IN CONSERVATION WITH NICK ANDREW
Founder and coordinator of the Wylye Valley Art Trail (WVAT)
"Wylye Valley Art Trail - once a description of where it is, now a description of what it is."
This week I visited Nick Andrew at his Bull Mill Studio in Crockerton, near Warminster to find out about the WVAT and his continued dedication to making it the well established and much loved arts event it has become.
For our chat we sat in his cARTshed,, next door to Bull Mill Studio. Nick explained that it is used as an art mentoring and exhibition space. During WVAT it becomes a café run by Tanya - fellow artist and Nick’s partner - serving cakes and refreshment- “We called it the cARTshed because I built it on the footprint of an old open-fronted shed where carts would be stored”. Now it’s a lovely space and the perfect place for us to talk.
“So Nick, the WVAT is coming up, it’s just round the corner... how did all begin... you’re the founder... what made you start it!”
“When I was living in West Dorset in the early 90s, I took part in two of the first Dorset Arts Weeks . It was the first time I had done anything like that and realised how valuable it was to have that immediate connection and feedback from people about your work. So when I moved back up to Wiltshire, I began opening my own studio and encouraged other people here at Bull Mill to do the same. In the 90s I took part in a local open studios event called Art in Mere which, along with my earlier experiences participating Dorset Art weeks, seemed a good model for a wider event in South Wiltshire.”
“So, with a small team of friends and artists, we took the plunge and organised the first WVAT to take place at the end of May 2001. I had a lot of support from Meril Morgan the arts co-ordinator at West Wiltshire DC. With Meril’s help we achieved all the funding applied for: from District Councils, the Lottery and Southern Arts. This gave us the kickstart to get the event off the ground. But, what I’m really pleased about now is that we are self-supporting; WVAT is entirely funded from the participants’ fees."
“How many artists took part in that first one”
“In the first event, there were 32 venues in an area which ran from Warminster, Mere and Hindon to Wilton and Salisbury. It involved at least 70, the majority professional and semi- professional artists and makers. In subsequent years there was interest from art / craft groups and amateur groups too.”
“Really lovely that they want to take part, isn’t it?”
“Yes, and their inclusion has set the eclectic pattern of WVAT to the present day: there is no selection and it is open to people just starting out on their creative journeys, right through to people who are nationally and internationally known - I love that.”
“So do I. It takes away any snobbery... it’s not just for certain people, it's for everybody- for all artists and for all public. I love that about the outdoor arts events in Salisbury- everyone running their own bit. A lot of people wouldn’t go into a gallery...but you walk through the Market Square and you’re in a gallery!”
“That’s exactly it... and I am so pleased with the lack of elitism and top down approach. People appreciate this and it makes them feel more comfortable visiting artists’ studios. I like the idea that WVAT is still artist-run and that there is still no one who gets paid for organising it.
“You do need the right people around you, don’t you? Its such a huge job... so you have a good team?”
“The only people involved in organising WVAT are doers. We have Rose Eva who does the PR, Celia Burt collates and edits entry data, Chris Lock works on image formatting, Tonia Gunstone and Steve Hawkins are the social media team, Jennie Gilling is secretary and has been in charge of the Royal Presentation. And I do the design and am the treasurer (although thankfully, we have someone to take on the treasurer’s role for WVAT’25)."
“Yes, so hopefully that encourages you to stay and to keep doing it, because you can just focus on the bit you need to do - everyone has their role - that’s perfect!”
“Exactly, yes that’s important - a team that takes responsibility, that owns the event”
“And what has motivated you to keep going as co-ordinator?”
"Well, I had to step back partially for a few years from 2012, when my parents' health was in decline and needed my attention. We were lucky that Laura Rich came on board during that time, taking over the design work and, as coordinator, helping to build the event and give it a more professional feel. Since I took back the reins from 2019, my motivation has been a desire to make it better each time, a fuller experience for artists and visitors, and a strong team structure. I'm already looking forward to WVAT'25 and building on previous successes."
“So you do all the WVAT design work?
“Yes, now I design the logos, guide, advertising, and other material. For the 2013 - 2019 art trails we engaged commercial designers for the guide, which was great, but it was a big hit to our budget- money that could be going on marketing. So I took back the role of putting the guide together. My aim is to create a booklet that is dominated by the art, so that there is something new and exciting on each spread, to lead the reader through the trail.”
“It’s a lot of work, a lot of your time. Design is important, the guide is so important, it sells what you do. So having you to do that side is such a massive bonus.”
“Well, I have a graphic design background, so it keeps my hand in! For the first 3 WVATs the guide was in the form of a fold-out map, designed by Jane Humphries, one of the artist members of the team. I loved that format- you could open it up and see the trail unfolding in front of your eyes!"
"Do you still have a copy?”
"Yes, I keep copies of all the trail guides. In 2005 we had decided that the Salisbury area would be better running a more urban-orientated event, so the Salisbury City Art Trail began, administered by Mary and Alan Hayward. Despite this, by 2007 numbers of WVAT venues had risen to nearly 80 and clearly a map form was going to be a bit unwieldy, so we opted for the A5 booklet, making it pocket- sized and more manageable. I think Jane's design input was key to the success of the first WVATs; without which it may never have taken off. And her teenage daughter, Corinna created our first website."
