Kurt Schwitters’ Final Merz Barn Under Threat

By Kitty Jackson - Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Kurt Schwitters’ Final Merz Barn Under Threat

“It is a priceless part of Europe’s modernist cultural and artistic legacy. We are doing our best not to let it be devalued or disrespected, but we need help.” Ian Hunter. Sometimes, as an arts journalist, you read something in the newspapers that fascinates you and compels you to find out more. The Guardian article “Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn under threat from property developers" by Hannah Ellis-Petersen was one of those articles for me. How is it possible that Schwitters’ Merz Bern, such an important piece of art history, could be under threat?

Kurt Schwitters’ Final Merz Barn Under Threat

“It is a priceless part of Europe’s modernist cultural and artistic legacy. We are doing our best not to let it be devalued or disrespected, but we need help.” Ian Hunter

Sometimes, as an arts journalist, you read something in the newspapers that fascinates you and compels you to find out more. The Guardian article “Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn under threat from property developers" by Hannah Ellis-Petersen was one of those articles for me. How is it possible that Schwitters’ Merz Bern, such an important piece of art history, could be under threat?   

The historic Merz Barn is a pioneering piece of modernist art, but it has currently fallen to pensioners Celia Larner and Ian Hunter to look after it using only their fast-dwindling personal savings and pension plans. Why is the Art Council not taking over? What’s happened to the funding that the Merz Barn used to receive?

As the Merz Barn prepares to celebrate its 70th anniversary in July 2017, Artdependence take a deeper look at the cultural icon facing an uncertain future.

Kurt Schwitters

Artist Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany in 1887 and rose to prominence thanks to his cross-genre works using sound, painting and structure as well as graphic design and installation. He drew influences from a variety of sources, most notably Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism.

Schwitters fled Nazi Germany in 1937 after his work began to draw negative attention from the government, leading to a demand that he report for an interview with the Gestapo. Many modern artists and architects were persecuted under the Nazi Regime. The below photo was taken at the infamous Entartete Kunst (‘Degenerate Art’) exhibition in Munich, 19 July 1937. Schwitters’ painting can be seen above Hitler’s head, deliberately hung at an angle.

Adolf Hitler and Adolf Ziegler visit the Degenerate Art Exhibition, 1937. The wall behind them calls attention to the works of the Dada artists with depreciatory comments. Source: Wikipedia

Schwitters’ art has been praised by several high profile figures in the art world. Several of his pieces can be seen at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain and one of his abstract sculptures sold at Christies in 2014 for £13.9 million.

Amongst his most discussed work was a curious three-dimensional installation sculpture - the Merzbau. The first Merzbau was created in Schwitters’ family home in Hanover. Over several years he gradually transformed six rooms into pieces of art – decorating walls and ceilings with a curious combination of shapes and objects. The project was abandoned and later destroyed by a bomb after Schwitters fled Germany. Upon his arrival in Oslo, he began creating a second Merzbau in his temporary studio. Sadly, it burned down in 1951 and no photographs survived.  

After several years of exile in various European countries, Schwitters settled in the English Lake District, taking a small barn in the Cumbrian hills as his studio.

The Final Merzbau

Schwitters was awarded a $1,000 grant from the Museum of Modern Art towards the costs of setting up his new studio space. As he had done in Hanover and Oslo, he began adapting the space – his final Merzbau. Sadly, just three months after starting the project, Schwitters contracted pneumonia and passed away, having only completed one wall. The surviving wall was moved to Newcastle University in 2006 thanks to funding from the Northern Rock Foundation and Damien Hirst.

The building is well known and respected by artists around the world. Melvyn Bragg once described it as “an outstanding contribution to the understanding of contemporary art”. In 2011, the Royal Academy erected a replica of the barn in their courtyard space.

“The Merz Barn was Schwitters' third formal Merzbau experiment,” says Ian Hunter, current guardian of the building. “The Hannover and Oslo Merzbaus have been lost. This makes the British Merz Barn even more important. It’s also a symbolic reminder of the obligation and struggle of all artists against intolerance, racism, anti-semitism and all forms of oppression. Above all, the Merz Barn is a reminder of the triumph of creativity over evil.”

The Arts Council England provided regular funding towards the maintenance of the Merz Barn until 2011, when it’s funding application was abruptly declined, leaving responsibility for the project in the hands of Celia Larner, 80 and Ian Hunter, 70, owners of the Littoral Arts Trust.

Over recent years, Larner and Hunter have nursed the Merz Barn back to life from a state of disrepair. They called in the help of a team of volunteers to lovingly restore it to its original condition. In order to complete the work they began using money from their own pensions and savings. They also secured £65,000 from private sector donations and were initially supported by funds from the Arts Council England. But the funding came to an end in 2011 when the Trust’s regular application was abruptly declined.

Since then, a further 4 applications have been turned down. The most recent application was declined in May this year, 2017. The application sought £75,000 for essential repairs and maintenance.  

Artdepenedence reached out to CEO Nicholas Serota for comment. In his original correspondence he stated that he was “aware of the Merz Barn from my time at the Tate,” before adding that he would look in to the matter and send more information. In a second communication a few days later Serota stated that “The Arts Council’s role does not include protection and restoration of cultural heritage – this is the responsibility of other bodies. In 2014 we awarded £38,700 through our Grants for the Arts funding programme, for a feasibility study to demonstrate the project’s viability and stakeholder support. In our view the feasibility study did not present sufficient detail in the options analysis to demonstrate a viable business case at that point, nor did it cover other potential sources of capital funding beyond the Arts Council or offer any match-funding strategy…There was no analysis of potential business models for the sustainable development of the site, once sufficient capital support was secured. We fed this back to Littoral for their consideration.

