Virtual champagne corks are popping at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle to celebrate a successful fundraising campaign which saw a  staggering £21,000 raised in just 60 nail-biting days.

The campaign, is part of the growing trend of crowdfunding, which involves pooling individual online pledges made by people keen to offer financial support to projects they have taken a shine to.

The project was led by the Museum’s Digital Communications and Fundraising Officer, Alison Nicholson, using the new crowdfunding platform, Art Happens. The Art Fund were keen for The Bowes Museum to be one of the first museums involved with the crowdfunding platform, following a hugely successful Kickstarter project by the Museum earlier this year to install a Gavin Turk neon on the front of the Museum.

Art Happens was created to help UK museums raise money for new, small-scale, achievable and highly creative projects.  Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, every penny raised will go directly to the projects. The Art Fund will not be charging fees like many other platforms, and the donations will be eligible for Gift Aid. 

The Bowes Museum’s successful digital campaign – which was supported by an internal campaign involving an inspirational video and dynamic countdown in reception - with the help of Rupert McBain, recognised furniture conservator, this will allow the Museum to conserve and sympathetically redisplay a 15th century Passion Altarpiece, revealing the hidden secrets on its reverse. It is made up of six paintings by Master of the View of Saint Gudule on the back of the shutters. These oil on panel paintings from c.1480 have been hidden from view for years. Paintings by this 15th century Flemish artist are rare in the UK, and their revelation would give the public a much greater appreciation of the work of this Renaissance artist. The re-display will include building a new oak frame, with a mechanism to regularly open and close the panels to give access currently restricted to the public.

The re-display of the altarpiece will include further research into how the piece would have originally been displayed, who may have commissioned it, the human story of those who created it, and why our founders considered it an important addition to their collection of European fine and decorative art. The hidden secrets of this magnificent piece of Renaissance art will be re-discovered through the generosity of Art Happens and made secure for fine and Renaissance art lovers for the future.

The re-display will include the incorporation of figures carved by the renowned Brussels Sculptors’ Guild which have been in store at the Museum since the capital redevelopments. These will be re-united with the carvings in the altarpiece. Missing pillars which would have linked the intricate canopies to the carvings expressing the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ will be carved and replaced, enhancing the re-display. The altarpiece will be raised and displayed on a stand, in our 15th century picture gallery alongside paintings from our religious art collection, to recreate the impression of its original position in a church above the altar.

On the reverse of the oak carvings are three mallet marks, the hallmark of the Brussels Sculptors’ Guild. We would like to be able to create an opportunity for part of the carvings to be slid forward to reveal the mallet mark to the visitors, giving a ‘secret’ insight into the authentication of the altarpiece by a 15th tradesman’ guild.

Interpretation of the redisplayed altarpiece will include, along with enhanced panels of information about the provenance of the piece, its acquisition by our founders John and Joséphine Bowes in 1859 and the identity of the artist of the energetic paintings telling the story of the Passion of Christ, a newly carved replica from part of the altarpiece in oak for visitors to feel the texture and intricacies of the skilled workmanship which has carried on through the centuries.

“Being invited to take part in the first round of projects on Art Happens was a great opportunity to raise funds for our conservation project and to reach new audiences and supporters,” said Mrs Nicholson. “It's been an exhilarating experience and I’d like to thank all those who supported this project by helping me to reach the target to return our Flemish altarpiece to its former glory. The Art Fund has been a brilliant source of help and support and its new platform will be a huge benefit to those museums and galleries who use it to fundraise in the future.”

Restorer Rupert McBain, who holds a guild mark from the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers, designed a limited edition reward, inspired by the altarpiece, for those who pledged £100 to the campaign. He will now work on the conservation of the altarpiece, building a new frame to allow the Museum to reveal the Renaissance art on the reverse and reveal the mallet marks, the guild mark of the Brussel Sculptors’ Guild.

Lesley Taylor MBE, who is Durham and Cleveland Art Fund Chair and Art Fund Chair for the North, was an ambassador for the campaign, cultivating donations from regional members and sharing the message nationally. She said: “As a former Trustee of The Bowes Museum and a committed Art Fund volunteer, I would like to say what a privilege it has been to be involved with this Art Happens crowdfunding project. It has been a huge learning curve for us all, especially me, and I am so pleased to have been able to support Alison Nicholson who has taken the lead on this project with such passion and enthusiasm. It has been nerve-wracking at times but as the momentum has increased so has the excitement. The Bowes Museum project is the first to complete its allotted time of 60 days and it is fantastic to reach the target. We plan to have an unveiling at Easter by the Bishop of Durham to celebrate this enormous achievement.”

Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said: “Huge thanks to everyone whose donations and support have seen the first project successfully funded, making Art Happen.  The combination of contributions at all levels has meant not only that The Bowes Museum can return one of the finest pieces in its collection to its former glory, but also that a new dialogue between visitor and museum has been forged.  I shall be excited to hear how the restoration project on the Passion Altarpiece unfolds, revealing its hidden treasure for all to see, and to enjoy".

Gallery Talks
17 July, 7 & 14 August, 2.30
Join Emma House, Keeper of Fine Art, to uncover the secrets of a 15th Century Flemish altarpiece, currently the focus of a crowd funding campaign on the Art Fund’s newly launched platform Art Happens. Learn more about the artists and the Brussels Sculptors’ Guild, and how you can help reveal and reunite their hidden art.