"It must be hard, on an art trail year, to keep Bull Mill Studio going and to keep your own art going for a period while you’re getting ready for the art trail... does everything all stop?”
"From the September before the art trail, when entries are coming in, I'm working most evenings. Sorting entries, finances, arranging listings and images, all that sort of thing. So I'm still working in the studio during the days. But once I have to get started on the work of designing the guide and adverts, then I do need to take time out of the studio- in fact the bulk of February this year."
"So what is, if you have a bit, the best part of the WVAT for you... is it the lead up, is it the organising, or is it when it’s all done?”
"When its done! Once the art trail begins, then I’m just another one of the participants, doing my bit, running my venue, showing my art, meeting and talking to art lovers. It's almost like a holiday- there's nothing else to be done! But of course, there’s still that thought in the back of one's mind- hoping that the trail experience is good for everyone taking part, that they are getting visitors, meeting potential new clients, making sales!"
"Yes same here... in the Market Square I do have a need to know it’s been a good day... even without sales. Artists can have a great day just talking to people and getting loads of positive feedback... and the potential for sales later on, it’s all part of it. So I get what you’re thinking... whats going on out there? You can’t go out there running around, checking!”
"No I can't. In the past I have tried to get out and visit other venues, but it's almost impossible! Ten minutes down the road and there's a call that there's someone in the studio who wants to talk to me, so I have to turn around and go back! Maybe for a future WVAT, we need to set up a virtual trail so that all venues can be accessed online."
"And we're planning to have a social get- together afterwards, dates and venue to be confirmed, so that participants will be able to meet each other and share their WVAT experiences!"
“If, the best bit is when its all up and running and you can just worry about your own display... which is the least best bit of the whole thing?”
"Worries! About the initial response from participants- are we going to get enough bookings? Are people going to want to do it this time? Will the finances be strong enough? Generally it's not until the January before the event that I can really work out our budget and what we have to spend. And it's such a relief when I know that we're on a firm footing and can make this work financially!"
"And then when the guides arrive- 260 boxes, containing 30,000 guides, filling our logshed at Bull Mill- the worries that we'll never get all these guides out there! But somehow it happens: a network of WVAT participants cover the immediate art trail area, and we employ the services of Acoustic Distribution, who distribute further afield- as far out as Bristol, Winchester, Bournemouth and Exeter- it's always amazing how far people come to experience the art trail!”
“The trail has been going since 2001. This being the twelfth... and you have been the recipient of the Queens Award for Voluntary Service- that’s exciting!”
"This was one of the last QAVS awards made by the late queen, a fabulous honour, which hugely reflects on the unpaid work from everyone involved with organising WVAT. Over the years it has boosted many small creative businesses in the area, raised the cultural profile of this part of Wiltshire, and brought secondary benefits to local services, such as cafes, pubs, hotels and shops. The award is going to be presented by the Lord Lieutenant of Wiltshire at our preview evening at Bull Mill."
"And, to express our gratitude for the award, and as a celebration for the Coronation, which takes place during the art trail, WVAT artists and makers have been donating small artworks, which will be presented as a gift to the King. They will be contained in a beautiful presentation box, made by Matthew Burt. There are around 45 wonderful pieces in a range of media made by a cross- section of the WVAT participants, reflecting the diverse nature of the art trail. The box, along with contents will be displayed at the Matthew Burt workshops during the event and we are also getting it videoed so there will be a permanent record. After the trail finishes, it is being taken to the Palace!"
"How lovely - that's really good, isn’t it. And hopefully you’re putting something in?”
"Yes, I’ve included a small painting and Tanya has donated one of her reclaimed wood pieces."
“Is the trail what you thought it would be from the very beginning... or has it surpassed your expectations?”
"Yes, in a lot of ways- I certainly didn't expect that it would still be happening 22 years later, and that I'd still be involved!. And, geographically, there's a tendency towards expansion, which raises questions about whether the name Wylye Valley Art Trail is still appropriate, many of the venues are in the Nadder valley and now even the Chalke valley! But then, we've realised that Wylye Valley Art Trail has moved on from just being a description of where it is, towards being a description of what it is: a name which people know. A brand name which describes a certain quality of experience.
“Are you ready for the trail?
"So far I'm not panicking too much! There are a couple of paintings to finish. And I'm still working on a drawing project based on the Smallbrook nature reserve in Warminster I need to complete."
"I'm sure you'll be ready! You and all the trail participants - so much work, but all brilliant, all of it.”
"Thanks! So far the feedback has been good. People seem to like the guide and participants seem quite excited about running their events"
“Thank you so much Nick... for chatting and good luck with it all!”
“Thank you! Welcome to the 12th Wylye Valley Art Trail... onwards and upwards!”
SATURDAY 29TH APRIL - MONDAY 8TH MAY 2023