Country park, museum and art gallery Compton Verney is entering a new era under chief exec Geraldine Collinge who promises more diversity and plenty of fun for families
Compton Verney is not just a stately home, museum, art gallery or fabulous parkland... Now Geraldine Collinge is heading up the arts destination she wants to make sure it continues to be all of that but with plenty of added fun.. She talks to Gill Sutherland about her vision for the Warwickshire landmark.
Everything about Compton Verney is surprising.
It’s a Grade II-listed Georgian stately home with a rich lineage, a museum and gallery set in 120-acres of breathtaking landscape, including Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown parkland in Warwickshire.
Its very existence is a surprise… After it had sat derelict for years it was saved from ruin in 1993 by Littlewoods empire multi-millionaire Sir Peter Moores (1932-2016).
The philanthropist and arts enthusiast bought the estate and ploughed £64million into his mission to turn it into a world-class gallery and park and donated four permanent collections to get it all started.
Visiting the landmark is to always be taken aback a little – the view of the house as you cross the river has to be one of the most glorious sights in Warwickshire, and seems to catch one off-guard with its splendour each time you return.
How utterly amazing it is here, a mere nine miles from Stratford and just round the corner for Wellesbourne and Kineton residents.
What is less surprising is the recent appointment of Geraldine Collinge in the prestigious role of chief executive officer, and who seems the perfect choice to continue moving Moores’ vision forward.
Before coming to Compton Verney, Geraldine was at the RSC for 12 years heading up events, exhibitions and ‘creative placemaking’. It was a role that saw her embedded in the Stratford community and earned her a reputation for being “visionary and compassionate” and “creating unforgettable experiences”, to quote RSC acting artistic director Erica Whyman.
Four months into her role, Geraldine meets with Herald Arts in the gallery’s bustling café to tell us about how it’s going and the challenges ahead.
First up, what made her jump ship from the RSC?
“I’d been at the RSC over ten years and covered some of those really big moments – the reopening in 2011 and the celebrations in 2016 – and I was thinking about what’s next and looking for a leadership role,” says Geraldine, who is warm and chatty.
“I’d been a member of Compton Verney and knew it well.
“It has a broad range of art forms and I’d been thinking about its whole offer – so I was intrigued to think what my skills and experience from before could bring to Compton Verney.
“It was the right move at the right time as well,” she adds.
Spreading the word about the marvels of Compton Verney – letting people know it’s here and it’s for them, is top of Geraldine’s agenda.
“It’s not known enough locally – people perhaps don’t know the breadth of the offer,” says Gerladine. “It’s free if you’re under 18 and membership [from £34 per year] is very affordable. One of the things I want to do is make sure the local people know it’s theirs to access.
“I’ve been going out talking to the local community – everyone from parish councils to vicars – just to get Compton Verney in the flow of things.”
She continues: “You don’t have to go to London, you can enjoy that quality here but you’re in the lovely Warwickshire countryside and at a reasonable price.
“There is so much potential. It is doing great things, it’s a beautiful place and it serves great food,” says Geraldine as another plate of scrumptious-looking bistro style whizzes past to be served to appreciative customers.
Of course lots of people are already fans of Compton Verney, and it has just enjoyed its busiest year ever, with 120,000 people visiting in 2022. Nonetheless Geraldine is keen that they continue attracting newer audiences.
Her enthusiasm for Compton Verney is palpable, she’s also a self-confessed “people person” and relies on the input of others.
“I’d rather not be thinking on my own in a dark room – talking it through with others is much better,” she laughs.
“We had a meeting this morning and were talking about what makes Compton Verney special and different and as well as having broad appeal, it’s quite quirky and playful.
“You can just come and have a contemplative time in nature or you can come and see the folk art collection, or come after hours and be entertained by morris dancing – there are so many different ways of enjoying Compton Verney.
“It’s about communicating all those strands – yes we’re a stately home but we’re a young organisation. And it’s all a bit magical.
“Moores was quite a visionary. He brought together all these quirky collections and restored this amazing place, and then started thinking about the grounds, which we’re now doing increasingly.
“I want to have cocktails on the lawn – but in an inclusive and accessible way.”
Geraldine pauses for thought, and adds with a beam: “Cocktails everyone can enjoy – posh but accessible, elegant, eclectic and inclusive.”
She continues: “We’re really celebrating the arts – we’re here because of the art and we’re here for the people, I want everyone to have fun, whether you’re an audience, employee or a board member – It’s where everyone is welcome.”
Toddlers mingling with Renaissance art is an example of the inclusivity Geraldine is proud of.
