The art commissioning journey from the inside – research-led works developed for The Burton Art Gallery & Museum – getting to grips with Bideford Black pigment


film still by Liberty Smith

The Burton Art Gallery & Museum began the commissioning process for the Bideford Black: Next Generation show in 2014, when we – Carolyn Black of Flow Contemporary Arts and independent arts consultant Claire Gulliver – were appointed to project manage the process. Between the selection of the artists in the autumn of 2014 and the launch on Saturday 3rd October, the journey has been both fascinating and intriguing, with all of the team taking on their roles with gusto and passion.

The brief given to the artists was to make new works for the collection and develop ways of using Bideford Black as a medium or an inspiration – an expanded field of this black earth pigment. The film maker was tasked with documenting the project process and outcomes. This project was not the first, and will not be the last, to have Bideford Black at it’s heart.

The commissioning process was new to the Burton Gallery – never before had they commissioned contemporary art from scratch – so we were all aware there would be challenges along the way. And there were, starting with the huge response to our call for applications, with over 165 expressions of interest for only 8 artist commissions and one film maker contract.

It was a hard decision to make but the selected artists are: Tabatha Andrews, ATOI, Luce Choules, Corinne Felgate, Neville and Joan Gabie in collaboration with Dr. Ian Cook, Littlewhitehead, Lizzie Ridout, Sam Treadaway and Liberty Smith. And what they have produced is like a 360 degree survey of the pigment and its history.

As more and more museums begin the process of commissioning contemporary art, sometimes for the very first time in their history, the learning curve is sometimes a bit twisty and wobbly. There is still much work to be done in creating a model for good practice so sharing the process is a useful thing to do. It’s not easy for organisations that have historically been guardians of wonderful things that are in their possession, to also consider commissioning new items for their archives that will continue the cycle of making and collecting. New becomes old, past becomes present and indeed future. Acorns –> oak trees.

As the only purpose-built venue in the area, on the north coast between Bristol and St Ives, the Burton is an accredited museum and art gallery, making it a leading cultural venue in SW England. It collects, safeguards and displays artefacts of cultural, historical and industrial significance, in particular related to the North Devon area and Bideford specifically. It also initiates and brings exhibitions and artists of national and international standing to the region, working with national institutions including Tate, The Royal Academy, Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), The Barbican, alongside community or heritage focus exhibitions. And it now commissions new work too.

So the research process began a year ago, with a getting-to-know everyone session. With most of the artists in attendance, alongside other interested parties – notably the National Trust and Ian Cook, a cultural geographer from Exeter University – we shared our own histories and interests. A field trip to the beach where the pigment is found was the introduction to both the material and to each other. Stomping along cliff paths, wobbling along rocky beaches in wellies, grinding sticky black stuff between our fingertips, we were a picture to behold! Few left the beach without black smudges on their face, as they wiped their hair from their faces in the wild wind and salty spume.

9. GreencliffPanoramawithArtistsCarolynBlack

So, to keep Bideford Black, this rich black earth pigment, at the centre of this narrative, what happened over the coming months was that each of the artists entered their own private explorations. Like the miners that went before them, they manipulated the clay, mixed it with others things, sniffed it, cast it, crushed it and even listened to it. Some locked themselves in their studios to grind and mould it, others returned again and again to the beach or to the museum while they tried to find their own relationship with the black clay through time and place.

During that time Liberty Smith, the film maker, was despatched around the country to film them. She documented their early enquiries, listened to their stories of excitement and joy, fascination and frustration. Liberty was tenacious; she even travelled to Scotland, France and Spain to conduct her filming. Her footage, as rushes were shared, were clearly going to be an important part of the process. Indeed they were so wonderful we asked Liberty to create a trailer for the main exhibition and film, which you can see here – it is beautifully filmed, capturing the research far better than words could ever do.

At the time of writing, she is editing the final film, which will share the entire journey with audiences and be shown in the gallery when it opens at 2pm on 3rd October 2015. From the rushes I’ve seen to date, the film gives visitors privileged access to the artists studios and thought processes – a very valuable document for the archive.

