England, Merz Barn, Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop, for sale

The Merz Barn, the historic workshop that Dada pioneer Kurt Schwitters set up in England's Lake District, has been put up for sale. The management in fact no longer has the money to maintain it.

The Merz Barn, the historic workshop of the great German artist Kurt Schwitters (Hanover, 1887 - Kendal, 1948), a pioneer of Dadaism and constructivism, located in England’s Lake District, will be sold. In fact, the small nonprofit that runs it, Littoral Arts Trust, is no longer able to meet the running costs of the workshop that Schwitters set up in these parts of northern England in 1942, after leaving Germany following the rise of the Nazi regime and moving first to Norway, then to the Isle of Man, then again to London and finally to Ambleside in the Lake District.

The workshop is located in the woods located near the village of Elterwalter: it is a kind of barn (this is the meaning of “barn” in English) that in Schwitters’ ideas was supposed to become a kind of modernist cave with artworks enclosed within its walls. The artist failed to complete his work, and some of the artwork that was supposed to go inside the Merz Barn is now at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. The structure, however, has always remained in place in Elterwalter Woods. Back in 2018 the workshop had even risked being dismantled to end up in China: a collector had in fact offered to buy it in order to move it to his country. Nothing came of it because then, in order to save the Merz Barn, some important British artists intervened, from Antony Gormley to Damien Hirst, Bridget Riley to Tacita Dean, who with their donations ensured a few years of survival for the laboratory.

Now, however, the situation has become complicated again as the Littoral Arts Fund has run out of resources to maintain the site, and the only solution seems to be to put it up for sale: Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, fans of Schwitters’ art and founders of the Littoral Arts Fund (which was created precisely for the purpose of saving the Merz Barn, in 2006), have in fact given up their fight, although they call their choice “shocking.” This site, Hunter and Larner told the Guardian, “is very important and valued by many artists, including the late architect Zaha Hadid. But we have run out of money and will have to put the whole property up for sale in the new year.”

In fact, the Littoral Arts Fund has asked for adequate funding from the Council of Arts, but the petitions have been rejected, despite being supported even recently by prominent figures, including even Baron Ed Vaizey, culture minister in the Cameron government from 2010 to 2016. The small body has also tried to give a bid to a consortium that could buy the site with the aim of ensuring its survival, but even this attempt was unsuccessful. “This summer,” Hunter added, “we realized how tired we were. I am 75 years old and Celia is 85. We have already sold our two houses in the area to fund the upkeep of the Merz Barn and that’s all we can do. It was the Arts Council that initially encouraged us to undertake our project, and they were generous with capital funds and in supporting our arts program. But then they changed their minds and didn’t tell us why.”

Hunter and Larner let it be known that there are several interested potential buyers around the property, especially because of the site’s potential for commercial development. And the best that can be done will be to establish an agreement that the Merz Barn should be preserved. The Arts Council also commented on the news: “We are aware,” they let it be known, “that Littoral Arts has decided to sell the Merz Barn and we recognize the years of dedication that Ian and Celia have given to it. Given their passion and commitment to Schwitters’ work, it must have been a difficult decision for them. The project has received Arts Council grants in the past, including investment in a feasibility study of the project. Understandably, there is a lot of competition for Arts Council funding, and we are not able to fund all the projects we are involved in. Ian and Celia have been faithful custodians of the site and we wish them the best in securing its future.”

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

England, Merz Barn, Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop, for sale
England, Merz Barn, Kurt Schwitters' historic workshop, for sale