Grass roots to heritage fabric – history and Nadfas

2018 is a golden year for one of our leading heritage organisations, which is celebrating under a new name. Simon Tait reports

You might be scratching your head on hearing that The Arts Society is celebrating its golden anniversary. The what? How can a national cultural institution have been going for half a century, and you’ve never heard of it?

Main image shows Arts Society volunteers on a church recording mission

But the nature of The Arts Society’s success is its evolutionary nature: since it began in 1968 as the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies, a mouthful that for most of its history has been more simply Nadfas, it has accumulated 90,000 members in 385 societies across the UK and now overseas too, gives about £200,000 a year to arts initiatives and provides volunteer work probably worth £3m. The name was changed last year to signal, said its chief executive Florian Schweizer, a newer and closer relationship with its widening membership.

It was a grass roots foundation, and its popular image had been of a rather cosy club for middle class ladies interested in art, who organised talks in their own homes over tea and scones. And that’s how it was when the late Patricia Fay, a housewife with a passion for art and antiques, started the first society at Chenies Manor in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire, in 1965.

Founder chairman Patricia Fay, left, with vice-chairman Lally Roninson at the Nadfas inauguration in 1968

Middle-class ladies in the 1960s were mostly expected to stay at home, raise children, and confine their extra-home life to the domestic-based activities of the Women’s Institute and the Townswoman’s Guild, so it was a brave move to try something new. “But they wanted to give back to the community as well, so they organised lectures and made connections with the V&A (then rejoicing in the subtitle of National Museum of the Fine and Decorative Arts)” Schweitzer says.

The then V&A director Sir Roy Strong was a devoted supporter, and Nadfas were able to organise talks in South Kensington.  “They saw themselves as a whole new audience of people who had an interest in the subject but very little specialism” according to Schweizer. “It was an early recognition of the value of life-long learning”.

Most societies give grants, but there is also a central fund to help conservators, craft trades and apprenticeships, arts volunteering, and working with organisations like the British Library, the Crafts Council, West Dean and the Barber Institute to help foster skills. Nadfas gives about £90,000 a year in grants.

The need now, Schweitzer says, is to appeal to the 25-to-55 age group of both sexes, the professionals who have a fondness for art but don’t have the time during the day to go to lectures or involve themselves in other activities.

“The Arts Society is not a passive organisation, nor is it elitist which is another image” he says. “We welcome all people to join our societies and respond to changing patterns of demographics and lifestyle. We’ve got to move with that.”


Fine arts scholar Linda Collins gives a Nadfas/Arts Society  lecture

The association is a charity, he says, which gives it a remit beyond its membership, and three years ago as Nadfas changed its articles of association so that it can now make partnerships with organisations of national status like the Heritage Lottery Fund or the Art Fund, but also local ones concerned in important community projects where it can apply its expertise beyond the membership. Our brief is to promote education of the arts to the public, and it has to be a wider public. Our members are one segment of that”.

NADFAS’s volunteers have become legendary, notably in churches where its recorders have been working. “Our volunteers build relationships over decades and have become part of the life of museums, galleries and archives” Schweizer says. “We train hundreds if not thousands of people”. 

Meeting usually in members’ homes for coffee and talk once a week, by 1968 there were 11 societies and Mrs Fay united them as Nadfas, now a national movement whose list of lecturers is a roll call of our key specialists in their fields.

The societies are all self-governing, and some have waiting lists – one or two of them have still not brought themselves to changing their names. More and more of the newer ones are evening societies reflecting the requirements of the 21st century membership. There are societies in Europe based on ex-pat communities, and New Zealand, and an association with a sister organisation in Australia.

Schweizer, a German-born Victorian expert, took Nadfas over in 2014 after having run and revived the Dickens House Museum in Bloomsbury. His brief was to build on its good work and reputation and widen its appeal and membership. A major part of the transition is the name change.

1924 poster  in the Arts Society supported exhibition Rhythm & Reaction; The Age of Jazz in Britain at Two Temple Place

“For some years we have been aware that the work of the society has far outstripped the rather unwieldy and restrictive title and acronym that we have carried until today” said Schweizer when he announced the new title last year. “The Arts Society plays a vital under-sung role in generating public enthusiasm for the arts, providing volunteers to projects all over the country and contributing financially and practically with work hours to research projects, which increases understanding of our heritage and informs our cultural life. The society’s field of vision is wider than ‘decorative and fine arts’ now, encompassing film and the performing arts for example, and our network of local organisations is a true social enterprise – hence The Arts Society.” 

It supports post-graduate conservation students, is represented by volunteers on committees and boards, runs an education programme and provides volunteers in museums, churches, historic houses and galleries to help to keep them running. It works with the Royal Society of British Artists to give young artists the chance to exhibit.  It funds internships in places like the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Watts Gallery, Guildhall Art Gallery and British Library. It supports Dulwich Picture Gallery’s life drawing masterclasses for 15- to 18-year-olds. In Birmingham it has created arts and history trails between diverse places of worship, helping to bring communities together and to spread appreciation of the similarities and differences 
between religions in local areas.

Recent lectures have covered architecture, archaeology, painting, prints, sculpture, textiles, furniture, furnishings, costume, glass and ceramics, enamel, metalwork, garden design, installation art, music, dance, theatre, literature and film.

The golden year has opened with the exhibition at Two Temple Place in London, Rhythm & Reaction; The Age of Jazz in Britain, supported in partnership with The Bulldog Trust Next month a new international arts award will be announced, there’ll be celebratory series of symposiums and lectures, a new grants scheme, and at its high point a service for 2,000 members in Westminster Abbey. And Florian Schweizer is running 50 ten kilometer runs taking in heritage sites such as Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the Angel of the North, Stoke-on-Trent’s potteries, Maggie Hambling’s The Scallop at Aldeburgh, Conwy Castle and even the Rock of Gibraltar.

The society’s president is television presenter and heritage enthusiast Loyd Grossman. “The Arts Society is both extraordinary and indispensable – not only for its work in arts and heritage education and conservation – but also for the sense of happiness and well-being it has brought to so many over the past 50 years” he says.

“Over five decades, its members have quietly contributed their time (through volunteering) and funds (through grant giving), to ensure the upkeep and safeguarding of our country’s most treasured arts and heritage – for which we owe them a huge amount of appreciation.”

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