About VARC

Visual Arts in Rural Communities (VARC) was set up in 2000 and became a registered charity in 2002. VARC is based at Highgreen in rural Northumberland and its mission is:

– To support and fund artists to live and make work in response to the rural landscape and its community.

– To foster, promote and advance an appreciation and understanding of contemporary art and enjoyment of creativity through exhibitions, events and participatory activities in the community and with visiting groups, local schools, and regional SEN and SEND schools.

– To co-operate with other charities and organisations, to work together to achieve aims and share knowledge.

The founder Leo Amery, a stained glass artist, explains what motivated him to set up the charity:

“…I moved from London to a very rural part of southwest France in 1986 when I was thirty. The aim was/is to get closer to Nature both as an inspiration for my work as an artist and for my development as a human being. The idea of VARC was to give artists a similar and rare opportunity to live and work in a very rural environment for a year-long residency so as to experience Nature through all its seasons. The engagement with the rural community is an inevitable consequence of such a move and VARC is the catalyst to encourage and facilitate this interaction.

My experience of helping to bring up our son, Joey, who is on the more challenging end of the autistic spectrum, led me to subsequently encourage VARC to have a focus on working with people with autism…”

In addition to the residency programme, VARC has instigated, fund raised and managed additional projects where artists have worked in relation to the local community. These have ranged from small community events to large projects that have involved artists’ commissions, local residents’ participation, regional public events and substantial publications. We have received financial support from Community Foundation, European funding through LEADER and Defra, Arts Council England, Northumberland National Park Authority (NNPA), Gillian Dickinson, High Sheriff of Northumberland awards and large and small trusts. We are proud to have worked with partners such as universities, NNPA, Kielder Art & Architecture, Crossings, CRISIS, FLOW, Pathways4All, Sangini, local schools and regional SEN and SEND schools. For the ENTWINED programme partners and funders see here. Through this work, opportunities have been made possible for many that would otherwise not have access to art and artists in a rural context.

We actively value and promote social inclusion. For example, in 2018, a Creative Case residency and research led to a pilot residency for a disabled artist. VARC is committed to equality and diversity, read our policy here. All residencies are advertised, promoted and open to all artists. We hold a Home Office Sponsors Licence and promote residencies internationally.

Our current programme ENTWINED: Rural. Land. Lives. Art. includes four one-month residencies as well as longer residencies in the attempt to offer more flexible opportunities for artists. VARC continues to assess and review its core programme and we welcome proposals and ideas for future partnership working.


Our Team

Cynthia Morrison-Bell (COB)
Lizzie Hare
Karen Rann
Emma Festing

VARC’s work is overseen by our board of Trustees:

Cynthia Morrison-Bell (COB)

Cynthia trained in art conservation before working in arts administration. She became director of Art Circuit Touring Exhibitions in 2000, an independent not for profit organisation involved in touring contemporary art exhibitions to public museums and galleries across the country. She was on the board of Meadow Arts for eight years, and is a Patron of Finding Rhythm, a charity involved with prison rehabilitation through music. Cynthia has been a VARC trustee since 2013.

Lizzie Hare

Lizzie studied Fine Art at City & Guilds in London for four years and has practised as a painter. She is the founder’s sister and been involved with VARC since the start, taking part in all the artists interviews and shortlisting process. Lizzie has been a frequent visitor to Highgreen for exhibitions and other activities, watching its development with interest as well as enthusiasm and pleasure.

Karen Rann

Karen is a visual artist whose practice is place specific. Currently she is engaged in PhD research, funded through AHRC. In 2001-2002 she was VARC’s second artist in residence; a profound life altering experience that resulted to her relocating from Germany to north east England. Karen has remained involved with VARC since, first through the facilitation of occasional workshops; in 2006, she joined the shortlisting and interviewing panel and, from 2010-15, was contracted to facilitate an annual program of creative activities for young people with autism for VARC. She became a trustee for the charity in 2016.

Emma Festing

Emma has a background in Marketing and Fundraising for both corporate and non-profit organisations in the UK and Australia. Prior to moving to Northumberland in 2014, Emma was the Development Manager at the Wallace Collection in London, where she was responsible for generating income from private individuals, trusts and foundations and corporate sponsors. Now raising her young family in Tarset, just a few miles from VARC, Emma has been a Trustee since 2015.

VARC’s Project Director is Helen Pailing who works part time and is responsible for the running of VARC’s activities. Helen was the 2013-2014 artist in residence and recently completed a practice-based PhD at National Glass Centre (UoS). She has worked for VARC in some capacity since 2015 and took over from Janet Ross in 2018. Janet, who joined VARC in 2001, has been instrumental to the development and success of VARC and her care and dedication to the charity has shaped what it is today.

Additional freelance staff include Susan Priestley, currently working as the ENTWINED engagement manager, and Robin Fearon who is producing artist films. VARC is grateful for its ‘Friends of VARC’ and to all the volunteers who help at events and workshops.