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Why 200 artists took over an ancient Polish mansion

Set in the depths of the countryside, the Palace Arts Festival is a ‘residency and showcase’ for painters, performance artists, actors and musicians

Most festivals start with a plan; The Palace started with a Google search. Fresh out of university, 23-year-old Thea Hope searched for “giant mansions in cheap countries”, looking to find somewhere – anywhere – to hold a festival for young artists on tight budgets. She messaged dozens of owners, and only one wrote back.

Jim had made his fortune as a banker before retiring to rural Poland to focus on his passions in writing and restoration. He settled in the Prince-Bishop of Wroclaw’s palace, a sprawling, 700-year-old manor in South-West Poland, a few kilometres from the Czech border.

Rich, creative and sitting on an estate the size of a small village, Jim was a perfect partner. Thea sent him an enthusiastic email; he sent an even more enthusiastic response. Jim would host the festival, providing Thea with a location for her festival; in return, her visiting artists would transform his palace, filling any available space with art of every stripe. Within a couple of months, they’d met on site to plan for the summer.

“It’s not just painters. It’s performance artists, actors, noise musicians… a lot of artists with multiple skills are turning up, just looking to collaborate, to try different things” – Thea Hope

That was the easy part. Populating the site with artists worthy of the setting would prove considerably harder. Thea and her friends had held informal gatherings for artists before, but nothing approaching this scale. With just five months to put together an international festival, the event’s logistical challenges started to loom. The palace is miles from any major town or airport, and a five-hour drive from Berlin, where many of the artists live. Getting even a small number of people there would be a challenge.

“We thought we’d just expand our parties,” Thea tells me, “then it became a festival. Then we started inviting external people. Now we have 200 people coming. We didn’t see it going that way, but it has done.”

As the festival grew, so did Thea’s team. Many of the artists took on bigger roles, becoming mini-curators, each responsible for discrete areas of the palace. “We didn’t forward-plan, and we all have full-time jobs, so we started with very big roles each. It became very apparent that wasn’t going to work, so now we have a very big team doing manageable snippets and reporting back to me.”

The event is intended to do more for the artists than just showcase their work. Those attending will get the chance to meet and collaborate with performers working in different media too. “It’s not just painters”, Thea explains. “It’s performance artists, actors, noise musicians… a lot of artists with multiple skills are turning up, just looking to collaborate, to try different things, and work across different media. A lot of this is unknown. We don’t know what we’ll end up with at the end of the week.”

Thea herself was rather lucky with personal connections. Born to actor parents, she grew up amongst creative people, some of whom will appear on the bill at The Palace. Yale, Oxford and RADA lecturer Peter Francis James will give a Shakespeare masterclass, while Olivier Award-winning writer Robert Goodale will speak on script development. Both are godfathers to Thea, whose actor father William will also give a talk.

The presence of these esteemed professionals seems slightly at odds with the more ad hoc organisation of the festival, but Thea sees no reason the two styles can’t work in harmony. She wants The Palace to feel familial, with older contributors on hand to help younger artists. That’s the atmosphere she grew up in. “At my birthdays, there’d always be older people, my parents and their friends talking to my friends. The conversation and difference in experience is so fertile. I’m very blessed with great connections in the art world, which I guess is what happens when both your parents are actors.”

At 200 people, The Palace is rather bigger than a birthday party. And unlike a birthday party, its guests won’t attend for free. Tickets to the festival are £120. “It’s prayed on my mind that we’re trying to support these artists but at the same time we’re asking for exactly what they don’t have. We tried to make the package as appealing and worthwhile as possible. I think when you consider what’s included, people should be able to turn up and not spend any money – that’s the plan.”

Ticket sales will allow the Palace team to provide their guests with food, drink, accommodation and artistic materials, as well as five massive barns to fill with their work. But they don’t expect to turn a profit. In fact, the first edition of their festival will clean them out. Nonetheless, the Palace team hope to turn their slapdash party into an annual event. “I’m going to lose all my money”, Thea smiles, “but I prefer to think of it as an investment.”

Learn more about The Palace project on its official website here.