Troubled Schwitters Merz Barn May Be Exported To China

The troubled Merz Barn in Langdale, Cumbria once used by the German artist Kurt Schwitters as a studio, after escaping the Nazis in the 1940s could be sold and moved from the Lake District to China.

The Stone building has suffered a funding crisis and further funds to maintain it are not forthcoming

The Stone building has suffered a financial crisis and further funds to maintain it are not forthcoming, while Arts Council England has refused the project further support five times.

Mr Hunter, 70, and Celia Larner, 80, who run the Littoral Arts Trust, a registered charity, revealed last week that they had received an approach from an unnamed Chinese multi millionaire art collector, who has offered to buy the barn outright and relocate it to their private collection in Shenzhen, southern China. Hunter stated that in the past he has offered the building as a donation to the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but the offers were turned down. It is unlikely that the barn will ever be allowed to leave the country as its removal would be subject to LDNPA planning law, an extant National Trust covenant. Any development of the land would also be subject to the same constraints. We were told by Littoral on 17 January that, the National Trust have no claim, or an actionable covenant – there is a covenant but it is in abeyance – on the Merz Barn site.

Kurt Schwitters' Merz Barn Wall | Hatton Gallery

Kurt Schwitters – Merz Barn Wall – Hatton Gallery Newcastle

The barn’s wall of art was moved to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne in the mid 1960s, but the barn is still considered an important piece of UK cultural heritage, with artists such as Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley and Bridget Riley all having made donations towards its upkeep. Zaha Hadid also came to the rescue of Merz Barn in 2016. The late architect very generously came to the project’s aid, via her gallery in Zurich, which contributed £25,000. The Arts Council were unmoved, and declined a modest request for £5,000.

A resident in the area has told Artlyst that Littoral the registered charity that runs the trust has been mismanaged for many years. This is an opinion that Littoral strongly denies.

Another local has stated that the ideal scenario would be for the barn to be managed and curated by the Armitt Museum in Ambleside, which has researched, collected and promoted Schwitters since the 1960s, and now has the largest collection of his pieces on permanent public display in the UK. They would be in close consultation with the Hatton Gallery, Abbot Hall in Kendal and the Kurt Schwitters Society. The buildings and grounds should be fully and sympathetically restored, to become a low key cultural centre that reveals the full history of the site, from its origins as farmland to its use as a gunpowder factory, to Harry Pierce’s (the owner who invited Schwitters to stay there in the first place) vision to make it a Kew of the north, and to include Schwitters time working on the Merz wall.

The Littoral Trust recently applied for Arts Council funding to support the project and raise money for the 70th anniversary exhibitions, schools and public events programme, but have felt that they should prepare for the worst-case scenario, and look seriously into selling the Merz Barn.

The Merz Barn on the open market is expected to sell for about £350,000.

The following letter was received in response to our article published 10 January 2018

It’s unlikely that the so-called Merz barn would be considered for listing by English Heritage as it would not comply with any of the necessary conditions required to attain such listing. As it stands (barely) it has no architectural merit, and the significant clumsy changes that Littoral have made to it, render it historically irrelevant. It’s only attribute is its now, very tenuous connection with its former user, Schwitters.

Despite having received well over £1 million in funding from the Arts Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, DEFRA, and from various county, city, and parish councils, in addition to awards from numerous private bodies since 2006, Littoral has failed abjectly in its primary objective to “… to first save the Merz barn …” Indeed the barn and the Cylinders estate are in a worse state than when Schwitters left it in 1947; its rate of dilapidation having increased alarmingly under Littoral’s inept, self-serving governance, which has trashed, not only the site itself, but also much of Schwitters’ legacy in the Lakes. Schwitters wouldn’t recognise the place.

Why else would Littoral be once again making such querulous appeals for help, for yet more bailouts?

The extent and sources of Littoral’s funding can be easily ascertained by examining their accounts, which are freely accessible on the websites of the Charities Commission and Open Charities.

When visiting the “… remaining Merz Barn site…” one would find a sad, damp, leaking former hay store, which has been so altered by Littoral’s botched piecemeal and penny-pinching DIY repairs that little of its original structure or integrity remains. On one wall inside “the museum”, is a wrinkled photographic reproduction of Schwitters’ Merz relief sculpture. At its base, on a floor pooled with puddles, a nightlight may be burning, and in corners there are piles of spent nightlights and molten candles. A museum…?

Zaha Hadid’s recommendation that Galerie Gmurzynska donate £25,000 to Littoral to “repair storm damage” should also be held up to more intense scrutiny. Firstly, the Cylinders estate was not affected by damage caused by Storms Desmond and Eva, which hit Cumbria in December 2015, as Littoral have claimed. Posts on their own Facebook site throughout December 2015 and January 2016 showed no mention of storms or damage. However, on January 29 2016, Littoral did post a story claiming that the site had been “hit by some kind of whirlwind” the night before. Mysteriously, neighbouring Elterwater was left completely unscathed and none of its residents reported any bad weather that night.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, all these revealing posts were hastily deleted by Littoral as soon as Hunter and Larner learned that the huge disconnect between Littoral’s claims and actuality had been reported to the likes of the Westmorland Gazette, the Kurt Schwitters Society, and the Cumbria Community Fund.