Whilst Liberty caught developments on film, Claire, me and the gallery curator Warren Collum, had conversations and made notes. Due to the dispersed nature of the artists geographically, updates were often by phone, email or Skype. We had staged reviews, to make sure the artists had what they needed from the right people.

The film trailer gives you some flavour of that journey. This text explores the record keeping – the recorded notes on the development of the artists thinking. Being a private journey, I have collated some anonymous comments recorded during the artists’ process of discovery, relating to what they were finding out about Bideford Black:

The comments below were in response to the question “how will this [your work] relate to Bideford Black?” I’ve blocked them together, because as a whole they feel like an image of the pigment – considered from every perspective, touched in every way possible.

Responses January 2015:
It’s about transformation of material from one thing to another. The fighters [represent] tectonic plates grinding and marking. Locating the production of the work at Bucks Mills will transform the fabrication into a live event….become where a myriad of personal and collective histories are collaged over one another….drawing on the cabin as a site of both industrial and artistic production as well as a place of retreat. Drawing on the decline and resurrection of Bideford Black mining twice over the 20th century, the factory imagines a third and final revival of the industry that never was, as well as focusing on individual endeavours to work with Bideford black, outside of the mainstream industry like Mr G Philips’ Bideford soaps produced in his home laboratory, that reeked of carbolic in addition to using it to make all of his paint. BB will be the main material in the work. Words and texts will relate to it; ink will employ BB; Vanta could make comparisons to BB. We also discussed the possibility of a thesaurus of BB. It’s about dynamic movement. BB will always be the material and the concept at the centre. The scent itself will be created from the genus of Tree Fern most closely related to those existing in the South West of England 300 – 350 million years ago. The scent therefore references the origins of the mineral black material. Made with BB pastels, smeared onto paper, about immersion in dark places, how light is taken away, darkness and its emotional implications.

Responses June 2015:
We have pushed the past uses of BB in industry and warfare, the connotations of mining and all its associations, and we have also taken into account the geological and physical properties that were endured to create BB….we have brought the pigment into the future by playing on its raw associations of mined materials, by creating a polished finished product [a diamond]. We have employed the most advanced modern day technologies which nod to its history and the politics and poetics of working with this material. The ceramic slabs appear almost fossil like, becoming relics of Bideford Blacks Jurassic-esque history when it was mined out of the grounds as the mascara rods highlight our  disconnect from this in contemporary society. The mascara rods also have the initial appearance of tools used in early industry, paying homage to the miners and other industrial workers who worked in and around Bideford. Developing on from the mines, the Bidi Black make-up range draws on its history for commercial production and the swathes of industry and commodities that have come out of Bideford over the last millenuia, notably the cosmetics of Max Factor who adopted the pigment. We have used BB to try and tell its own story, by creating audio tracks. Black is inherent in the social, economic and cultural narrative of Bideford through the town’s connection with Bideford Black. A Polychromy in Black seeks to examine Bideford Black through an investigation into light, dark and colour via the use of tone and texture in archival material gathered in The Burton Art Gallery & Museum. It also cross-references Bideford Black within the broader cultural story of black by considering specifically ink and printing press production and the role of the engraver. It was the engraver’s role to translate colour, form, chiaroscuro and texture from real-life or paintings, through the use of line, cross-hatch and dot; regular/irregular, thick/thin, curved/straight, continuous/discontinuous, vertical/horizontal/diagonal, in multiple as bunches or alone. Based on an ongoing dialogue between artists and a geographer, we present parallel approaches to one material, based on our shared conversations, but with differing outcomes. Exploring the possibilities of the substance that is affectionately known as Biddiblack we are making a series of drawings and films to explore its nature – its unpredictabilitys – its uses and performance as a drawing tool. The dialogue will be central to the final outcome of the work. The artwork reinterprets Bideford Black via the medium of smell. Through its presentation the work also references the historical commodification of the Bideford Black material (and commodification, commercialisation and transportation of generic raw materials in general) with a contemporary twist. These works reverse western traditional representation – rather than being looked at, they come out at you, are looking at you, sensing you. It’s about experiencing in situ. BB looking at you.

