A bad story from England: Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop is in danger of ending up in China

Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop in England's Lake District is in danger of being dismantled and ending up in a private collection in China.

He ran a serious risk to the workshop that the great German artist Kurt Schwitters (Hanover, 1887 - Kendal, 1948), a pioneer of Dadaism and Constructivism, set up in England, in the Lake District, during his last years of life, when he had moved away from Germany following the rise of the Nazi regime. Schwitters first repaired to Norway, and when the country was also occupied by the Nazis, he moved to the Isle of Man, then to London, and finally, in 1942, he took up residence in Ambleside, a town in the Lake District, the region of northern England known today for its national park, beautiful mountain scenery, unspoiled nature, and ponds scattered throughout the area. Schwitters began working here on a permanent basis and later, in March 1947, set up a laboratory in the woods near the village of Elterwater.

This very workshop, which Schwitters renamed Merz barn (the artist identified his art with the term “Merz,” a meaningless word that he used broadly as a synonym for “dada,” while “barn” in English means “barn,” “barn,” but also “shack”), today runs the serious risk of being dismantled and ending up in China. In fact, the building’s current owner, the Littoral Arts Trust, a nonprofit arts preservation organization that arose in the 1990s, has declared that it is no longer able to financially support the Merz barn, and in addition, it has failed five consecutive times to secure funding fromArts Council England, the English public body that distributes arts funding. The chairman of the Littoral Arts Trust, Ian Hunter, thus said he was forced to put the workshop up for sale, expecting to receive at least 350,000. And this in the very year that marks the 70th anniversary of Kurt Schwitters’ passing.

According to what the Guardian writes, it appears that a wealthy Chinese art collector has shown interest in the Merz barn, and has offered to buy it, on the condition that he can move it to his private collection in Shenzhen, southern China. The affair provoked a blame-shifting: the chairman of the Littoral Arts Trust said it was the Arts Council’s fault that Schwitters’ lab would be put on the market, and spoke of “incompetent decisions,” while a spokesperson for the British public institution said the Arts Council does not guarantee funding for preservation and restoration, a competence that falls to other bodies, and said the Arts Council has nonetheless supported the Littoral Arts Trust for years with funding to support programming for contemporary art.

The lab has not received funding from the Arts Council since 2011. Since that year, Ian Hunter and his wife, Celia Larner, have personally provided for the upkeep of the Merz barn: also in the Guardian, we read that they had to use their savings, pensions, and proceeds from the sale of a home. Previously, the Littoral Arts Trust had offered Schwitters’ workshop to the Tate and MoMA New York as a donation, but both museums declined. The Lake District, moreover, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017: to give up an artist’s studio and, through an anti-historical operation, to see it end up in a private collection in China, would mean taking away from the Lake District a piece of its identity and an important garrison of its cultural heritage, and above all would be a serious defeat for culture as a whole.

Pictured is Kurt Schwitters’ Merz barn in December 2015. Image from the Merz barn website.

A bad story from England: Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop is in danger of ending up in China
A bad story from England: Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop is in danger of ending up in China

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