TOAST Magazine

Messums Wiltshire | A Cultural Hub

ARTS & CULTURE

Susan Hay, recently featured in our TOAST Portraits series, has always been interested in collaborative spaces and how they are used. Here she describes her recent visit to Messums Wiltshire, a centre for arts celebrating creative endeavour. 

Journeying south from Bath, through the outstanding natural beauty of Wiltshire’s huge sweeping fields and limestone villages, you reach Messums Wiltshire, a two-year-old multi-purpose centre for creativity.

Messums Wiltshire is home to the longest tithe barn in the UK, built in 13th century for the Abbess of Shaftesbury and authentically restored to reflect its heritage. And this beautiful tithe barn, together with the contemporary Long Gallery, formerly a dairy, offer collector, artist and visitor a unique context in which to engage with, and experience, creative activity. 

When I arrive at 10am the car park is almost full, and the Mess Café is bustling. Having only just opened the doors, Johnny Messum, the founder and owner is mopping the floor of the threshold to the Long Gallery, while greeting visitors, many of whom he knows.

There is a feeling of a warm family. The whole place is made up of a group of former farm buildings that are gradually, and gently, being re-purposed to provide the complete creative experience. 

Before Johnny got involved, the tithe barn was destined to become an exclusive wedding venue, but Johnny persuaded the Fonthill Estate, of which it is a part – and appropriately, was once owned by William Beckford, one of the 19th century’s greatest art collectors – that respecting its heritage could be more purposefully achieved by offering a unique experience to local people through art.

Johnny describes the tithe barn as a totem, a sacred object, a symbol of a group of people, maybe a family, or a tribe. This drives the emphasis he places on access for all and education.

Accessibility to creativity by as wide a population as possible is the key objective here, to which Messums educational programme attests. But they don’t think of themselves as being craft-driven to achieve this, rather craftsmanship-driven, taking inspiration from the Middle Eastern and Japanese cultures.

Messums resists moving too quickly into digital techniques, preferring to keep the nuances that come through art made by the hand and body, applying this philosophy to all art typologies – drawing, painting, dance, music, sculpture, ceramics and textiles.

Enabling people to take advantage of their creativity and to produce work of quality relies on “offering the how and why first”, says Johnny. “Sharing the language of art, and helping people to realise that they don’t always have to acquire art to become creative” is key.

Cross-fertilisation of creativity is central to Messums Wiltshire’s philosophy, and already such varied artists as choreographer Russell Maliphant, sculptor Bridget McCrum, artist Judy Pfaff and photographer Angela Williams have been attracted to offer talks and show their work.

This summer there is a festival of poetry and a varied programme of talks from art historians and artists working today. The Long Gallery is currently showing the ethereal wooden sculptures of Christopher Kurtz.

Wiltshire and Somerset are fast becoming a draw for those making and interested in art, with Hauser&Wirth Somerset and the New Art Gallery at Roche Court nearby.

Johnny’s next challenge, as well as encouraging architecture into the Messums Wiltshire broad frame, is to create a railway Artsline to the South West. If this can be negotiated, it seems like Johnny Messum might be the right man to do it.

Words by Susan Hay.

Image 1: Iain Kemp. 2, 4, 7L: Stephanie Rennie. 3, 6: Steve Russell. 5,9: Millie Pilkington. 8R: Iain Kemp. 

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