The Courtauld Institute of Art is the world's leading centre for research into art history, conservation and curating. They house one of Britain’s best-loved collections! This is the second year in a row that the Courtauld have taken part in The Big Draw Festival, and we were very excited to catch up with Leyla Bumbra, Open Courtauld Producer, to find out a bit about what's in store for their #BigGreenDraw. We also discussed a bit about how these past few months of lockdown have affected Leyla's work, and how the Courtauld have overcome these new challenges by moving to an entirely online programme. We hope you enjoy the interview!
Matilda Barratt in conversation with Leyla Bumbra, Open Courtauld Producer.
Hi Leyla - it’s great to have you guys on board The Big Draw bus for another year! Situated right in the heart of London, the Courtauld Institute of Art is the world’s leading centre for research into art history, conservation and curating. Why is it so important not only to encourage the understanding and appreciation of art, but also to make it as accessible as possible?
Hi Matilda - it is great to be back and planning The Big Draw again in the virtual world! The ethos of The Big Draw is actually core to the rationale behind my role and the Open Courtauld Strand. This strand is born out of the idea that art enriches lives and that we should open up and transform access and engagement to our research and collections to as wide and diverse an audience as possible. I think what is great about the way we are approaching this event, which is actually an accident of lockdown, is that we are reminded that not everyone has the luxury in the non- lockdown world to be able to attend our events in central London. Whether that is due to disability, location or finances. When lockdown is all over and we have returned to some form of new ‘normality’ we really want to keep the momentum that we have created here - in who we reach and also from what we have learned. I think this is a really important time to push the boundaries in how we creatively welcome people who can tune in to this but not come along to our Open Courtauld events in central London.
We spoke last year about an exciting redevelopment project that you are undergoing, Courtauld Connects. For those of our readers who haven’t heard about it, could you tell us what it is, and what’s so exciting about the project?
Yes of course! Courtauld Connects is an ambitious transformation project that will make The Courtauld’s world-class artworks, research and teaching accessible to more people – in the UK and internationally. This multi-million-pound development is the most significant since we moved to our home in Somerset House in 1989. The project will transform our Gallery, teaching, learning and social spaces. It will allow us to expand our exhibition programme, including new dynamic spaces for temporary exhibitions. It will also make it possible to present a greater variety of works from The Courtauld Collection, which stretches from the early Renaissance into the 20th century.
We use the term ‘visual literacy’ a lot - regarding its relevance across a breadth of different professions as well as its vital role in day-to-day life. I’m interested to know what it means to you? Do you have your own interpretation of the concept of being ‘visually literate’?
I have actually been thinking about this term a lot over the past few months. I am a big believer in the fact that nothing is produced out of nothing. Everything we interact with is affected by the language of representations, contemporary and historic, so I think it is important to frame ‘visual literacy’ in terms of individual context. Art history has sometimes been culpable of retelling stories that place value on objects, types of art and particular artists that it deems as ‘great’. But actually what Open Courtauld aims to do is change the very way we think of a homogenous ‘visual literacy’. At the end of the day everyone is visually literate and the way we look at art, reinterpret it and showcase it is personal experience - basically there is no right way to enjoy art. This is why we really want people to access our collections and tell us what they have taken from it rather than us projecting how and what they should feel. When you tell everyone that their opinion is valid, important and of interest to people working in institutions like the Courtauld we can actually allow everyone to see the impact art can have on us all.
Do you draw? What role, if any, does drawing play in your life and work?
I don’t draw enough, actually! I want to make more time to be creative. Something I do a lot is paint onto fabric and personalise my clothes. Not only does this help me relax, it also has the bonus of giving me really individual items of clothing.
You mentioned that you have been working on an online programme at the Courtauld over these past few months due to the period of lockdown. I was wondering if you might tell us a little bit about this, how it has been for you and perhaps some of the challenges that you have faced and overcome in the process?
Moving online has been a challenge for me on a personal and vocational level. I am very people orientated (why I choose to work in events) and I find not being able to see the audiences and physically help people tricky. Saying that, we have had great engagement via our Open Courtauld Hour series on Zoom. The webinar mode has allowed us to push the boundaries of who, where, how and in what form people can engage with a variety of topics within the field of art history. Zoom can allow 1000 people to tune in to each hour - 500 more than we could host in a physical event in our temporary home at Vernon Square. More than breaking down physical barriers to access Zoom has actually allowed those who have felt undervalued, or even written out of the dominant narratives in these spaces, attend an event in a university of gallery setting and connect with the collection without leaving the comfort of their own homes. Through Zoom they are able to be silent listeners, to interact if they want, and are able to access, make tangible and rethink their predetermined ideas around both the Courtauld and art historical research. Zoom has definitely become a creative tool in the ways in which we work, distill and exchange knowledge in these unprecedented times. Yet, I want us all to still remember that these online events are not truly democratised. Access to wifi is still a luxury and we must be mindful of the changes that need to be made to have multiple new perspectives and readings of art and art history from a spectrum of people.
What role do you think that art institutions, galleries, museums etc will play in our post-lockdown world?
Essentially we all have a duty to tell the stories that are hidden, to make people feel welcome and actively include more voices in the decision process of exhibitions and interpretation. I believe that digital tools and peoples adaptability to a virtual world has really shown what wide participation and access is possible online. The landscape of how and where we access art has changed and the internet is going to be an essential space in our post-lockdown world.
Our Festival theme this year explores humans' relationship with our living environments and ecosystems, encouraging drawing as a means of positive activism. What is your opinion on the role of art in communicating a message and bringing about change?
Art is definitely powerful as an instrument of activism! It has the capacity to cross boundaries of class, nationhood, language and race when framed in a way that is accessible and welcoming. Its ability to impact each and every one of us makes it the perfect way of communicating important messages in my opinion.
Furthermore, how does this year’s theme ‘A Climate of Change’ resonate with the Courtauld Institute of Art? Why do you think it’s important?
Animals and plants have been a source of inspiration within our works on paper — from art about rural life and growth, to myths and legends, animals and plants are used in our collection in many different ways. We hope that our collection can help us explore our relationship to wildlife and can help us think about how we care for animals and the environment. This theme will also allow audiences to look at lesser known pieces in our collection.
Having taken part in The Big Draw Festival previously, do you have any words of wisdom for someone considering getting involved?
I couldn’t recommend taking part more! Last year was a breath of fresh air as we had a completely new audience, allowing new perspectives and a new generation to be interested in our collection and research. My words of wisdom are probably to be as creative and ambitious as you can. Remember that people signing up want to express themselves and will be more than happy to experiment with art. Never underestimate how creative children can be!
Finally, what do you have in the pipeline for this year’s #BigGreenDraw Festival?
I am very excited about what I am plotting for October. We are once again going to have a rare chance to see objects in our collection close up. As well we will have two days of activities - day one looking at representations of animals in specific habitats and day two looking at plants and your own environment as artistic materials. These two days will be jam packed with workshops that use materials in your recycling bins and weeds from your garden.
Watch our social media channels (@courtauldres) for more updates!
Thank you Leyla!
If you were inspired by this interview with Leyla and would like to find out more about the Courtauld Institute of Art, head to their website here.
Registrations are now open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.