright ball pit spilling out onto an antique carpet by Katie Strachan.

The inspiration continues outside too with Jessica Gasson’s lawn stencil which is drawn with paint used to line football fields and mirrors decorative patterns from inside Newhailes House.

The pieces present an opportunity to engage with visitors in a completely fresh and creative way. Newhailes was, from its inception, at the cutting edge of art and design and this tradition is being continued through this fantastic partnership.

Another place where contemporary art fans can get their fill is at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. The team there run a rolling programme of contemporary art exhibitions. At the moment, Graham McKean’s brilliant, bright, Burns-inspired works are being greatly enjoyed by the public. Don’t miss his exhibition which runs until 26 June.

And in Innerleithen, where Robert Smail’s Printing Works is celebrating its 150th anniversary, there’s an exhibition featuring the work of their artist-in-residence Theresa Easton who has taken inspiration from the traditional printing techniques and the town’s history to create a series of striking broadsides (poster-style pieces which traditionally featured ballads, event announcements and proclamations) and chap books (an early form of street literature, printed onto one sheet of paper and distributed cheaply to the working class). Pop into St Ronan’s Wells to see it for yourself.

So, the National Trust for Scotland – a place for contemporary art? We think so! For full details of all the Trust’s exhibitions – www.nts.org.uk/events.

• Dr Alison Burke, Property Manager Drum Castle