When ‘normal’ life came to an abrupt halt back in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, it presented many people with all sorts of logistical problems, but Helen Pheby, Head of Curatorial Programme at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, may have had one of the most unusual to deal with.
“I was on holiday the week before lockdown and we had a huge sculpture on its way to us from South Africa that was on a ship in the middle of the sea,” she says. The artwork in question was Willem Boschoff’s Flagstone, a monumental 5.5m x 2.4m piece of granite, and Pheby had to put systems in place for core staff to receive delivery of it after the YSP was closed.
It was one of her first tasks in the continuing work that has been going on behind the scenes at the Park over the past few months. Three members of staff moved into the accommodation situated within the historic archway at the entrance to the Park – normally for the use of visiting artists – so that they were on hand to carry out the required checking, cleaning and maintenance of the sculptures.
Pheby herself has been working mostly from home “on the museum side and collection care” with very occasional visits to the Park. “It has been so strange not going in,” she says. “I have been working there for nearly 20 years and I miss it. And, of course, I haven’t been able to do studio visits to artists; with sculpture that is particularly important because you really need to see and feel its presence.”
Last week it was announced that galleries and museums can reopen from this weekend and Pheby and the rest of the creative team have been preparing to welcome back visitors to the Sculpture Park’s extensive landscape and galleries.
However, because of the unique and complex set of circumstances that YSP staff have to work round – a 500-acre site plus several gallery spaces and two visitor centres incorporating restaurants – it may take a little longer to ensure all areas are safe for visitors and staff before the gates can be opened.
“There is often a misunderstanding about us – we are a gallery, not a public park,” says Pheby. “It costs a huge amount of money for us to open and we rely on 80 per cent visitor spend for our funding. We have lost £1.2m since the lockdown.
“Because of social distancing measures, we will have restricted numbers of people visiting, so we have to find a way to reopen while at the same time balancing the books. In some respects, of course, we are very fortunate in that we do have the outdoor space and we can make that work for us.”
It is likely that there will be a phased reopening with the outdoor areas being made available to visitors first, followed by the indoor gallery spaces.
Just two weeks before lockdown, an exhibition of the work of Joana Vasconcelos had been launched in the Underground Gallery and the open air. The celebrated Portuguese artist creates vibrant, often large-scale sculptural works using fabric, needlework and crochet alongside everyday objects, from saucepans to wheel hubs. “It is such an uplifting show,” says Pheby. “We have extended that and it will be a really nice one to reopen with. We want to make sure as many people as possible get to see it.”
As for the rest of the planned programme for this year Pheby, in common with other programmers in the arts sector, has had to postpone, rethink and reschedule. “Essentially, we have pushed on every part of our 2020/21 programme by nine to 12 months,” she says. “And for the first exhibitions in the gallery spaces, we will probably draw from our own collections.”
In their preparations for reopening, Pheby and the curatorial team have been focussing on trying to make the experience for visitors “the best it can possibly be”. But that is not without its challenges. “We will have to think very carefully about the curating – making sure we keep a safe distance between artworks, without compromising the viewing experience. It is going to change the way we think about curating.”
During the period of closure, there has been plenty of activity from the YSP in the digital sphere. “Our Head of Learning, Pippa Couch, set up online family activities every Saturday, all inspired by the collection and relating to the works on display,” says Pheby. “It was about encouraging families to talk about the situation through art. It has been difficult for adults to process what has been happening, but for children it has been even harder. Pippa has thought really carefully about all that and put together a great programme.”
There have also been sessions for school students working towards their Bronze Art Award. “Every couple of weeks Pippa presents an artwork on Instagram live, with the artist if they are available, and invites people to send in questions. We plan to continue that after we reopen.”
Pheby herself, alongside some of her colleagues in the curatorial team, has been giving regular online curator talks. “It was completely out of my comfort zone,” she says, laughing. “But the response has been great so far.”
YSP founder Peter Murray has been inviting people to share their memories of the Park over the years on social media and contributions have been flooding in to the Walk of Art 2 outside the recently opened Weston gallery and visitor centre – you can donate to have your name become part of a permanent new artwork by artist Gordon Young.
“There has been a huge amount of support for the YSP since we have been closed,” says Pheby. “We received a major donation the week of lockdown and people have been very generous. That has been really positive and very heartening. And what has been lovely is how mutually supportive the whole arts sector has been – it is going to be tough and challenging for everyone – it has been really collegiate.”
It has also been interesting, says Pheby, to see how, without the constant footfall of visitors, nature has begun to reclaim the Park’s landscape. And it didn’t take long. “A couple of weeks into lockdown, badgers were spotted up near the Underground Gallery. We had never seen them there before.
“That kind of thing has happened all over the world – it is hopeful to see how things can recover. Maybe this is a time for reflection, to pause and reset. I think it has also simplified things and highlighted the importance of creativity and the arts and how vital it is to invest in that.”
Pheby is a firm believer that creativity is a human right. “It is completely fundamental. And it is the founding philosophy of the YSP. If you invest in and nurture people’s creativity, good things come out of it. It helps people to think creatively when it comes to problem-solving – and going forward we are going to need that type of thinking more than ever.”
It is hoped that the Yorkshire Sculpture Park will open sometime in July. To keep up to date, visit their website www.ysp.org.uk and social media channels.
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