Heritage art refers to a diverse field of works that celebrate culture and identity. This may include paintings, sculptures and photographs that elicit emotional responses or memories of specific places or events, bringing back to life past eras in an engaging manner.
Heritage art is an invaluable source of cultural, social and political awareness around the world. It serves as a link between past and present that brings people together, connecting them to their history while also acting as fuel for change and progress in society.
Since the 1990s, contemporary art has seen a meteoric rise in exhibitions or commissions at heritage sites. Major national heritage organizations have become increasingly engaged with contemporary artists to diversify their audiences and offer visitors innovative experiences. Works from established as well as emerging creators have been showcased across different scales and profiles–from grand palaces and country houses to industrial museums and historic waterways–within these settings.
Contemporary art projects often reposition heritage sites (and their contexts) within an interpretive and artistic light, providing new stories for both heritage sites and audiences that create novel effects and experiences during audience encounters.
These new narratives often seek to challenge normative perceptions of a site and its place in society, with an aim for heritage sites to become more than static collections of objects (National Trust 2018b). This type of work has been dubbed ‘art in unexpected places’ and it’s now becoming an integral part of heritage practice and arts research.
However, despite the growth of contemporary art in heritage practices over the last two decades, there remains a dearth of critical discussion around contemporary art within these organisations (especially their marketing departments). This can be attributed to both resource issues facing many heritage organisations and an absence of established professional networks between heritage organizations and arts media outlets.
A major challenge lies in developing a coherent critical language that allows heritage visitors to engage with contemporary art meaningfully and critically. This issue appears to be widespread throughout MCAHE research, including:
Research was conducted through an online Open Call and semi-structured interviews with art in heritage program managers and independent art curators working in this field. Interviews focused on questions regarding commissioning site-specific artworks for heritage contexts, their perceived motivations and advantages, as well as how curatorial and artistic practice has evolved since the early 1990s.
Mapping art in heritage project documentation and grey literature revealed a complex picture, with differing levels of ambition and intent among both heritage commissioning bodies and artists. These ranged from an empathetic approach to creating new works that appealed to existing audiences to direct engagement with the public to deliver a particular message. Furthermore, MCAHE mapping revealed a strong focus on the artist’s own narrative rather than taking an inclusive approach common among many heritage-based artists and projects.