Andrew Nairne

Kettle’s Yard (Cambridge, UK), is one of the most inspiring and poetic art spaces in the world. A personal favourite of artists and designers Jeremy Deller, Paul Smith and Jonathan Anderson, the house was designed in the late 1950s by Jim Ede, a curator at the Tate Gallery (1922 -1936) and a friend to many significant artists of the time including Barbara Hepworth, Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore, Joan Miró, Alfred Wallis, Ben and Winifred Nicholson to name a few. For many years, Jim and Helen Ede opened their door to University’s students who came to see the works and discuss art with the couple.

Funding from Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund, institutional and private donors helped Kettle’s Yard reopen in February 2018 following extensive renovations.

Andrew Nairne, Director of Kettle’s Yard talks to Art is Alive about the new building and architecture by Jamie Fobert, what he uncovered about Kettle’s Yard’s founders in the process, his personal tastes in art, and the upcoming programme of exhibitions at Kettle’s Yard. Nairne has a very impressive career, he was formerly Executive Director of Arts Strategy at the Arts Council England and former Director of Modern Art Oxford. He also held positions at Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, Dundee Contemporary Arts among other remarkable roles.

As Director of Kettle’s Yard, what’s your biggest challenge: curating exhibitions, maintaining the legacy of Jim and Helen Ede or making sure people come and return to the museum?

All three and more. Curating exhibitions is always a pleasure. The challenge is designing our whole programme (including many talks, discussions and other events, and our education / community activities) in a way which imaginatively responds to and extends the legacy of Jim and Helen Ede. As part of the University of Cambridge we want to inspire and reveal new research and be a place of discovery, experiment and enquiry.

The new architecture by Jamie Fobert is an enormous help as visitors now exit the House into our new entrance area and naturally find the galleries and education spaces. Attendances to date are three times what they were before we closed for the building project. We are planning an ambitious and dynamic future exhibition programme which we hope will keep us in the news, get everyone thinking and talking and encourage many repeat visits.

Please tell us an anecdote about the house, something we don’t know yet.

The 1970 House extension went through many design variations before agreement was more or less reached between Jim Ede and the architects Leslie Martin and David Owers. Originally the new extension was understood as a space where changing exhibitions could take place. However, when it became clear (after building work had already begun!) that Jim intended to create another permanent display, three small connected galleries were built alongside. One of these survives and is now our shop. There is also a hidden window, visible on the Northampton Street wall, but permanently covered by a curtain inside.

While working on the renovation of the space, did you uncover anything new about Jim and Helen’s taste for artists?

Putting everything back into the House in exactly the right spot made us notice even more Jim’s eye for detail and the subtlety of his curatorial decisions. For example how William Congdon’s luminous paintings, which use darker tones, offer a necessary contrast to the predominance of white and paler colours.

What is most striking about the space?

The way the new Kettle’s Yard wraps around the House and naturally leads you from the entrance area to the two new galleries and then the education rooms.

Have you tried to replicate the poetry in your own house? Is that something you consider every day?

Like Jim Ede, I am interested in how both art and ordinary or found objects can speak to us. And we do have a few pebbles and shells about the place.

Can you “walk us through” the main improvements made by architect Jamie Fobert please?

Jamie has created a new entrance (covering over a strip of the courtyard), two galleries (replacing the old ones) and three entirely new education spaces. The entrance area becomes the start of every visitor’s experience of Kettle’s Yard. Here you can book a free ticket to visit the House, while the cafe, shop, galleries and education spaces are only a few paces away. It all works brilliantly for visitors, while for those who knew us from before the building project it is a very significant transformation, with a cafe, education rooms and world class galleries for the first time.

What’s your main priority as Director of Kettle’s Yard and what’s the best part of your role?

Making Kettle’s Yard a place which is inclusive and relevant to people’s lives. And which incites a love of art and artists, recognising their value. Always asking the question: ‘what can art do?’.

Best part of my role?

Creating the future programme with the team and working with artists, art and audiences.

Tell us something we don’t know about the collection?

It includes over 100 paintings by the self-taught former mariner Alfred Wallis. Around half are on display, while the other half are in our Reserve Collection and we can lend these to other galleries and museums. Among those not on display in the House are two wonderful paintings with boats steaming up a dark grey sea painted at 45 degrees.

What are your views about juxtaposing modern and contemporary art with the collection? Do you think that’s a strong way to present art?

It can open up new ways of thinking about the art of the past and the present. Collections can also inspire contemporary artists in surprising ways. Artist Anthea Hamilton will be showing new and recent work in the Kettle’s Yard House this autumn, following her brilliant exhibition using the collection at the Hepworth Wakefield in 2017, when we were closed.

New recent acquisitions?

We don’t acquire work.

Your tastes in modern and contemporary art, who do you look at and like?

This would take too long to answer. Very broad. I am always looking for art which can make me see or feel with greater intensity and insight.

Recent exhibitions you’ve seen and liked?

Aftermath’ at Tate Britain is a very thoughtful and enlightening exhibition. I also enjoyed Eva Rothschild’s ambitious new work at Modern Art in Vyner Street.

Future exhibitions / projects we should be aware of? What can we expect in the upcoming months?

After Antony Gormley’s new solo exhibition (until 27th August) we have Fig – Futures’, the two galleries occupied each week during September by experimental work by one or two artists including Oreet Ashery, and Bloomberg and Chanarin. And then from late October the first solo exhibition in the UK by Richard Pousette – Dart (1916 – 1992). Pousette – Dart and Jim Ede were friends and wrote to each other for forty years. This show explores Pousette-Dart’s important contribution to early abstract expressionism and American painting. As mentioned above we will also be showing work by Anthea Hamilton in the House.







Portrait of Andrew Nairne. Copyright Philippa Gedge.
House cottages, downstairs Jim Ede’s bedroom table, Paul Allitt.
House extension, downstairs, Paul Allitt.
House extension, downstairs showing Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s “Redstone Dancer” (1913-14; cast of 1969) and the Wrestlers relief (1914, cast of 1965), Paul Allitt.
House extension, upstairs, designed by Sir Leslie Martin, opened in 1970,
Kettle’s Yard entrance, Jamie Fobert Architects, photography © Hufton + Crow.
View of the Antony Gormley exhibition, EDGE III, 2012, © Antony Gormley.