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Friday 16 October 2020

Charleston Comes Alive: Former East Sussex Bloomsbury Group Country Home Of Arts & Ideas Launches Crowdfunding Campaign

Charleston, in East Sussex, once the home and country meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group, is preparing to open its doors to the public again in spring 2021 with an Art Happens crowdfunding campaign in which every donation towards the target will be doubled thanks to match funding from loyal supporters.
Credit Penelope Fewster

One of the country's heritage sites hit hardest by the global pandemic, Charleston has partnered with Art Happens, the Art Fund's crowdfunding platform for museums and galleries, to raise the final funds needed to reopen the world's only complete example of a Bloomsbury interior.

Charleston was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, two of the most radical and influential British artists of the twentieth century. 

Inspired by Italian fresco painting and the Post-Impressionists, they transformed Charleston, an idyllic sixteenth-century farmhouse, into a living artwork with individually designed and hand-painted rooms and furniture, and with ceramics, textiles and paintings made by Bell, Grant and their contemporaries. 

Bell and Grant were both members of the Bloomsbury group and their house and garden became a haven where artists, writers and thinkers gathered to imagine life differently. 

Regular visitors included Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Clive Bell, Roger Fry and Lytton Strachey, among others.

Thirty-one years after it first opened its doors to the public, Charleston continues to be a site of pilgrimage for people from all over the world who come to be inspired by this unique place where life and art are completely entwined. 

But seven months after it was forced to close and cancel its flagship literary festival, the door to one of the nation's most treasured and important cultural sites remains closed.

Museums and galleries were told in July that they could open again, but for places such as Charleston this has simply not been possible. 

The intimate domestic spaces of the house, which usually inspire and enthral visitors, have instead prevented this independent charity from being able to reopen because they make social distancing and other Covid-proofing measures impossible without significant changes to the way Charleston is equipped and operates. 


Since the charity was formed in the 1980s it has relied not on public funding, but on ticket sales and visitor spend in its shops and café. 

This income stopped overnight on 18th March as Charleston closed its doors just as the Easter holidays heralded the start of the normally busy summer season. 

The second, almost fatal blow came with the unavoidable cancellation of the Charleston Festival. 

The third oldest literary festival in the UK was this year due to feature leading artists and thinkers including Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Ai Weiwei and Bernardine Evaristo, as well as an exclusive performance by Helena Bonham Carter. 

The festival provides almost a quarter of the charity's revenue, meaning its cancellation, and the need to refund festival tickets, almost sent the charity into bankruptcy.

Despite losing commercial income of nearly £1.7m this year, the staff and trustees of the charity remain focused on ensuring that Charleston, a place of radical artistic, political and societal change, can reopen in spring 2021. 

After months of hard work and enterprising approaches to fundraising – including an Instagram auction developed by a local visitor and artist, a digital version of Charleston Festival, a virtual tour of the house, and allowing people to book the garden for private use in exchange for voluntary donations – Charleston is on the brink of being able to open again.

Using Art Fund's Art Happens platform, a final crowdfunding campaign launches at 12:00 (BST) on Thursday 15th October 2020, the eve of the 104th anniversary of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant"s move to Charleston.

By raising its target of £160,000 in the four-week window, Charleston will be able to make changes to its buildings and business model which will ensure it can start welcoming visitors again.

Nathaniel Hepburn, Director and Chief Executive, The Charleston Trust, said:

"Charleston has received tremendous support this year which saved the charity from going under in the spring. 

"We are now nearly at the point where we can reopen the house, studio, galleries and garden and it is very exciting to think that if we raise the £160,000 needed over the next month we will finally be able to welcome visitors back."

A generous group of Charleston's loyal supporters have clubbed together to provide match funding for the campaign which means that every donation towards the total will be doubled, further strengthening the charity's sustainability and resilience. 

Plus, supporters will have the option of receiving an exclusive Charleston-themed reward or experience for donating, from limited edition prints and letters to private tours and lunch in the house kitchen.

by: Mike Cobley



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