The artists have given their consent for me to publish their comments, which reflects their generosity throughout the project. The words provide a glimpse into the minds of the artists and reflect their thinking processes, as well as their making. When we write about artists and their work we summarise, take little pieces, recontextualise their words, model their language to fit the readers expectations. By quoting the above, the reader gains access to private thinking. As Joseph Kosuth explored in his work “One and Three Chairs”:

But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.” By assembling these three alternative representations, Kosuth turns a simple wooden chair into an object of debate and even consternation, a platform for exploring new meanings.


One and Three Chairs

Joseph Kosuth
(American, born 1945)

1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair”, Chair 32 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 20 7/8″ (82 x 37.8 x 53 cm), photographic panel 36 x 24 1/8″ (91.5 x 61.1 cm), text panel 24 x 30″ (61 x 76.2 cm)    (MOMA website)

Kosuth reminds us that art, photographs and texts are not the ‘real’ thing, they are alternative representations. I interpret that the ‘one’ chair he refers to as the one I have in my mind – but maybe he is referring to the thing itself. No matter, it is the fact that these works evoke debate and offer a platform for exploring new meanings that is the imperative.

Do come and see the real thing yourself and let us know if you agree. We’d love your feedback. Send comments to


THE BURTON ART GALLERY & MUSEUM, Kingsley Road, Bideford EX39 2QQ, UK
(e)   (t) 01237 471455 (w)

Opens 2pm on 3rd October – runs until 13th November 2015

Opening Hours:

Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm.

Sunday 10.30am – 4pm.

“A most eccentric desk” Song for an artwork! Steve Hill performs for launch of Miniature Museums

When we launched the Miniature Museum of Museums by Tara Downs & Bart Sabel at the Waterways Museum last month, we had a very special treat. The artists had engaged in deep research to inform the elements of the artwork, which is presented in the form of a modified and adapted desk. We’re discussing the process and collaborations on Sunday 19th April Flow Contemporary Arts is hosting a brunch at SVA in John Street, Stroud, as part of the SITE Festival.

Tickets: £5 breakfast included, booking essential

Email: Tel: 01453 751440

To celebrate the contribution and involvement of many of the volunteers and staff, and to add to the interpretation of the collections, we were very grateful to host two performances.

The first was the wonderful Pate Choir from Cheltenham, who sang Song of the Shipbuilders – words by John Greenleaf Whittier & music by Gustav Holst. Holst is most well-known for The Planets, but he was also very interested in folk music and was an active socialist. Sadly our video wasn’t great of the performance as the light was hard to manage, but you can download the words of the  Song of the Shipbuilders and we hope to upload a sound file soon.

The second performer was Steve Hill. Steve is a singer songwriter and works at the Museum in the Park on reception. Asking Steve to write something about the artwork resulted in a song called A Most Eccentric Desk. You can watch it here and enjoy the playful response Steve had to the Miniature Museum of Museums. You can download the words here.

Working with so many inspirational volunteers and staff at all three museums has been what makes this project so special. The commitment and passion people have for the places they give their time to adds a unique dimension to the work of all museums.  We are very grateful and inspired by those people, thank you for making the research process for the artists such a delight.


Thanks to Steve, PATE choir and Julian for whipping out his mobile phone and filming

Visit Glos Waterways Museum, engage your analytical engine, hear an interplanetary receiver – opens Sat 28th Feb


On Saturday 28th February The Waterways Museum in Gloucester launches the tour of the Miniature Museum of Museums, created by artists Tara Downs and Bart Sabel. They create automata, soundworks and interactive sculpture, engaging and enchanting audiences of all ages, evoking curiosity and wonder. Come and see An Interplanetary Receiver, An Analytical Engine (the brain), A Gramophone Planetarium and a Pianola Textile Coding Roll Machine – discover the ideas behind them and explore what makes innovation tick.

Thanks to Arts Council funding, Flow Contemporary Arts commissioned the artists to create a wonderful new Miniature Museum in response to the collections in three Gloucestershire Museums. The research and delivery of the project has been developed in partnership with the Holst Birthplace Museum (Cheltenham); the Museum in the Park (Stroud) and the Waterways Museum (Gloucester). A form of cabinet of curiosity, visitors will be able to touch and animate the artwork, which will merge knowledge, engineering and creative-thinking to release new ways of understanding the museum collections.