She says: “If you go along on ‘Tiny Tuesdays’ don’t be surprised to see 70 toddlers running around the Naples Gallery. Art doesn’t have to be stuffy. People have certain perceptions about what galleries are supposed to be like – so how do we change those perceptions?”
Geraldine totally gets that not everyone would want to come to Compton Verney merely to stare at masterpieces.
“My family’s not from a particularly arty background,” says Geraldine. “My parents will come here and have a picnic, hang around in the grounds, pootle through the house and buy something in the shop. You can enjoy it in the way it works for you.
“We want people to feel at home. For example this includes welcoming schools that come here that don’t have green outdoor spaces.”
After an early childhood spent in Happy Valley territory in Halifax, Geraldine’s family settled in Leicester before she went off to university at Sussex. While there she began working at Hove Museum where she was inspired to pursue a career in the arts. Spells at Battersea Arts Centre and running poetry organisation Apples and Snakes followed, before her eventual move to the RSC.
Thinking about her eclectic work background, Geraldine continues: “I’ve spent a lot of time getting people to like Shakespeare, and I discovered one of the routes into poetry is getting people to think about hip hop or rap. I want to break things down and do things people can relate to.
“We want to think about opportunities with the grounds, how people can spend more time exploring. We have an exciting sound installation by the river coming up. People can come and play and do different things – we’re a stately home but a young organisation too, so it’s balancing the contemporary and heritage together.
“That includes welcoming artists on-site and opportunities to respond to the collection.
“The six collections are permanent, they’ve become a bit like the wallpaper, a fixture – so how we bring those to life. Like how we are doing a redisplay of the Naples collection that includes the senses, so the tastes and smells of the region.”
Geraldine is mindful of the need to work with other cultural destinations, from the RSC to the Butterfly Farm, to make domestic tourism viable in the area.
“Finance and surviving in the long term is probably the thing that wakes me up at night,” confesses Geraldine.
“But we got money from the Cultural Recovery Fund and we got our Arts Council funding renewed – £150k a year – so that’s great; and we get money from Peter Moores’ legacy, and the rest is from commercial activity here and money from the restaurant, shop, entrance fee and fundraising.
“We’ve still got a way to go – but I’m working with the team and we’ve got lots of ideas about how we can be the leading visitor destination in the Midlands in the heart of the country,” she adds with a flourish.
Geraldine likes the idea of surprises at Compton Verney.
She explains: “We’re thinking about diversifying and how we bring in other art forms. How we do the unexpected? I like the idea that when you come over the bridge into the Capability Brown landscape it’s spectacular, but then you don’t quite know what’s going to happen... a bit like Night at the Museum [the film in which the displays come alive at night] – what’s going to take over?! So yes, more play and more stuff for families.”
Five recent inspirations
Compton Verney’s Geraldine Collinge picks five recent arts highlights
The Tempest | Royal Shakespeare Company (rsc.org.uk)
I was really interested to see Elizabeth Freestone’s production of the Tempest having been able to spend time with her in Stratford. It’s a great production rethought through a female perspective and what I particularly liked was how it is rooted in Stratford by working in partnership with Rubbish Friends and that the environmental theme was carried through with the production team reusing props from previous productions.
Sanctuary - An Extraordinary artwork by David Best (sanctuary-event.com)
The RSC workshops built the structure for this incredible event. I loved working with the workshops on it when I was at the RSC, it was great to meet David Best and see the structure and what was most inspirational was the fact that the event was in Bedworth where everyone came to see it. It was a very poignant way to remember what we had all been through over the last couple of years.
Hew Locke: The Procession | Tate Britain
What an remarkable takeover of the central space at Tate Britain. Joyful and celebratory it also made you examine the history of Tate and its relationship with the slave trade as well as the roles we all play in society.
William Kentridge | Exhibition | Royal Academy of Arts
This was an extraordinary exhibition looking back over William Kentridge’s career. His work sits somewhere between theatre, drawing, animation and politics and has always inspired me. This was an inspiring, challenging and thought provoking experiential exhibition. I first saw Kentridge’s work in a Handspring show I was involved with as part of Africa95 - Wikipedia and he opened my mind to different kinds of theatre- making.
Key To The City (birmingham2022.com)
One of Fierce’s contributions to the Birmingham Commonwealth Games was the brilliant Key to the City project with artist Paul Ramírez Jonas. This project literally gave you the key to different parts of Birmingham. I walked under Grand Central, discovered a neon sign in Ikon and explored secret gardens. It helped you see Birmingham in a different way and all started with a lovely ceremony in Grand Central station.