October 6, 2014

New Art, Old Places: Four Examples of Inspiration Amplified

  • By: Katherine Malone-France

Luftwerk at Farnsworth House

In his Why Old Places Matter series, Tom Mayes has written eloquently about the relationship between creativity and old places, a connection on vivid display at National Trust Historic Sites across the country. Right now, four of our sites have dramatic new installations that push the boundaries of their interpretations while being powerfully linked to their histories.

If you visit the Shadows-on-the-Teche over the next few months, you may be treated to the sound of fiddling by musician David Greely on the 2nd floor gallery overlooking the Bayou Teche, or to the sight of visual artist Linda Frese at work in the painting studio of Weeks Hall, the last private owner of the Shadows who entertained artists there including Walt Disney, Elia Kazan, and Henry Miller.

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, these two artists are working at the Shadows over the next year, creating new works inspired by the site’s history and offering public programs. Their tenure at the site will culminate in a festival in the spring that celebrates their work inspired by the Shadows and the interplay between the two artists. (More on this project coming to the blog in November!)

Veil at the Glass House

At the Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut, Fujiko Nakaya has created Veil, an arresting and immersive installation of fog that obscures and then reveals this Modern icon. One of the perks of working with National Trust Historic Sites is that you sometimes find yourself alone in one of these beautiful places, and this summer I had the privilege of experiencing Veil as a solitary visitor on a cool June morning.

As familiar as I have become with the property over the last three years, Veil made it an entirely new place for me. Being enveloped in the dense fog stopped all the random thoughts rattling around in my head. And as it slowly dissipated, I was left with existential musings about the connection between what is fleeting and what is permanent, and overwhelmed by the beauty and significance of the legacy of Phillip Johnson and David Whitney.


At Chesterwood, the summer home and studio of sculptor Daniel Chester French, the installation of large scale works by contemporary sculptor Albert Paley offers both contrast and continuity with the pieces by French that are housed in his recently restored studio.

While their sculptures are rendered in entirely different media -- plaster for French and metal for Paley -- I was struck by how both are brought to life by the beautiful quality of light at Chesterwood. The humanity and drama of French’s works such as the Seated Lincoln and Andromeda are enhanced by the natural light that floods his studio.

Of course, no one knew this better than French himself, who designed the studio with a short railroad track so that he could roll these huge pieces outdoors as he worked on them. Similarly, Paley’s sculptures change throughout the day as the sun breaks through the wooded areas and moves across the sky, culminating in the spectacular piece Progression that is installed on the studio lawn and glows lavender-pink in the Berkshires sunset.

Luftwerk at Farnsworth House

On October 17, the celebrated artist collaborative Luftwerk will debut their light and sound installation In Site of Light at the Farnsworth House in Plano, Illinois. Luftwerk, who are also well known for their installations at Fallingwater and Millenium Fields in Chicago’s Millenium Park, crowdsourced the funding for the installation and raised more than $25,000 in a Kickstarter campaign because they wanted to bring their vision to the Farnsworth House.

More than three years in the making, In Site of Light illustrates how Mies van derRohe’s spare and elegant design continues to inspire new art and design. Ten video projections will illuminate the structure, displaying a cohesive, fluid video composition that will be enhanced by original music by Chicago-based percussionist Owen Clayton Condon. Similar to Veil at the Glass House, In Site of Light plays with the primary characteristics of the Farnsworth House—its transparency and minimalism—to provide an entirely new experience with the building while celebrating what makes it so distinctive.

Veil at the Glass House

Each of these projects is made possible not only by the creativity of the artists, but also by the skill and dedication of our staff members -- from the building staff at the Glass House who installed the new piping required for Veil’s fog to exist, to the executive director at the Shadows who has introduced the artists at the Shadows to the site’s collections of textiles and primary sources, to the grounds staff at Chesterwood who used cranes to lower the huge Paley sculptures into the locations selected by the artist. That, for me, is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of these projects -- the collaborations that brought them into existence.

In both how they are created and how they are interpreted, old places and the arts derive power from their capacity to vividly represent a particular moment or period, even as they convey universal themes. When old places and contemporary art combine, their impact is compounded and amplified to create something singular. And nowhere is proof of this more evident, more beautiful, than at National Trust Historic Sites.

Katherine Malone-France is the National Trust's Chief Preservation Officer.

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