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From The Snowman and snails to gorillas and Gromit, Charlie Langhorne puts art in the wild for Wild in Art…
Charlie, thanks for making time to do this; I know how busy you are. I guess the best place to start in your case is to ask: “When you introduce yourself to people, what do you say?”
How do I introduce myself to people? I say, “I’m the MD and co-founder of Wild in Art; we create big, bonkers, brilliant public art trails – and you may have seen our work…”
Strewth; that’s brilliant! Talk about a curiosity hook! And what did you do before you created big, bonkers, brilliant public art trails?
For what I call my last real job, I used to work for the International Tennis Federation doing sponsorship on the Davis Cup. Prior to that – way back in the mists of time – I used to be in the army. And I used to drive a bobsleigh and skeleton which is how I got involved in sports marketing to start with.
Not an answer I was expecting! Okay, so let’s talk about these big, bonkers, brilliant art trails. Typically, they comprise public art events with somewhere between 30 and 100 uniquely designed sculptures all over a city. By way of example, tell us about the bees…
Yes! So for our Manchester Bee Project a couple of years ago, we had 100 five-foot bees created by artists, community groups and so on… We also had a further 140 bees created by local primary schools; so 240 bees on the streets of Manchester.
So the “big” part of what you do relates to the scale of the sculpture? Or the number of sculptures?
Oh, both! They’re big in terms of scale, in terms of the number of sculptures… They’re also big in terms of the engagement around them. For the bees, we had over 21,000 people download the app, and about a million people engaged directly with the trail. We reckon another two to three-million engaged on an ad-hoc basis.
But there’s more to it with the app download, though, isn’t there? Your engagement figures are phenomenal…
Well, yes… You can put a four-digit code in the app. After those 21,000 people downloaded it, they put the four-digit code in 1.6 million times. So yes, the engagement is extraordinary. And the project put £33 million into the local economy.
And what were the bees for? What was the purpose of them?
Good question… With most of our events, there’s no direct link between the sculpture and the city. There was no direct link between the elephants, say, in Norwich, or the giraffes in Worcester. With the bees, though, we approached Manchester City Council – following the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert; that awful day – and said, “Look, we’ve got this idea for a project to support a coming togetherness.”
Oh? You approached them?
In that instance, yes. And actually the bee has been the symbol of the City of Manchester for about 140 odd years. In the wake of that tragedy, though, the bee very much became a symbol of unity. People found repurposing the bee as the symbol of the City of Manchester very re-energising… And, of course, it had to be done with great, great sensitivity. We’re fortunate enough there to have a brilliant team. Our comms people were fantastic balancing those messages.
Let’s talk about that. You’ve got a brilliant team now, but when you first started this – in 2008 – how did it go? Surely you didn’t just say, “The world needs big, bonkers, brilliant art – let’s go!” So… How did it come about?
Well, I certainly can’t claim to be the founder of this genre of art. These public art trails started in Zurich in 1998. That was with a chap called Walter Knapp, who was the president of the International Association of Window Dressers…
This is a group that exists?! Who knew?
Right! I just love that; it’s fantastic isn’t it? So Walter Knapp came up with the concept, then an American gentleman saw it. He took it to Chicago in 1999. Then another American saw it in there, and did New York in 2000. That’s when I first got involved… They were going to bring the event to London in 2001. For various reasons, they asked me to take over running that project.
And what was that; what was the first trail?
It was called Cow Parade. I was asked to take over that with immaculate timing because about three weeks after taking it over, the UK was then hit by mad cow disease.
Oh, my God. Yes, I remember!
We thought, “Well, maybe we can brazen it out, maybe we can still do the event…” Then we were hit by foot and mouth disease. We just couldn’t do it; we couldn’t put 200 fibreglass cows on the streets of London with all that going on in the countryside. We had to postpone it until 2002… So then we had our Cow Parade relaunch planned. We had 500 corporates come to the Four Seasons on Park Lane, to hear all about it, and just by the most unfortunate twist of fate, the date we chose was the 11th of September, 2001, and to top it off and by some extraordinary quirks of fate I was actually stuck in New York that day…
Yes. The most awful, extraordinary set of circumstances. When we did finally run the event in London, it was – needless to say very challenging – and I subsequently took an investment opportunity and bought into Cow Parade with a fellow investor. We basically had Cow Parade rights in Europe, Middle East, and Africa. We did hundreds of events! In one year we did – I have to say them all in one go – Barcelona, Florence, France, Bucharest, Warsaw, Geneva, Moscow and Monte Carlo.
It’s like a Danny Kaye song!
Yes. Crazy, crazy times. Then in 2007, I got a bored of cow puns and decided to set up Wild in Art with Sally Anne Wilkinson, with whom I’d worked previously. And somehow we pulled together Wild in Art! Our first event was in 2008, which was the year Liverpool was designated the UK Capital of Culture…
Oh yes; I remember that…
Well, we had to present the idea to the Capital of Culture board. We said we wanted to utilise this fantastic, famous Liverpool sculpture called the Superlambanana… It’s a lamb crossed with a banana! It’s marvellous. We pitched the idea to the board, saying, “We want to copy the Superlambanana in fibreglass… Paint it, put it all over the city.” I think it’s fair to say that this became what I call a, “pat on the head” moment.
