Where Joshua Sobol and Etgar Keret come to write
Cove Park is an artists’ retreat in the Scottish hills which attracts some of the world’s most famous names
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Scene from Cove Park, the brainchild of Eileen and Peter Jacobs
It is the place where visual artists, musicians, writers and theatre directors go when they really want to focus. Cove Park is an international centre in Scotland that offers artists who work in a variety of media residencies to undertake research and develop new projects. Celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, it was the brainchild of Eileen and Peter Jacobs, a couple originally from Glasgow who have been based in London since 1983.
Eileen is a talented amateur sculptor and ceramist and the couple have long been interested in the arts though she got her first concentrated taste of the art world in the 1990s.
"Peter was chief executive at BUPA for most of the 1990s and I had the privilege of working with the Contemporary Art Society and putting together a corporate art collection for BUPA. It was a wonderful experience and a real eye-opener and a steep - well, vertical - learning curve for me into the world of contemporary art, and that is really what fired us on.
"Then we happened to be in Colorado for a conference and we visited a residency centre for artists. Peter had always wanted to do something different, away from industry, and that visit gave us the idea that we should do something similar."
Many artists say they don't want to leave
Back in the UK, they began speaking to experts in the field, as Peter explains. "We bounced the idea off a number of people who were more knowledgeable in the art world than us, people like Dennis Stephenson who was chairman of the Tate at the time and the Scottish Arts Council, too. We said to them: 'What do you think about this crazy idea', and everyone we asked said: 'It is absolutely what is necessary. Get on with it. Just do it'. So we did."
They started looking for a site, deciding they wanted to be within easy reach of their native Glasgow. "We ended up finding Cove Park which is 50 acres of raw hillside overlooking Loch Long," says Eileen.
So what is it that Cove Park offers? "The underlying principle is that we are offering artists the time and the space and the freedom to develop their professional practice, to experiment, to take risks, to try out new ways of working," says Eileen. "We are not expecting anything back from them so it is an opportunity for them to workshop new ideas without the pressures of having an exhibition or a concert or a play to put on at the end of it.
"The underlying principle from the beginning was to have it as a cross-discipline experience so people would come from all over the world, from all disciplines, from all stages of careers and find themselves there. There is a huge cross-fertilisation of ideas in an incredibly beautiful environment."
"We are about 30 per cent international," Peter adds. "There is a bit of a weighting towards Israel but there are many other countries involved as well."
Leading Israelis who have come to Cove Park include playwright Joshua Sobol, who has been twice, writer Etgar Keret, poet Amir Or, curator Gideon Ofrat and photographer Lisa Orbach.
"Gideon arrived with enough work for two weeks," Eileen recalls. "He did his two weeks of writing in the first 24 hours because they have all day every day without interruptions. He ended up writing to us: 'Who needs Paradise when you have Cove Park?' Many artists say that they don't want to leave and they want to come back which is about the best feedback you could get."
Other big names who have had residencies include Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, Turner Prize-winning conceptual artist Simon Starling and leading theatre directors Tom Morris, of Warhorse fame, and Edward Kemp, artistic director at RADA. By the end of the year, 1,000 artists will have stayed at Cove Park. There is huge competition to be awarded a residency as Eileen can prove. "This year we had 180 applications for our visual arts residency and we could have taken 50 per cent of them, the standard was so high.'
The architecture of Cove Park has also attracted praise. When the Jacobs purchased the site there was just one wooden building, which they used as a meeting place and a Nissan hut which they turned into a studio. At first artists stayed at a home the Jacobs bought nearby but then they found some unusual structures to turn into studios. "We happened to hear about the Castaway 2000 programme on the BBC," says Eileen. "They were selling off the pods that people lived in on the island of Taransay and we bought two. The architect helped us redesign them and make them extremely comfortable. The artists absolutely love them."
"They are magnificent," adds Peter proudly. "They are built of curved solid-oak timbers. There are no nails or screws in them, it is all pinned with handmade oak pegs. They are amazing buildings. They have featured in various architectural magazines."
More studios are provided in "the cubes", structures made out of shipping containers. They are now raising money to rebuild the main building which they hope to replace with a bigger rehearsal space for theatre groups.
How is Cove Park funded? "We put in the seed money to get it started and we are still supportive but we can't support it on our own," Peter says. Residencies have been funded by different trusts but the Jacobs hope that by raising the profile of Cove Park in London, they can get new supporters interested and ensure its future. They are keen to increase the number of events they organise for the public.
"We have open days, we have open studios. We have talks. This summer we are having an open weekend to celebrate the 10th anniversary," Eileen says. "We have started doing masterclasses and we hope to expand this programme.
The couple are clearly delighted with what Cove Park has achieved. Says Peter: "We are proud of the results, we are proud of the fact that Cove Park has a very strong reputation within the art world. We wanted a centre of excellence and actually it is surprising that we have got it so quickly."