The wheels of the art world often turn slowly. Very slowly. Decisions can take months to be made, exhibitions years to come to fruition, which is perhaps why Lisa Le Feuvre appears like a breath of fresh air.
Very slowly. Decisions can take months to be made, exhibitions years to come to fruition, which is perhaps why Lisa Le Feuvre appears like a breath of fresh air.
Le Feuvre is the woman appointed to run the Henry Moore Institute following the departure of the previous director Penelope Curtis, who left the Leeds organisation to run Tate Britain.
While she doesn’t like to talk about her age, let’s just say she’s young to have been handed the reins of a building with the HMI’s international reputation and it seems she has brought to Leeds a youthful energy that is already driving forward the organisation.
Le Feuvre, a leading academic in the art world, left a teaching post at Goldsmiths in London, to become head of sculpture at the Leeds city centre gallery. Seven months on, Le Feuvre feels she has her feet under the table and is slowly getting to grips with Yorkshire’s other cultural offerings.
When we first spoke, Le Feuvre was in Edinburgh curating an exhibition she’d signed up to before landing the Leeds job and when we finally meet in her top-floor office of the HMI she’s clearly relishing the challenge of being in charge of the venue.
“The great thing about the institute,” she says, an opening line she uses several times over the course of an hour, “is that because we are a small team and are totally independent, we can decide to do something and just get on with it. Sometimes that means working fast and hitting deadlines, and I’ve already talked to the staff here about that. I want everyone who works here to have an input into what the organisation is.”
This is the sort of thing that the new head of any organisation might say, but Le Feuvre knows from experience just how beneficial giving people unexpected opportunities can be.
“When I was studying for my MA I was a bookshop assistant at a gallery. I found another job and I was going to leave. But the person in charge of the gallery didn’t want me to go, so said I could curate my own exhibition. I’m not saying that would be appropriate to do here, but that spirit of getting everybody involved is something I definitely want to bring to the institute.”
The HMI opened in 1977, as an entirely independent organisation, which receives funding from the Henry Moore Foundation to promote the legacy of the sculptor’s work. Moore himself officially opened the doors of the institute and spoke often about how he saw no sculpture when growing up in Yorkshire and wanted to make sure other young Yorkshiremen and women would have access to the art form.
In the past three decades the institute has become one of the most important venues nationally and internationally for the study of sculpture. That the previous director left to take over Tate Britain is perhaps the most vivid demonstration of its credentials.
Another is that Le Feuvre is here at all. She makes it very clear that she thought long and hard about taking the post and that “this was the only job I would have even contemplated leaving London for”.
“I wasn’t looking for a job, I wasn’t looking to leave London, but this job was too perfect for me not to apply for,” says Le Feuvre. “In the end I couldn’t not apply, because the job was so perfect. There is something very special about the institute. It’s for people who live in Yorkshire, it regularly draws people from London and Glasgow, the UK’s two centres of art and it has an international reputation.
“The job also pulls together curating exhibitions and research, which is something I absolutely love and it is also a perfect size just to make things happen.”
Sometimes it takes a stranger from out of town to make you realise what you’ve got. The institute may well have a national and international reputation, but there is the inescapable fact that it suffers locally from something of an image problem.
With the opening of The Hepworth Wakefield, Yorkshire would take on any challengers for the title of UK’s leading place for sculpture. With that seriously impressive new building just along the road from the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and just down the road from the HMI, there are no other counties in the UK that can boast anything comparable in terms of providing the opportunity to learn about and enjoy sculpture.
One of those three venues, however, has an issue. The Henry Moore Institute is an uninviting kind of building. While Le Feuvre already has a very soft spot for the institute, that doesn’t mean she is blind to its faults.
“It absolutely is an intimidating place, an imposing building,” admits Le Feuvre. “Making sure people locally come through the doors is something I am very keen on making sure happens. When I arrived there were two things that I immediately saw were an issue – one was that, on this big imposing structure, nowhere did it say what we were.
“Nothing on the outside of the building explained we were open to the public and what we did inside, so unless you already knew, you had no way of finding out. Now we have signs outside the building that says Exhibitions, Bookshop, Events, Library.”
The second issue Le Feuvre has with the institute is one which many will have noted on a visit to the gallery. That she brings it up is interesting, because, for a high- flying academic, it may sound utterly trivial, but Le Feuvre is clearly someone who believes that the devil is in the detail.
“The stairs leading into the gallery are a really strange proportion,” she says. “You might not have noticed before, but you will now – you can’t walk up them naturally, which has bothered me since the first time I came here. The first time I visited, the building made me quite nervous.”
Le Feuvre isn’t about to start ripping out the entrance hall and bringing in the builders, at least not yet. However, she has already overseen the installation of new signs along the staircase. They explain to visitors exactly what the institute does, who runs it, what its relation is to Henry Moore and to Leeds Art Gallery which sits next door.
Mentioning Leeds Art Gallery reveals a side to Le Feuvre’s personality that will be interesting to see imposed on the building.
The week before we meet, Leeds Art Gallery announced that it had record-breaking visitor numbers to its Damien Hirst exhibition.
“Did you hear that the counter machine on the door broke?” says Le Feuvre, her eyes lighting up at the idea of all those visitors. “One of the really special things about the institute is that it is independent, so we don’t have to stage exhibitions that the Arts Council tells us, or some other body, we can decide we want to do something and do it.
“That means the only thing we are looking to satisfy is ourselves. One of the absolutely key things for me about this building is that we are inspiring the future of art history, so we might have an exhibition that only attracts five people, but if those five people go on to have a big influence on the future of art history, then we will have achieved a great deal.
“But don’t get me wrong, I want to see queues around the block with people from Yorkshire desperate to see our exhibitions and I want our peers to be green with jealousy, to be absolutely fuming because we are right at the forefront of British sculpture.”
Such ambition in one so young. Only a fool would bet against her.