Melbourne in Festival Mood

Sharon Brown, Festival Director, with artist Barbara Bagley

Sharon Brown, Festival Director, with artist Barbara Bagley - Credit: Ashley Franklin + various other photographers

The South Derbyshire town eagerly anticipates its annual celebrations. Ashley Franklin reports...

This spring The Times placed Melbourne in the top 30 British towns for quality of life. This charming Georgian town was described as a ‘dream location,’ not least for its ‘great community spirit.’ That community spirit is encapsulated in the effort, enthusiasm and expertise invested in the Melbourne Festival. Beginning in 2005 as a week-long event, it now stretches to a month, offering a cultural pot-pourri of arts, crafts, music and food, laced with poetry, comedy, magic, storytelling... and lashings of tea. In fact, following the opening event on 7th September – a fascinating talk on alchemy entitled ‘How to Make Gold in One Easy Lesson’ – the Festival stages a Tea Trail.

The next weekend sees the Festival highlight – the Art Trail – when the town throws open homes, halls, churches, shops and workplaces for the perusal and purchase of paintings, drawings, photos, ceramics, sculptures, jewellery, textiles, glassware... and even artful hats and corsetry.

The Trail, too, has stretched: in the first year 40 artists in 15 locations attracted 1,500 visitors; this year there will be 112 artists in 70 locations, which could attract 5,000 visitors. What may encourage other towns and villages to try something similar is that the Art Trail’s genesis was, according to Festival Director Sharon Brown, ‘simply that the town had a lot of artists and handsome buildings – it was a matter of putting the two together.’

From its small beginnings Sharon and her team have developed the Trail into a fine art. Each year there is a call out to artists drawn from a mailing list of over 500. ‘All these artists live within an hour of Melbourne,’ Sharon points out, ‘which means most visitors can easily contact them later with a view to buying or commissioning.’

Up to 200 artists apply but, as Sharon explains, they only accept around half: ‘We could make the Trail bigger but we want it to be manageable and easy to get round so decided that all the locations would be within a ten-minute walk of the central Market Place.’

Artist Jemma Rix has observed that although the Trail is packed into a small geographic area, ‘there is so much to see and experience that visitors often come on both the Saturday and Sunday to cram everything in.’

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The locations themselves – many of them historic – enhance the Trail experience. They include: Melbourne Parish Church, reputed to be the finest Norman village church in England, whose awe-inspiring interior has the feel of a small cathedral; the Thomas Cook Memorial Hall, a gift to the town by the pioneering travel agent; the Billiard Room at Melbourne Hall; plus historic houses like The Old Forge, Thatched Cottages, Dower House, Pump House and Cruck Cottage.

Cafés, restaurants, retail and business premises further enrich the Trail. ‘Our wide variety of exhibition venues helps us to “mix and match”, enabling each artist to be sited in a suitable location,’ Sharon points out. ‘For instance, we have a jeweller in a dress agency, a silversmith in a beauty salon and, in Forteys – the sweet shop and café – there isn’t much space, so it’s ideal to display little shaker boxes. Also, we try and place contemporary art in a modern space whereas more traditional art would better suit a room in a cottage.’

There are other key considerations that help maintain the popular appeal of the Art Trail. ‘We look for art with a wow factor,’ states Sharon, ‘or something we feel visitors will want to take home and live with. We do have the odd challenging piece but, in general, we want the art to be accessible. Affordable, too. For every artist with work costing hundreds or even thousands of pounds, you’ll find plenty offering pieces priced at just a few pounds.’

For many of the artists the Trail has made a positive difference. For some, it’s been profound and even life-changing. Barbara Bagley, whose bright, bold, colourful, childlike paintings of towns and villages smilingly recall the work of the Mr Benn artist David McKee, admits: ‘I’ve been involved in the last five Trails, yet had hardly exhibited much at all before. Straightaway it gave me a platform and an opportunity; and I now get orders from the time I exhibit right through until Christmas. It has also boosted my confidence as an artist. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the Festival.’

For Barbara, this year’s Festival has already been a success: she was the winner of the Festival’s 2013 Expanding Horizons commission for Melbourne Community Care, a giant canvas depicting Melbourne. ‘Barbara’s painting makes Melbourne look like a vibrant place,’ says Community Care President Margaret Sharp.

