On-site/Off-site: Thomas Bewick and contemporary art at National Trust Cherryburn

Conference for the Birds - installation

From our MCAHE research, it became clear that temporary art commissions in heritage places tend to be poorly documented and have limited legacy. This is an important issue for heritage organisations because commissioning contemporary art can be a resource intensive process, both in terms of time and money. Site-specific commissions also have access implications in that only those who can physically visit the heritage site can engage with the artwork. These issues are particularly pertinent for heritage places that might have limited opening hours or limited space – such as National Trust Cherryburn, the historic birthplace of the famous British artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick.

Set in this context, the new ‘On-site/Off-site’ project (delivered through January-December 2023) aims to explore and demonstrate the potential of digital forms of contemporary art and dissemination which have the capacity to generate new audiences and make site-specific commissioned artworks more publicly accessible and available over a longer term.

Working with project partners National Trust and The Bewick Society, ‘On-site/Off-site’ addresses these overlapping issues of legacy, access, and audience development through two strands of work. Firstly, working with MCAHE artists Marcus Coates and Mark Fairnington and with new expertise from the digital design sector, we will revisit the artworks originally created for Cherryburn in 2018-19 to consider how these can be re-presented in digital space. Secondly, we are working with the Bewick Society to commission a new digital-first artwork that follows the intentions of the original artists' brief for Cherryburn, but which might appeal to and help to develop new audiences. The experiences and learning from this project will be shared at a project symposium designed to stimulate discussion and debate within the wider contemporary art, heritage and museum communities around the value and future development of digital platforms for the preservation, representation and creation of site-specific art practice. The symposium will be delivered in partnership with Arts&Heritage.

By enhancing impact and dissemination of contemporary art in heritage activity we hope that this project will: impact commissioning practices to consider legacy, accessibility and digital; further expand artists' creative practice; develop new audiences and enhance access; and create better return on investment for those commissioning contemporary art.