The architect Daniel Libeskind has slammed plans to sell off a unique Cumbrian barn once owned by the celebrated modernist artist Kurt Schwitters.
Merz Barn, near Elterwater, is set to be put up for auction next month after funding could not be found to save the studio, which Schwitters, an anti-fascist artist, had made into artwork in itself.
Libeskind said it was “a real pity” the custodians were being forced to sell the building, which has received donations from artists Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst and Tacita Dean.
The architect, who was responsible for the Grand Canal Theater (now called the Bord Gáis Energy theatre) in Dublin and the Imperial War Museum North in Greater Manchester, said: “It’s a real pity (and a sign of the times) that Schwitters’ life-affirming [Merz Barn] is possibly about to be destroyed.
“As one of the only art ‘shrines’ to freedom in a world increasingly threatened with authoritarianism, it should be preserved as a warning against propaganda and conformity.”
Schwitters, an anti-fascist German artist who fled the Nazis as a child and settled in the Lake District, used the studio to create works with subversive ideas which went on to shape British art.
His use of found objects and rubbish to create collages and surprising imagery laid the foundations for both pop art and today’s thriving conceptual art scene.
He imagined Merz Barn becoming a modernist cave, with artefacts embedded in the cement walls. Most of what he managed to complete before his death in 1948 is now on display in Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery.
Ian Hunter and Celia Larner, Schwitter’s devotees who have maintained and championed the barn since 2006, gave up their battle to preserve the building for posterity.
“It is a really shocking moment for us,” Hunter said in October. “This is such an important site, so valued by many artists, including the late architect Zaha Hadid. But we have run out of money and will have to put the whole estate up for sale in the new year.”
Hunter and Larner, who jointly founded the Littoral Trust to safeguard Merz Barn, say they have made nine substantial applications for renewed Arts Council funding over the last decade, each of which has been rejected, despite the support of prominent figures including broadcaster Melvyn Bragg and the former Conservative arts minister Ed Vaizey.
“This summer, we realized how tired we were,” Hunter said. “I am 75 and Celia is 85. We have already sold our two homes in the area to fund maintenance of the barn and there is nothing else we can do. It was the Arts Council that originally encouraged us to take on the project, and they were generous with capital funds and with supporting our artistic programme. But they changed their minds and have not told us why.”