“With regards to the most recent application by Littoral for a programme of work on the site; Grants for the Arts is a highly competitive programme and we always receive more strong applications that there is funding available.”

The Communications Officer for Arts Council England, Abbi Knell, added that “we cannot give advice on the future of the Merz Barn project, this is a matter for the owner and the trustees to consider'.”

Ian Hunter feels the Arts Council England have made the wrong decision. “Some leading international artists and art experts in Britain have condemned their stupidity. We will keep the project going as long as we can. It would be a national disgrace if the Merz Barn were sold off on the open market.”

Local MP Tim Farron supported Hunter’s claim: “I cannot overstate how important a site the Merz Barn is and what a boost for the Cumbrian economy if some sort of art museum or similar could be accommodated there.”

Uncertainty for the Merz Barn

Over the last few years, several artists have made donations towards the upkeep of the space, including Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley and Bridget Riley. Sadly, it has not been enough to secure the site’s future. Larner and Hunter have also sunk all of their personal savings into the project. Larner has even resorted to selling her Lancashire cottage to help with upkeep.

Hunter has offered the building at no cost to the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art, but both have declined. In the meantime, developers have offered £300,000 cash for the land on which the barn sits. Hunter has told the press that within a matter of months their hands will be tied.

“Don’t get me wrong, we love it,” says Hunter, “but we’re two old people who realistically can’t be here labouring for much longer. We’ve tried to keep it going as best we can because we feel like we have a moral responsibility. We feel that the Arts Council and the art establishment have failed Schwitters and the Merz Barn. What will become of his extraordinary creative legacy?” 

Jann Haworth, co-designer of the Beatles Famous Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band cover, has also shared her dismay about the threat facing the historic building. “What a terrible reflection of indifference and carelessness for a national treasure,” she said. “Kurt Schwitters’ project in the Lake District can be set as a triumph of what is best about Great Britain; its historic tolerance and welcome. Or [is it] a sign of its degradation into small mindedness and bitterness?" A question that feels particularly poignant in the current climate.

Anish Kapoor and Rem Koolhaas have also expressed their admiration for the building and their desire to save it. “This was Schwitters’ last Merzbau experiment,” says Ian Hunter. “Although it was unfinished at the time of his death in 1948, it is still held in high esteem by many leading artists and art historians. Several well known artists cite the Merz Barn as an influence in their work.”

This summer will mark the 80th anniversary of the launch of the Nazi campaign against modern art and architecture. A celebration is planned for July 19th at the Merz Barn. Ian and Celia are inviting artists, writers, curators, musicians, poets and art organisations to join a 24 hour candle-lit vigil. During the vigil, the names of 100s of artists who have lost their lives under the Nazi Entartete Kunst campaign will be read out.

Kurt Schwitters' last Merzbau experiment; the Merz Barn project in England was funded by MoMA NYC in 1947  (Littoral)  

Artsist and musicians celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Merz Barn (Littoral)

The future of the Merz Barn

Ian and Celia are reaching the last of their savings. Their money will run out within the next few months. After that, the future of the Merz Barn is uncertain.

“We’re currently trying to raise around €750,000 to complete the first phase of restoration and development,” says Ian Hunter. “ This would help to make the place sustainable. Alternatively, around €500,000 would purchase the property. The Arts Council have around €500m of unused Arts Lottery funding in reserve. They could release funds to support this project and preserve this important heritage site.”

So what do Ian and Celia want for the future of the project? “We would prefer to have a consortium of leading international artists and architects to buy the Merz Barn site. Ideally we would stay here and run the project for them, until a decision can be made about the project's longer-term future. The Merz Barn is located on a 5-hectare farm site in the centre of the Lake District National Park. We have plans to build a contemporary art space and also set up a modest sized museum which would tell the story of the Entartete Kunst and the great international Modernist diaspora that followed.”

Ian and Celia have been developing the Merz Barn site and surrounding farm buildings. They are looking at ways to use the surrounding land as an international centre for research into rural innovation and design and a centre for exploring the link between art and agriculture.

How can you help to save the Merz Barn?

The Trust are preparing to launch one final appeal for support. “As you can see, the Merz Barn is worth more than money. It is a priceless part of Europe’s modernist cultural and artistic legacy. We are doing our best not to let it be devalued or disrespected, but we need help now. Our appeal is now to the wider European cultural community to help us save Schwitters’ last Merzbau from loss. It is one of Europe’s great cultural treasures,” says Ian.

Interested in helping secure a positive future for the Merz Barn? Here’s how you can help:

  • Write to the Nicholas Serota, Chairman of Arts Council England and urge him to have the Arts Council release some Arts Lottery funding to support the Merz Barn.
  • Visit the Merz Barn. It is open 7 days a week 10am – 5.30pm. There is some accommodation available for visiting artists or curators and there will be a celebratory gathering on July 19th.
  • Spread the word about the Merz Barn and encourage people to learn more about this fascinating place. 

The idea of the article belongs to Dirk Vanduffel. 

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Kitty Jackson has worked as an arts journalist and writer for more than 10 years. She began her career as an Editorial Assistant at WhatsOnStage.com before moving to IdeasTap to become Assistant Editor. After four years Kitty moved towards digital content and began working with leading PR firm PHA Media, helping them to establish a digital department before moving to iProspect, where she was embedded within the digital content team creating content for leading brands including The Body Shop, Thomas Cook and British Gas. Kitty is now excited to return to the world of arts journalism at ArtDependence.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie‐Thérèse), executed 4 December 1937. Oil on canvas. 24⅛ x 18⅛ in (61.2 x 46.1 cm)

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