• Unlocking the story of a mill-working community image 1

    David Bridges discussing Waves (2015) with a tour group. Commissioned by Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills as part of a New Expressions 3 New Opportunities Award

  • Unlocking the story of a mill-working community image 2

    David Bridges discussing Aerial (2015) with a tour group. Commissioned by Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills as part of a New Expressions 3 New Opportunities Award

Unlocking the story of a mill-working community

Memoria: Memories of Light - Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills and David Bridges

New Opportunities Award artist David Bridges worked with Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills to explore the history of a former woollen mill. This case study takes a 'behind-the-scenes' look at the different working cultures and interpersonal relationships at the centre of the collaboration. It considers project management and production roles, and navigating procurement and communications. It explores negotiating interpretation, visitor experience and safety, and considers the value of whole-organisation working.

Budget: £4,000

Although retired from his work in industry with a strong track record as a successful businessman, as a professional artist David Bridges describes himself as ‘a relatively new artist really, just three years out of college with my MA’. A New Opportunities Award from New Expressions enabled David to initiate a collaboration, Memoria: Memories of Light, with Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills. It was the first time contemporary art had been commissioned and installed at the museum, a former woollen mill.

For Armley Mills, the project was an unexpected and welcome opportunity to explore the intangible history of the site in a way that had not previously been attempted. Their ambition was to unlock a dialogue with visitors and former mill employees and to open up new areas of the building to the public.

The role of a project manager / producer

When the Industrial History Curator, with whom the artist had developed the project, left the museum, a new relationship with the Community Curator became key to the success of the project.

One of the central things that Hannah Kemp - the Community Curator - introduced was regular production and development meetings. As the artist says, “What you see – the stuff with the artwork – is just the tip of the iceberg. Behind that there’s so much to do ...

“As an artist, I find that in meetings I have such a strong desire to be in the studio, to be actually making the work, thinking ‘I cannot be here, time is running out to make the work’, but if I hadn’t come in to the meetings, I don’t think the project would have happened”.

Negotiating procurement

Collaborative projects involve negotiation around things like budgets and decision-making. In the case of Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills, the decision was taken early on that Leeds City Council would hold the budget for the artist’s commission. This had both advantages and disadvantages.

Hannah explains: “In terms of artist and museum working in partnership, Leeds City Council holding the budget does give us some say in what does or doesn’t happen at the site”.

However this meant that the artist needed to work within the Council’s procurement procedures, including needing to source three quotations for all suppliers of technical services.

Hannah reflects: “On something like this it doesn’t make any sense to get three quotations, because it’s a one-off, bespoke, creative interpretation working alongside an artist, and you can’t really quote for that”.

“I found that very hard”, says David, who had built a relationship with an engineer during the research and development of his work. “I had to get three quotations, but who could I go to? Because I’d developed a relationship with an engineer and he was helping me to devise the sculptures. He had made working drawings and in the end we had to send those off to get three quotations – (two of which came back much higher…(than his)”.

Communication

It was crucial to the success of Memoria that artist and museum communicated well throughout the project. While David and Hannah were regularly in touch by phone, email and meetings, at times they still faced challenges in the way they communicated.

Hannah says, “David knows what’s going to happen, but sometimes conveying that information and articulating it, particularly as his ideas change … Sometimes his plans would change and David wouldn’t realize that he hadn’t necessarily told other people that”.

David concurs, adding: “That did highlight to me that sometimes you don’t know how blinkered you can get as an artist; you’re so focused on where you want to be that you forget to include everyone else who goes with you”.

It works the other way too, says Hannah: “We’d have a meeting with Leeds City Council staff and David, and we’re all used to working in a museum, and using museum shorthand, and sometimes I almost felt we left David behind, and weren’t as inclusive as we should have been”.

All the same, both partners recognize that their frequent, open and honest communications were essential to realizing the project:

“I know from experience that silence is the worst thing”, says David, “I’ve learnt that, if you’re worried about something, the best thing is to get it out in the open, get people’s input if there’s a problem, if something’s worrying you, or if you don’t know what something means”.

Involving the community

In developing his commission, the artist wanted to talk to some of the people who had originally worked in the mill. Not knowing how to contact those people himself, David worked closely with the Community Curator to advertise for museum volunteers, and then worked with those volunteers to find local people that he could interview.

Reaching out to former mill workers in the locality was a new step for the museum. As Hannah explains: “Nobody had ever tried to figure out whether anyone in the local area remembered Armley Mills as a working mill. Armley Mills was written off to a degree - it was Leeds Industrial Museum instead. This was the first time we had asked whether there was anyone around who used to work here”.

