St Michael's, Discoed
Annual, themed, multi-artist exhibition and fundraiser
Since 2013 St Michael’s has mounted three exhibitions on a Lenten theme, with previous themes addressing The Last Supper and Christ’s 40 Days in the Desert. ‘40 days, 40 artists’ (1 March – 18 April, 2017) is the most recent example of this installation programme. All of these exhibitions have been curated by the artist Charles MacCarthy and this year’s brief was premised on the decision to present ten events from the Passion. Each scene was represented by four different artists, matching the total number of artworks with the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. In accordance with the project brief, artists identified an art historical precedent which could be referenced in their own depictions. In this way, artists interpreted each scene via the artistic legacy of the past.
‘Art and religion are joined for me.’ – MacCarthy
‘[anyone coming into the church is a good thing] it doesn’t mean they take up the faith (though some have) but it makes them think a bit more.’ – David Hiam (Chairman of the Friends of St Michael’s)
The exhibition programme was born out of community action to save the church, which in 2007 was in such poor condition that it had been threatened with closure. That year the Friends of St Michael’s, Discoed was founded to raise money for repairs so that the church could remain active in worship and in community engagement with the arts. The congregation continues to put worship at the centre of their activities, though the lively cultural programme expands the churches’ reach and inclusivity by bringing in non-worshippers and worshippers alike.
The Friends of St Michael’s are justifiably proud of the range of events held over the past several years, which include concerts, literary events and art installations. They estimate that these events have not only raised some £150,000, they have created a strong and committed community encompassing locals and those from further afield.
This modest church, medieval with Victorian modifications, sits on a hilltop close to Prestigne, overlooking the Welsh Marshes. The 2007 restoration project saw repairs to the belfry roof, the removal of rotting pews and the re-laying of floors. The interior of St Michael’s is an open space without fixed pews.
The countryside around St Michael’s is known for its creative residents. This vibrant community of artists is a valuable resource for the church and its exhibitions. The church has become a regular participant in the ‘h.Art’ festival (Herefordshire art) and has hosted a number of exhibitions for the event. Clare Stevens, Media and Marketing Manager at nearby Hereford Cathedral said that participation in these exhibitions and festivals:
‘brings people in who wouldn't otherwise come into the church. It offers a way of relating which doesn't alienate [the arts community].’
MacCarthy’s curatorial process begins with the writing of a concise brief, including a production schedule, which he circulates to artists in the area roughly one year prior to the exhibition’s proposed opening. The open brief welcomes artists working in a variety of mediums. Once the participants are confirmed, subjects are allotted democratically by drawing from a hat. Production takes place in the artist’s studios with MacCarthy staying in contact via email. These occasional group emails flag up deadlines, allow progress to be shared and help to connect the artists with one another.
Collective submission of artwork takes place at the church two weeks prior to the exhibition opening. MacCarthy organised the works for display by arranging the scenes of the Passion in chronological order, and then grouping smaller clusters of work by eye. Each piece was accompanied by a wall label giving the artist’s name, title, medium and dimensions, as well as the subject and a quote from the Bible selected by MacCarthy. This information was also included in an illustrated catalogue which was sold for a small fee. An album which contained images of the historical artworks which inspired each piece was also made available for visitors.
A picture rail, purchased as an investment when the exhibition programme began, runs along the length of the nave, providing a valuable means of hanging two-dimensional work. Though initial approval from the DAC was required to install the rail, it now allows pictures to be mounted on the wall without additional approval being sought. The church also invested in small lights which clip into the picture rail system, allowing each work to be illuminated individually.
St Michael’s opened daily from 10:00 – 17:00 during the exhibition period, and was not invigilated. This was possible because the artists agreed to bear that risk, with most deciding not to insure their work. Pieces were well secured to their mounts and no incidents occurred.
The total cost of the exhibition amounted to £500, supplemented by a great deal of voluntary labour. As there is no funding available from the parish for individual exhibitions, MacCarthy and Hiam cover some small running costs personally.
Marketing for the exhibition was undertaken by volunteer Sally Butler who helped create web pages for the exhibition on the Friends of St. Michael’s website as well as advertising it on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Social media has been found to help in generating press interest and for this exhibition a volunteer posted a photograph of one work each day for the 40 days of lent using the hashtag #40days40artists.
‘When invited to take part, artists often said ‘But I’m not religious’ or even ‘I’m an atheist’ but, in the end I think this inclusion of a non-pious approach has produced good results.’ – MacCarthy
Haim attributes the success of the exhibitions so far to commitment shared by all involved as well as to professional working practices and attention to detail. For MacCarthy, part of what makes the exhibition attractive to participants is the possibility of being involved collaboratively with a community of artists.
‘A wonderful selection of artists, professionally displayed, in a beautiful church, in a stunning setting.’ – h.Art