Magazine article Management Today

Taking Shape in the Woods

Magazine article Management Today

Taking Shape in the Woods

Article excerpt

A semi-retired Sussex businessman has turned his management skills to the art world and created a picturesque market for contemporary art where sculptures are selling at up to [pounds]100,000 each. Andrew Davidson strolls through a green gallery

It started at breakfast. Wilfred and Jeanette Cass were sitting at the table by the vast picture window that looks out onto the woods around their Goodwood home. They had a modest collection of sculpture dotted about, some Moores, some Frinks, maybe 26 pieces in all, discreetly placed, nothing too obvious. The setting was perfect: a landscaped lawn and a large pond surrounded by evergreens, swathes of green running south through ancient woodland with views beyond to Chichester and the coast. Even the house was perfect: a low, Bauhaus replica with bare-brick interiors and floor-to-ceiling windows that seemed to nestle unobtrusively by the old flint wall that ran round the grounds.

As Jeanette remembers it, the idea suddenly germinated. 'It seemed selfish to have all this just for us. We thought, why not set up some kind of sculpture garden?' Wilfred, preparing for semiretirement after a lifetime in business, was not the sort to prune roses into his dotage. As he pondered the idea, the seed took root. But Cass is a careful man, an electrical engineer-turned-manager who forged a considerable reputation as a company doctor, turning round family firms such as Reeves (1971-76) and Moss Bros (1987-91). He likes to prepare, to look around before he acts, and to do things well. So he and Jeanette set off on a world tour of sculpture parks, to assess the state of the art and plan their own.

Nearly a decade later, the success of Sculpture at Goodwood has clearly taken even the couple aback. 'We were a great big secret but now people are catching on,' chuckles Cass gruffly. He is a small man, slightly stooped by age, with a lined face topped by thick white hair and split by a mischievous smile. Now 74, he still bristles with the impatience and energy of youth. He has so many points on his driving licence, he tells me, he has had his BMW fitted with a special pinger to warn him when he is driving over the speed limit. It pings continuously as he drives me from Barnham station to his house. He just can't bear hanging around.

But with that impatience and energy, Cass and his wife have created something extraordinary, perhaps one of the most hauntingly beautiful venues for contemporary art in Britain. It has surprised even the most cynical observers in London's metropolitan art scene (who are always snotty about anything provincial, especially if it's linked to business). For what the Casses have established is unique - 20 acres of parkland run by a charitable foundation that doesn't just display works of art, but one which commissions, part-owns and then sells the very best of contemporary British sculpture, keeping only a tiny cut (10%-20%) to cover overheads and costs. And the Casses do all the choosing.

Over the past couple of years Sculpture at Goodwood has probably sold around [pounds]750,000-worth of new work, making it a significant power player in contemporary British art. It has already set up an impressive web site and archive covering all the work of the artists it commissions, and has embarked on an ambitious educational drive. This summer it has been invited by the RSA to co-ordinate and partially fund the project to fill the empty plinth in Trafalgar square. Three different contemporary artists, Mark Wallinger, Bill Woodrow and Rachel Whiteread, have been commissioned to site works on the plinth for eight months each. Just how can a semi-retired, Sussex-based businessman and his wife have made such an impact in so short a time?

You have to go there to understand the power of the place. It's not easy to find - you drive a few miles beyond Goodwood racecourse, along small country lanes. Don't look for a signpost: there isn't one. …

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