It’s a process that has been hugely beneficial to the museum: “The day after the exhibition preview we had an afternoon tea here”, says Hannah, “and we had people who had been interviewed by David there. It was lovely to have that conversation and to start hearing those stories. And that’s something I’ll be taking up after the exhibition’s over, those relationships that David’s made”.

Building a legacy: new research and historic archives

Among the connections built through the art commission was a new relationship between the museum and Lis Tempest, a family member of the last owners of the mill, who now lives in New Zealand. Lis returned to Armley Mills for the first time in several decades to join the project and donated her family archive to the museum.

“We would never have acquired the Lis Tempest archive if David had not developed a relationship with the last owners of the mill”, says Hannah, “and through that I’ve been able to form relationships with the Tempest family”.

Pushing boundaries

Memoria was installed in areas of the historic mill building that had never been accessed by the public. Some areas had been closed for safety reasons and others because they had never been developed as visitor spaces. From the start of the Memoria project, the ambition was to open up these spaces, meaning that both artist and museum needed to adapt to each other’s concerns.

“I don’t think there’s been any comfort zone at all!” says David, “It has been a struggle to get the pieces in and enable them to be where they are. Some of the engineering and some of the health and safety; things like building landings … and of it being accessible to everyone …”.

Hannah continues: “The most adventurous aspect of the project has been the Economiser Room, which is an area of the mill that’s never been open to the public. David wanted to site one of his pieces in there. And he’s done that successfully. That’s been one of the biggest challenges and one of the things that the team has been most proud of; both stretching our capabilities and also opening up an area that the public don’t normally get to see”.

Balancing visitor experience and safety

The artist’s desire to present work in evocative, atmospheric spaces such as a previously inaccessible, dark boiler room (‘The Economiser Room’) had to be weighed against the safety of visitors. The team engineered a landing and railings and volunteers staffed the space, providing hard hats to visitors and supervising entry in small groups.

“David wanted the pieces to be situated in places in the mill, not in a gallery. And he didn’t want those areas to be sanitized, or tidied, or amended. So we had to compromise on the degree to which the areas could be made safe”, says Hannah.

“So that presented a challenge to us and it was very good that David did want to stay true to the site and what he saw. It stops you from doing what you automatically want to do which is to tidy it up for … cleaner visitor consumption. David was quite firm in not wanting to do that, and that added some additional challenges, but I think it was good, and more honest, and showed a sense of integrity from the point of view of his works but also from the point of view of the museum”.

Negotiating interpretation

Contemporary artists and museums and historic buildings often need to negotiate different approaches to presenting and interpreting work. At Armley Mills, the partners developed a solution that met both the artist’s wish for a direct visitor encounter with the artworks and the museum’s concern to offer some context for its visitors.

“David absolutely did not want any interpretation, which is fine. But then we had conversations with people who said that visitors just won’t get the artwork, that they need to have something, even if it’s not in the space itself, that gives them some context for it. Because, if you don’t know about contemporary art and it’s not within your experience and you’re expecting interpretation, you might not necessarily get it. So the compromise was to produce a printed map of the site that has on its reverse, in David’s own words, his inspiration for the four pieces”.

“It’s short”, says David, “Two sentences about each piece”.

Hannah continues: “And then we’ve got the volunteer invigilators who, once they’ve met and been briefed by David, are there to answer questions and respond to people if they have anything they want to talk about”.

Whole-organisation working

One factor underpinning the success and impact of the Memoria project was the curator’s ability to embed the project in the organisation-wide work of Leeds Museums and Galleries:

Hannah explains: “When it came to marketing and publicity, we both started to flounder because that’s neither of our areas of experience. At that point I felt that I needed to start pulling in other heads. That’s why I started the production and development meetings, which we held every three weeks from four or five months before launch day.

“Having the support of Leeds Museums and Galleries colleagues, who have specific roles like marketing as their full-time job … I think we would have really struggled if it had just been David and I doing it ourselves. But working within that infrastructure was hugely helpful. They’ve all taken on aspects of the project and lifted it, polishing the project and getting it out there”.

Audience response

Many audience members found their encounters with Memoria were powerful and emotional. 73% of respondents to the audience survey said that they thought the artwork dealt with something unusual and unexplored. 67% said that they could see a link between the artist’s work and the historic collections of the museum.

Audience comments included:

“Very unusual – the power of the memories of so many disregarded people”

“It made me think about people in the past in a more personal sense”

“It made me think about the lasting impact of work and the workplace”

“Created a great reflective feeling … Interesting relationship to the space around the exhibits”

“A fascinating new way to look at Armley Mills”

“I liked the effect of Gleam when the door was closed”