Milliner Joanne Rost is forever grateful to Festival Director Sharon Brown after she was encouraged to exhibit her hat creations on the first Art Trail. ‘It was the launch pad for my small business,’ says Joanne. ‘Also, as someone who lives here, it was thrilling to see Melbourne come alive. The whole community comes together for this Festival and even though this is the ninth year, the Festival remains a friendly, unpretentious, welcoming and very high quality event.’

Joanne Butters, whose contemporary textiles are described as ‘bold, energetic and tactile’, loves the Trail because ‘it attracts a fantastic cross-section of visitors.’ A fantastic cross-section of art, too, according to wood turner Peter Wood who will be demonstrating chair-making and pole lathe turning – as well as performing in two bands! ‘The Trail has a pleasingly wide mix of media,’ observes Peter, ‘and it’s really well organised to a high standard.’

Laura Donaldson, a painter who creates bold, colourful, panoramic landscape canvases, was just a visitor to the first Art Trail and knew then that she had to get involved. ‘The standard of work was impressively high,’ states Laura, ‘and now I’m involved as an artist myself, the exhibitors inspire me to push myself as a painter. It’s also been invaluable to my career: I’ve become part of a network of Art Trail artists and I always pick up commissions, workshops and some private tuition. Also, speaking as a visitor, the Trail provides an opportunity to peek inside some truly unique homes in a town with beautiful and fascinating architecture.’

Jemma Rix, who is the lead artist on a community arts project centred on the sari, loves the fact that every artist gets a different venue each year. ‘It means you invariably share space with artists and craftspeople you’re meeting for the first time, which is great for networking,’ she says. For Jane Bevan, whose art is fashioned from natural materials gathered in woodlands, the Trail ‘is hugely rewarding in the way that you talk with visitors, gain their feedback and establish connections with them.’

Much of Melbourne’s business community gets behind the Festival. Richard Fortey, who runs Forteys sweet shop and café, says the Festival is ‘superb, one of the best things this town has ever had as it reaches so many people. Also, for myself and other outlets, especially cafés and restaurants, it’s the busiest weekend of the year.’

Beautician Emma Simister of Emma’s Retreat says she revels in the atmosphere created by the Festival: ‘As the Festival comes round, the whole community is buzzing about it. It’s exhilarating.’ Sally West, who runs the dress agency Best Kept Secret, says her whole staff throw themselves into the Art Trail weekend, setting up a stall and gazebo in the shop’s courtyard. ‘We love being an Art Trail venue,’ says Sally. ‘It’s good for business, too. It brings in visitors who become customers.’ Christine Lee of the Fair Trading Place confirms that she sees many Trail visitors regularly coming through her door in the weeks and months following the Festival. ‘It shows that the Festival stimulates the economy,’ states Christine.

‘It’s also made Melbourne a more outgoing place,’ says Director Sharon. ‘There’s more pride in the place, too. As the Trail weekend nears I see locals tidying their gardens and sprucing up their house fronts. It certainly works for me – I’m re-painting the house!’

‘A lot of local fund-raising goes on as well,’ continues Sharon. ‘Last year, some £10,000 was raised. The Community Centre, for example, raised £500 simply by offering teas and coffees in a garden.’

The Festival has also inspired and invigorated the town in cultural terms, Sharon points out: ‘We now have a Christmas Art Trail – now in its third year – a craft fair every six weeks, a food fair every six weeks plus more concerts in the Assembly Rooms. The Festival has been the stimulus for all that. Here’s another great example: John Jackson, the owner of Swarkestone Nursery, now has Melbourne Festival artists exhibiting on a rota basis.’

‘Because of the Festival, Melbourne has become recognised as a town where there is always something going on,’ says Emma Simister.

‘Yes, people are increasingly coming to our town,’ confirms Sharon. ‘They may be coming because of what Melbourne has to offer commercially and historically but we are now just as important culturally, and it’s the arts and our Festival that have been the stimulus for Melbourne’s status as a destination town.’

Melbourne Festival 2013 runs from Saturday, 7th September to Saturday, 5th October. The Art Trail is on the weekend of 14th and 15th September.