Eden Benchmarks
Exploring the cultural landscape in East Cumbria
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The Eden Benchmark Project (Instalment 5)

I started my job as a Countryside Project Officer with East Cumbria Countryside Project in 1992.  ECCP was, at that time, led by an unusually enlightened and forward thinking young woman called Isobel Dunn who tragically died of cancer a year or so after I joined.  She left behind a group of independently thinking individuals who nonetheless shared a collective commitment, drive and determination to deliver a dynamic and innovative countryside management service that was second to none.  Despite its continuing and celebrated success over the ensuing years, East Cumbria Countryside Project was closed down in March 2009 following a withdrawal of funding by its local authority partners, Cumbria County Council, Eden District Council and Carlisle City Council.

Since its original inception in 1976, ECCP had established a reputation for an inventive approach to helping people enjoy the countryside and this encouraged a remarkable degree of freedom that empowered its staff to try out new and unconventional ideas.  Mine was the idea of using the arts as a vehicle for exploring peoples’ emotional interactions with the environment.  I had long admired the organisation Common Ground which pioneered the concept of environmentalists and artists working together to enhance peoples understanding and enjoyment of the natural world.  I was especially inspired by a sculpture project they initiated in Dorset called New Milestones and I had dreamt that, one day, I might be given the chance to do something similar.  Joining ECCP and the timely announcement by the Arts Council that 1996 was to be designated Visual Arts Year, serendipitously gave me that chance and I put together my plan for Eden Benchmarks.

The first task I faced was finding the money.  Northern Arts, the regional arts organisation hosting the event was, in addition to trawling for likely participants, signalling the prospect of significant funding being available from the Regional Arts Lottery Fund to approved candidates.  I had calculated that I would need approximately £6,000 for each sculpture which would include the artist’s fee for a six weeks residency, purchase and transport of stone, hire of equipment and workshop space, accommodation for the artist, site preparation and various other associated expenses.  There was to be a total of ten in the collection so I needed £60,000.  Compared with other proposals being submitted this was very modest.  Cumbria County Council commissioned Andy Goldsworthy’s Sheepfolds at an estimated cost of £630,000!

According to Grants for the Arts guidelines I could potentially obtain two thirds of what I needed direct from the National Lottery Arts Council Fund so I started to prepare an application for £40,000.  It was at this point in the proceedings that things got a bit difficult.  I was informed that Cumbria County Council had engaged a Development Agent to oversee all the proposals being submitted for Visual Arts Year in Cumbria and I was invited to meet with him.  To my dismay he was less than enthusiastic about my ideas, particularly concerning the permanency of stone sculptures made by what he sneeringly described as “unknown” artists.  He subsequently wrote me a letter saying that he was prepared to take Eden Benchmarks forward as part of a county wide ‘Arts and the Managed Landscape’ programme and, as such, he would allocate £3,000 to it, with the possibility of a further £2,000 at a later date if sufficient additional funding became available.  I thought this proposition was derisory and promptly submitted my application for £40,000 direct to the Arts Council in London.  A little later he telephoned, apparently expecting me to comply with his proposal, and was extremely cross when I told him what I’d done.  In fact he slammed his telephone down in a rage and, subsequently, summoned me to attend a meeting with the head of Cumbria County Council’s Heritage Services where I was subjected to a prolonged and rancorous admonishment.

Some months later I received both the £40,000 from the Arts Council and the £3,000 from the ‘Arts and the Managed Landscape’ fund.  The remaining £17,000 was obtained from Eden District Council, The Foundation for Sport and the Arts, The Environment Agency, The Eden Arts Trust and English Nature and topped up by Northern Arts and Carlisle City Council at a later date to give me a final total of £64,000.  After that initially intimidating inception into the minefield of project funding applications I found myself, over the course of the four years it took to complete the collection, riding on the crests of wave after wave of good fortune and good will.  The Visual Arts Officer at Northern Arts was very supportive as were the Director of Eden Arts and the officers at Eden District Council.  Not least, as each sculpture was installed and featured in the local press and on television, the public response was manifestly heart-warming.  On a personal level, making it all happen was a massively thrilling adventure.  Working closely with the artists concerned, liaising with local people in choosing locations, negotiating with the landowners, visiting quarries with the artists to select great lumps of raw stone, organising contractors to deliver the stone to the artist’s workshops and then install the finished sculptures gave me a sense of achievement on a scale I’d never experienced before in my life.  Yet it was everybody else involved who did all the real work! The sculptors, without exception, were such amazingly nice people and worked so incredibly hard in the short time they were allotted, with a passionate and awesome creativity.  Landowners astounded me with their generous co-operation, quarrymen with their infinite kindness and patience and contractors with their easy going and good humoured ingenuity and expertise.   Everything seemed to just fall into place.  I was part of a winning team; it was wonderful.