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Schwitters’ Merz Barn under threat as site is put up for sale

Littoral Arts Trust chairperson Celia Larner and project director Ian Hunter
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The owners of Kurt Schwitters’ deteriorating Merz Barn in Cumbria have appealed for architects and artists to raise funds to save the historic site

The Littoral Arts Trust has invited UK and international architects and artists to come forward – either as individuals or groups – with proposals to purchase the 5ha property on which the Merz Barn stands.

Schwitters relocated to the Lake District in 1945 after escaping the Nazis, who had labelled him a ‘degenerate artist’. On the Cylinders Estate in Elterwater he set about creating an immersive architectural installation, the third and last of his ‘Merzbauten’.

Based on his earlier Merzbau artworks in Hannover and Norway, the ambitious project was left unfinished when the artist died in 1948. The most complete wall was relocated to Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in the 1960s and the remaining Merz Barn site has been used as an arts centre and museum since 2005.

The announcement of the sale was made on the 70th anniversary of Schwitters’ death and comes a year and a half after Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska donated £25,000 to repair storm damage in honour of a suggestion made by Zaha Hadid before she died.

Other high-profile Merz Barn supporters have included Rem Koolhaas, Will Alsop, Terry Farrell and the critics Johnathan Meades and Stephen Bayley.

In a statement, the trust said Arts Council England had refused it access to arts lottery funding on five separate occasions, leaving no other option but to place the site on the open market.

The trust said: ‘The Charities Commission will insist that the project be sold a full market value, which means that the Merz Barn and the 5ha prime Lakeland landscape site on which it stands can be bought by anybody with money and who wants it, including property developers.

The Merz Barn and the site on which it stands can be bought by anybody with money and who wants it, including property developers

‘The trust has already been offered £350,000 for the site last year, from a property developer, and the trust refused the offer because there was no guarantee that the cultural and historical value of the Merzbarn site would be protected.’

Aaccording to the trust, expressions of interest in the property have also been made by an unnamed Shenzhen-based multimillionaire, a major art institution in Scotland, and the University of Manchester School of Architecture.

Despite these offers the trust is appealing to the wider UK and international architecture community for interest – in recognitition of Schwitters’ training as an architect and the impact of his architecture-as-art installation projects on modern and contemporary architects.

It said: ‘If a group of leading UK or international architecture practices and/or artists could form a consortium or group, that might agree to raise the funding – we are looking for about £350,000 – and buy the Merz Barn site for the benefit of the international architecture community then we would be very keen to co-operate and assist the consortium develop such a proposal.

‘To this end we are proposing an evening reception and seminar in London at the end of February to provide more information for interested members of the architecture community and also initiate a wider public debate about the architectural legacy of Kurt Schwitters, and the future of his Merz Barn project in Britain.’

The seminal artist Schwitters relocated to the Lake District in 1945 after escaping the Nazis who had labelled him a ‘degenerate artist’. On the Cylinders Estate in Elterwater he set about creating an immersive architectural installation – which he called a Merzbau.

Based on his earlier Merzbau artworks in Nazi-occupied Hannover and Norway, the ambitious project was left unfinished when the artist died in 1948. The most complete wall was relocated to Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in the 1960s and the remaining Merzbarn site has been used as an arts centre and museum since 2005.

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