UK: TAKING SHAPE IN THE WOODS

Semi-retired Sussex businessman Wilfred Cass has turned his management skills to the art world and created a picturesque market for contemporary art where sculptures are selling at up to £100,000 each.

by ANDREW DAVIDSON.
Last Updated: 17 Nov 2011

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 semi-retirement 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 £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. Just a name plaque on the large wrought-iron gates set in the tall flint wall, and an intercom. Press to enter. Nor is it cheap to get in - £10 for adults and £6 for children. The Casses have no wish to encourage the charabanc trade, and if it gets any more popular, Wilfred says, he will have no choice but to put up the prices again. 'We don't see our job as providing an entertainment,' he says, rather sternly.

But word has got round and attendance, at 4,000 last year, is climbing.

The sculptures, up to 40 at any one time, are dotted in woodland clearings and glades. The grounds, part of which are leased from the Duke of Richmond at Goodwood House, are subtly landscaped. The tall trees are tightly packed; the woodland floor is strewn with bluebells, ivy and indigenous plants - nothing so vulgar as massed rhododendrons or even a conventional flower bed.

The place has a serenity and beauty that is breathtaking and, with the best sculpture, inspiring. Most, it has to be said, are not easy works.

These are pieces at the cutting edge of contemporary sculpture, works by the likes of Sir Anthony Caro and Tony Cragg, often conceptually difficult and visually challenging. Sheets of steel, whorls of stone, giant whimsical gestures. Cass, who has collected contemporary art since he met Henry Moore while running Reeves, the artists' supplies firm, clearly adores them.

And they sell. Here Cass entertains the growing band of contemporary art collectors, both institutions and private buyers, often industrialists and media magnates who can afford to spend up to £100,000 on a single work. Most of the buyers come from overseas, such is the pull of British art these days. That, Cass acknowledges, has been a key part of his success: to have opened five years ago and surfed the wave of interest in the British scene. Plus, he was doing something no one has ever done before. Through its unique way of commissioning/displaying/selling, the Cass foundation can claim to have created a raft of monumental works that would never have seen the light of day otherwise.

'It's a different way of running these kind of foundations,' says Ann Elliot, who was head of Sculpture at Goodwood for three years. 'Usually you set one up and give all the interest away. This isn't like that.'

So, everybody happy? Of course not, this is the arts world, where suspicion and factionalism are stirred with Balkan intensity. Just as Charles Saatchi's investment in young talent has been derided as an exercise in personal profit, so the Casses' motives are occasionally questioned. Every June they hold a lavish collectors' day that includes a sumptuous open-air lunch followed by racing at Goodwood. Wilfred's connections and the publicity he generates help keep the prices of the works buoyant - works which Sculpture at Goodwood usually co-owns with the artist. It would be surprising if a few art dealers' noses were not out of joint.

So, despite the fact the Casses sold their own modest collection to endow the foundation, and have pumped maybe £2 million and countless hours into setting up Sculpture at Goodwood, some still think Wilfred's love of a deal suggests there must be some profit in it for him. Cass himself says he knows people have always been suspicious, but he dismisses the suggestion of personal profit. 'Every artist needs a patron of some kind to push them and to get great things happening,' he says. 'We fulfil that. The average dealer does not have a market for big sculpture.'

But Cass is a businessman through and through; you can feel that drive for profit crackling inside him as he lists his business CV. Born into the Cassirers, a German Jewish family who escaped to London before the war, he fought in the British army, then did a diploma course in electronics before joining Pye in Cambridge. There he pioneered the use of dip-soldered circuit boards in televisions, before graduating from electronics expert to management consultant and finally, executive-for-hire. Working his way through seeds, paints, tools, artists' supplies and retail, he made a name for himself as a shrewd cost-cutter and dab hand at company reorganisation, while helping his elder brother Eric establish Cass Electronics, a firm which they later sold to Telephone Rentals.

Collecting art ran in the family blood. The Berlin Cassirers helped introduce the Impressionists to Germany, and Cass was collecting as soon as he had some money. Jeanette, too, has always been involved in the arts. Brought up in South Africa, the only child of elderly parents, she attended art school and married young - to a white liberal industrialist. Her first husband's anti-apartheid views eventually meant they had to leave in the early 1960s. She has since remarried twice.

With Wilfred, she has found a common obsession. She remodelled the grounds for the foundation, he runs the business side with barely any help. Ask Cass about arts professionals, the hard core of dedicated and invariably underpaid managers who keep Britain's arts institutions running, and he wrinkles his nose. He loves contemporary sculpture, but it's clearly the business of commissioning and selling that excites him.

But right now he has a problem. He has recently returned to running Image Bank UK, the British arm of the world's largest supplier of film and photography for the advertising industry. It was a franchise he picked up in 1979 when he was looking for a London office. Managed by his son Mark, it has since been a runaway success, so successful that Cass junior has now gone to America to work for the parent company, leaving his father to hold the fort two days a week. Sculpture at Goodwood is also making more demands of his time, and he is worried about succession.

'I always thought the best time for a manager to stay in a business is five years,' he says, leaning over the glass-topped table in his sitting room. Sculpture at Goodwood is five years old this summer, and, while there is no suggestion he is moving on, he admits that, at 74, he cannot expect to keep putting in the hours that he has. 'I've never worked so hard in my life as now,' he says.

Others who know him say that his son's move to America has jolted him - he had expected Mark Cass to pick up the reins. Now he is thinking about finding another manager to take over the foundation. He doesn't want an arts professional (more nose-wrinkling).

He wants someone who has proved himself or herself in business, has a passionate interest in art, and is looking for something different. Someone who would work with him for a bit, then take the whole thing on - house, grounds, foundation, the lot. Anyone out there interested in a job change?

For more information visit the web site www.sculpture.org.uk.

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