Friction Project
Friction Project

Bideford Black commissioned artist to deliver performance lecture 11th March @BurtonArtGaller

One of the 8 artists selected to make new work for the Burton Collection, Luce Choules will be giving a talk at the Museum:
Luce Choules 
Guide74 performance lecture
11th March 7pm 

Guide74 is an artist project exploring spatial dynamics in the high mountains using experimental fieldwork. Using a format of photographic image, spoken word and physical objects, Guide74 leads an audience on an expedition to the Alpine regions of France – a journey of many parts exploring ideas of interrelated geographies and events. For more info

This is not specifically about her commission, but it will give you a flavour of how she works and thinks. For the Bideford Black project, Luce is developing Seam – a scripted large-scale, dynamic photographic installation (conceived as an event throughout the exhibition), and associated items. Find out more about her work here.

Do join us.

A response to article in Guardian exploring steampunk, fact & fiction in museums

As a new exhibition opens at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, Heloise Finch-Boyer asks whether we should laugh at the history of science?

This article in the Guardian raises a really interesting question and one I am presently exploring with two artists amd three museums, in Gloucestershire, UK, in my project ‘Friction – where fact and fiction meet’. The Museum sector focuses mostly on facts and knowledge, whereas contemporary art often corrupts them, creating alternative narratives that are inspired by collections. Look what Banksy did in Bristol City Museum. Tara Downs, Bart Sabel and I will be working on the production of a Miniature Museum of Museums. The artists do research at each location and the final work will tour and carry with it the various stories – some fact, some fiction, some creating friction. This is a pilot but a full project could be rolled out that can grow, adapt and change endlessly, leaving traces at every venue it visits.

Their art practice involves interactive elements, both analogue and digital. They challenge the don’t-touch nature of museum displays, indeed the audiences are required to contribute to the stories and to animate their works.

If you want to see some work by Tara Downs and Bart Sable now they are exhibiting at Newark Park, a National Trust property near Wotton under Edge, in ‘Selected’. Selected 2014 runs from 23 April to 8 June, Wednesday to Sunday, and bank holiday Mondays, 11am to 5pm

#visartsbristol open space meeting – good discussions, now for action (updated)

Yesterday I attended an open space event convened by Situations and Bristol Museums (and possibly others, excuse my ignorance here).

AMENDMENT: the partners that hosted the event were:

Alexis Butt, Acting Director, RWA; Claire Doherty, Director, Situations; Helen Legg, Director, Spike Island; Julie Finch, Director and Phil Walker, Public Programmes Manager, Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives and Tom Trevor, Director, Arnolfini.

It was a good day and a while since I have engaged deeply with what is happening in Bristol, having moved to Glos seven years ago. It felt good and it was particularly interesting to witness a wind-change in the arts ecology in Bristol. It used to feel very territorial in Bristol, but now the key players, the artists and public bodies seem more united, sharing a vision of resilience for the arts in the city.

Historically, the Bristol art scene always seemed somewhat dominated by the major organisations, creating a hierarchy, often with artists at the base of the triangle. It was good to see so many artists there and all working together on a level playing field. Freelancers also hold their own now too, creating a rich and nourishing compost into which ideas can grow.

It was also very good to see such a high museum sector presence, though I didn’t meet anyone from libraries, sadly. Both are now part of ACE remit.

Collaborating with the museums would be ideal for Flow, with new projects being devised to tour works that are modular & adaptable, yet pay homage to each context they are taken to. And new commissions too – a constant celebration of existing works and a topping up with new, ever changing artworks.

Phil Walker led a group discussion about ‘future thinking’ for museums. I’d really like to work with him and his team to commission an artist to respond to this enquiry, which could then tour (alongside existing works) to other museums and gather their ideas and visions.

An issue that arose time and time again in conversations was the need for there to be people engaged to broker partnerships, oversee multiple partners to deliver cross-sector projects.

That is exactly what I do, what Flow is designed to do.

Talk to me.