One should also be aware that when Galerie Gmurzynska made its donation –  which generated a substantial amount of favourable publicity – it was, coincidentally, preparing for a major Schwitters exhibition later that year …

Littoral’s repetitive snipes at the Arts Council, other arts funding bodies and institutions, that it characterizes as bullies, forcing the trust to sell the site, are unwarranted. Devised to bait and shame, and to trigger sympathy, their main purpose is to attract and siphon yet more bailouts from ill-informed donors.

The Arts Council, having pumped hundreds of thousands of public money into Littoral with little meaningful progress being made, rescinded its regular funding in 2011, although it awarded the trust numerous individual grants for several years thereafter. Littoral conveniently neglects to mention these subsequent awards. And ACE’s alleged five-times refusal of arts lottery funding in recent years is easily explained.

ACE having been burnt too many times by the trust’s failure to achieve the aims and objectives for which it has been awarded substantial amounts, has also stated, quite rightly, that, “The Arts Council’s role does not include protection and restoration of cultural heritage – this is the responsibility of other bodies. However, we have supported Littoral Arts with funding for a contemporary programme over a number of years.”

Another reason for ACE’s refusals is that it has decided that the trust’s aspirations for the future of the site are ill conceived, disproportionate and inappropriate for the location, amounting to no more than a vanity project for Hunter and Larner.

Contrary to Littoral’s claim that the Charities Commission would “…insist that the project be sold at full market value…” rather it’s highly likely that it would insist that the site should not be sold at all, but rather should be offered to another charitable trust. If Littoral were allowed to sell the site, which is doubtful, the proceeds would be reimbursed to those bodies (public and private) that provided Littoral with funding for the site’s initial purchase, its supposed restoration and its maintenance.

Littoral’s claimed refusal of an alleged £350,000 cash offer last year, determined apparently because the, again unidentified, putative buyer “… could offer no guarantee that the cultural and historical value of the Merzbarn site would be protected” is a bit rich considering that it is Littoral that has allowed the site to go to wrack and ruin.

The trust’s claim that recent expressions of interest have been made by “an unnamed Shenzhen-based multimillionaire, a major art institution in Scotland, and the University of Manchester School of Architecture” may well be true, but should be taken with a massive dose of salt.

As with last year’s claims of a unnamed purchaser being on the horizon, followed by press reports of bulldozers being at the gates of Cylinders, Littoral again neglect or refuse to identify both its alleged Shenzen-based multimillionaire” or the “major art institution in Scotland.”

The interest from the University of Manchester School of Architecture petered out last year when it became clear that should it take over the Cylinders estate it would do so under some restrictive and decidedly unpalatable caveats. Not only would it have to work with Littoral’s two dictatorial honchos Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, but it would also be obliged to allow them to stay in their estate cottage, which they have been residing in – illegally – for the past few years.

Littoral’s claim that Schwitters trained as an architect is yet another example of its Machiavellian sophistry that warps art-historical facts and stretches the bounds of belief. Schwitters did not train as an architect. In 1918 he enrolled in the “Modelling” class at the Technische Hochschule Hannover (Hannover Technical College), where, for just two semesters he attended two classes a week, each lasting no more than two hours. While the class was ostensibly concerned with architectural model making, Schwitters simply used it to learn how to work with clay and plaster. Notwithstanding the fact that Schwitters was interested in architecture throughout his life, his interest was primarily in finding new ways to work with materials and forms that might the imagination of architects rather than in any recognized architectural practices or norms.

Schwitters did not consider his Merzbauten as being “architecture-as-art installation projects”, but saw them first as immersive sculptural reliefs, as artworks created, necessarily, within architectural spaces. They were one means of expression amongst many others that he explored in his quest for the Gesamtkunstwerk (the total work of art).

Littoral’s current appeal, slanted so heavily to the architectural world is a desperate bid to dig itself out of a hole of its own making. The site and its few ramshackle buildings, dilapidated static caravans, ragged tents and yurts, have no relevance to, and would offer no benefits to “the international architecture community”.

Importantly, while Schwitters’ unfinished sculptural relief, created on only one wall, removed and re-installed in the Hatton Gallery in 1965, could be considered a radical, pioneering and visionary art work, what remains at Cylinders – the Merz barn itself – is not a pioneering work of experimental architecture as Littoral continually claim, but is just an empty barn. It contains no work by Schwitters or evidence of his hand. It is a carcass, a sad, near-derelict, damp lean-to shed; probably the most expensive publicly financed empty shed in the UK.

If some credulous billionaire or institution is duped into buying the barn they should also be mindful of the Lake District National Park’s stringent planning policies, and the equally restrictive National Trust covenants that exist on the site, both of which would probably forbid the removal of any building from the Cylinders estate,.

The blindingly obvious fact is that Littoral Arts Trust has squandered an enormous amount of public and private money that has been given to restore the Merz barn, the ancillary buildings on the site and the grounds. The Merz barn has deteriorated shockingly under Littoral’s inept governance, and the Cylinders estate resembles a travellers’ camp. Where has this hill of money gone if not on the barn, the other buildings and the land? Littoral’s  governance and its finances need to be subjected to some intense scrutiny and its directors held accountable for this appalling betrayal of Schwitters. … The Charities Commission?

Yours sincerely,

Russell Mills MA (RCA)

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