Ahead of our Podcast Series six in partnership with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we speak to their longstanding curator Sarah Coulson to discover more about the leading institution for contemporary sculpture as it celebrates its 45th year.

You could say that Sarah Coulson was destined to be a curator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Not only was she born in 1977, the year the institution was founded, but she also grew up in Halifax, a market town about half an hour away by car. “I visited when I was younger and I was interested in what was going on here,” she says with a smile. “It has always been on my radar.”

Spread across the 18th-century Bretton Hall estate in west Yorkshire, the park was the first of its kind in the UK. Founding director Peter Murray was a lecturer at Bretton Hall College when he first suggested installing sculpture on the grounds and inviting the public to explore it. When the college closed in 2007, Wakefield Council bought the buildings and Yorkshire Sculpture Park began to manage the land. Since then, it’s grown into the largest sculpture park in Europe, welcoming traditional gallery goers and international art visitors as well as dog walkers and people who simply want to soak up all the green.

Sarah’s love of sculpture developed towards the end of her degree in art history and English literature at Birmingham University. “I was aware of the amazing history in this part of the world, of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth responding to the landscape in a sculptural way. Once I started to learn more about that, it became a passion,” she says. “There’s also something about sculpture occupying our space that I find fascinating.”

Sarah isn’t just talking about objects made of stone or bronze. At the park, you’re as likely to find sculptural films, like the kind performed in a sort of floating folly on a lake by the Liverpool-based artist Emily Speed in 2011. David Nash, who first visited in 1979, has a new show in The Weston Gallery dedicated to his tree drawings. “Sculpture can be many things, and it’s about exploring all of those possibilities,” says Sarah. “In Nash’s case it’s how drawing expresses the way he perceives and responds to the natural environment and in turn his sculptural, three-dimensional thinking.”

With 500 acres of fields, hills, woodland, formal gardens, and two manmade lakes, the scenery makes for a rich and varied backdrop. The trick, says Sarah, is to work with the land rather than try to fill it. Different pockets suit works of different shapes and sizes; some patches lend themselves to intimate pieces, while others require something more commanding. In the woodland is a beautiful bronze cast of a tree by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone, which looks like any other tree until you look up and spot the giant boulder cradled in its branches. In the shallow waters of an old land-locked boathouse is a curved dinghy with three oars made by the Anglo-Swiss-Slovakian collective JocJonJosch. “These things play with your expectations,” says Sarah. “There could be something new around every corner.”

At times, sculpture helps visitors to navigate around the countryside. As part of his major exhibition in 2010, Nash made Seventy-one Steps, a set of charred oak sleepers, surrounded with coal, snaking up the valley. “Nash talks about works not just being site-specific but also site-responsive and site-appropriate, in that they have to work for the people who use the space,” says Sarah. “By using coal, which sustained the livelihoods of local residents for centuries, and which generated wealth for the original owners of the estate, he’s also making visible the stuff beneath our feet – the stuff that contributed to the people and the place.”

Witnessing artists revive and reimagine the landscape keeps things fresh not just for visitors but also for those who work at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. “This place that we’re so familiar with, someone else will come in and see and explore in new ways,” says Sarah. “It’s refreshing, and it keeps us on our toes – we can’t be complacent because we need to go on that journey with them. We start to see things in a new way as well.”

This spring the park welcomes a new director, Clare Lilley, who replaces Murray after 45 years. Lilley joined the institution in 1991 and has organised exhibitions of work by artists such as Fiona Banner, Damien Hirst and Shirin Neshat. “She’s very driven, especially when it comes to social responsibility and how we function as an art organisation,” says Sarah. “Working with artists who are politically and socially engaged and recognising the positive changes that art can make to people’s lives will, I think, continue to be a driving force with Clare in charge.”

As for Sarah, this year is her 22nd at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. “It’s not something I anticipated, staying in one place for so long,” she says. She credits her time here to the way that the institution has evolved, slowly but surely, from nothing, and to the fact that there’s always something exciting on the horizon. Both metaphorically and literally, that is. “I love driving into work and seeing this incredible landscape open up in front of me. It looks different every single day.”

Interview by Chloë Ashbyan author and arts journalist. Her first novel, Wet Paint, will be published by Trapeze in April 2022. 

Photographs by Camilla Greenwell. Featured sculpture: Barbara Hepworth, The Family of Man, 1970 at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Lent by the Hepworth Estate. © Bowness, Hepworth Estate. Sarah is also photographed in David Nash: Full Circle at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2022

Plan a visit to Yorkshire Sculpture Park, comprising over 100 sculptures across the 500-acre estate. 

Sarah wears our Cord Workwear Dress

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I feel very lucky that living in Leeds means the Sculpture Park is on my doorstep (almost). It’s a wonderful place to spend time, even during the winter months. The one down side has been since Lockdown you’ve had to book online to visit the park, it’s quite expensive & tickets are non refundable. With my current health problems I’m unable to predict what days I can visit! Thought this would be useful to let the Toast community be aware.

Nicole 5 months ago

This article has made me want to return to the Sculpture park this summer. I never made it in 2021 during lockdown protocols. Now I look forward to return visit. Thanks for this profile.

Antonia 5 months ago

Really interesting. Sarah sounds so enthusiastic and committed. I would love to visit the David Nash exhibition if it is still on.

Pamela 5 months ago

I have such vivid, wonderful memories of studying here. Some of the best of my life. I went on to work abroad for ten years. Amazing place and atmosphere. Thank you for making the article.

Ruth 5 months ago