When Britain announced its first lockdown, the art collector, curator, and dealer Michael Hue-Williams was at his 50-acre estate in Little Milton, Oxfordshire. “I was sitting in my office, looking at this incredibly beautiful garden,” he tells me on the phone, “and thought, God, I could put it to use.” But what use? Obviously, an art park!
The estate is just 50 miles from the West End—an easy 45-minute train ride—and its rolling hills harbor deer, owls, and woodpeckers. Avenues of oak trees, large fields, and 16 acres of mature woodland lend themselves naturally to the project. A lake with an island sits in the middle of the gardens, and architectural projects built in situ—including three pavilions, one by Sir David Adjaye, another by the late American artist Vito Acconci, and a tennis pavilion by Richard Woods—provide an intersection between art and architecture.
There’s already an indoor gallery on the property—Albion Barn—but Hue-Williams rightly assumed that, post-lockdown, life would resume sooner outdoors. Having long admired Yorkshire Sculpture Park, in the north, he dreamed big. “I want Albion Fields to be an extension of the Barn,” he says.
A renowned character in the art world, Hue-Williams opened his first gallery in 1988, on Old Bond Street, in London, with a Max Ernst exhibition. Two more galleries followed, and in 2004 he opened the 11,000-square-foot Albion, a gallery designed by Foster + Partners in the city’s Battersea neighborhood. (It closed in 2009.)
Then came the Albion Barn, in Oxfordshire, exhibition and project spaces that opened seven years ago with installations by James Turrell, and that have since shown Nick Knight, Richard Long, and Richard Woods, among others.
To realize the sculpture park, Hue-Williams joined forces with four blue-chip galleries, an operation which would have proved difficult in normal times, when traveling exhibitions and art fairs complicated schedules. “The art world is quite a rough, tough place, and galleries don’t normally collaborate,” Hue-Williams explains.
He contacted Lisson first—“They were the obvious place to go”—and then the New York–based Marian Goodman gallery, the Cape Town–based Goodman, and Berlin’s König Galerie.
Representing metropolitan cities in his backyard was important to Hue-Williams. He has long been drawn to the Chinese and Indian art markets, and believes in multicultural displays. “I want it to be very much open and collaborative,” he says. “I want the galleries to see this as their extramural site.”
A year on, landscaping, fencing, and ditching have been completed—but quietly, Hue-Williams stresses, so as not to disturb the wildlife. With permissions from local authorities and help from Lord Rothschild, Lord Vaizey, Sir Nicholas Serota (the Tate’s former director), Sir Anish Kapoor, and Long, the inaugural show has opened and is expected to run through October.
When I ask Hue-Williams who the curator is, he responds, “Curation is a big word. I’ve put it together.” There is no reigning theme, and no suggested order in which to view the art, “which would be hectic,” he says.
All works are for sale. Names on the roster include Ai Weiwei, Adel Abdessemed, Alicja Kwade, Ghada Amer, Richard Long, Turrell, and Cristina Iglesias. The bubbly, silver Fat Convertible, by the Austrian artist Erwin Wurm, is “fabulous and crazy,” and Bernar Venet’s staggering 32-foot Indeterminate Line had to be shipped in 18 different parts.
As one sculpture after another arrived in Oxfordshire, the excitement mounted. Asked for his favorites, Hue-Williams admits, “It’s always the one that’s just arrived. I’m a bit of a kid.”
Going forward: A solo show in Albion Barn with Scottish artist Douglas Gordon is scheduled for October, by which time the pieces in the gardens may have all changed. An app and educational programs are also in the works. “We are hoping to become a resource not only for collectors but also museums,” says Hue-Williams. “We have to become a venue unlike any other.” —Elena Clavarino