Like, “All right, son. Keep trying…”?
Yes. “Get out of the office and let us get on with culture”. Despite that, we pulled it together, and Superlambananas was later voted the most popular event of the Capital of Culture by the good folk of Liverpool. I think it’s the single largest economic drive capital culture had, with something like £44 million going into the local economy. Yes, I mean, it was hugely, hugely popular.
Wow. And something I meant to ask earlier… What happens to the sculptures when the exhibit finishes?
Ah, yes! We auction them off. In this case, as I recall, the auction raised about half a million pounds for charity. So yes, and we did Norwich that same year and I think I’ve probably done about 200 of these events in different cities since then, all around the world… Well over 100 of them and now with Wild and Art.
So you’ve had Superlambananas, cows and bees. I know you’ve had gnomes at Hampton Court… Book benches, too; like big open books. Snails in Brighton! I’m guessing it doesn’t work with any old sculpture, though. So what is it you’re looking for in a partner?
For the partners we have three strands to our business. The first one is where we take on an event ourselves. One of the team says, “Oh, that looks fun!” Then we speak to Nick Byrne, our Business Director and effectively the company grown up. Nick’s brilliant. As the business director, he weighs it all up, realises how hard it’ll be and says, “We just can’t do that.” Then we go, “Oh, let’s do it anyway…”
“Our auctions alone have raised over £16 million for charity.”
It sounds like Nick’s got a very stressful life, right off the bat…
Yes, yes. Poor guy! But actually, I’m incredibly lucky; all the staff here are absolutely brilliant… Ruth MacAlister leads up our Marketing Team and Ben Reed is our Head of Creative Development. They share my passion for our events; together we guide an extraordinary group of people.
Our main area of work though, I suppose, is when we effectively license the project to third parties. People have seen the fundraising that our events enabled. Our auctions alone have raised over 16 million pounds for charity. On top of that, there’s probably between a quarter and a half more from what we call the ancillary fundraising.
And with whom are you working in that area?
We work with a lot of hospices on trails at the moment, and we supply the know-how and support to enable them to run the whole project. What’s satisfying is – after most of the events we do with a hospice or charity – they come back for a second, third, even fourth trail.
Right. I think the first one I saw – snails – was for a charity in Brighton…
Yes, Brighton’s now done two trails. In Worcester, they’re onto their second. Ipswich are on their third. Norwich are on their fifth and sixth. So we have that repeat business.
And what’s the third area?
The third is where we get directly commissioned by an organisation. For example, London Olympics in 2012. We did the mascot trail, and also Transport for London… Whatever it may be, we have that third string.
And with those, what’s the attitude you need to take? How do you want partners to look at it?
What I always say to any of our partners, particularly the charities is, “Don’t think of this as embarking on a fundraising exercise. What you’re embarking on is creating a big, bonkers, brilliant public art trail. If you get that bit right, the other bits will follow.” And we certainly don’t have all the answers, but having done 200 of these events, we’ve made pretty much all the mistakes that were to be made.
You’re tempting fate a little…
Well, yes; we can still find a few more! But I do say to people, it’s all about creating a canvas, or a sculpture that’s going to act as a canvas. Will it carry the art? Will it enable the artist’s work to show? Because all we’re doing is creating a clever piece of paper that you can put on a street corner as opposed to hang up in a gallery. I’ve had debates with some people who say, “It’s not really art, though, is it?”
Does that bother you?
No, I don’t care! I fell into art. I love art. But my background is in the army! So I appreciate and enjoy art, but I’m not hung up on it. I don’t mind if someone walks around the corner today and bumps into – say – one of our rams along the streets of Derby, rubs their chin and says, “I wonder what the artist was thinking at this stage…”, or if they say, “Oh, my God, that’s a brilliant ram!” and laughs their head off… Because either way is brilliant: they’ve reacted.
So the reaction’s more important than any interpretation?
Absolutely. As long as they’re reacting! I think one of the special things about the events is that you get people connecting who don’t think of themselves as art people at all… And I think that’s really sad because I think anyone can have an engagement with the arts. So I think what our events do is enable artists to have their work seen by a huge audience. Some of our trails will be followed by a million people. Of that million people, I suspect – what? Less than 10% would probably go into an art gallery… I’m making that number up, by the way; I don’t know that as a fact, but my sense is there.
That’s exactly what I’m thinking, Charlie, because it’s part art, it’s part sculpture, it’s part PR stunt, it’s part fundraiser, it’s part exhibition, it’s part licensing…
Well, just on that, the licensing, there are a couple of things. Most of the time, we create a sculpture and we’ll work with an artist or the sculptor, and it’ll be a generic, unlicensed character or thing. For example, we’ve got some rockets in Leicester at the moment. We found the rocket. That’s the rocket we’re using…
It’s fairly generic?
Right. And giraffes we’ve done; we created our own giraffe sculpture; we’ve created elephants… All these things! But when we work with licensees, with people like Penguin Books on The Snowman, or Andersen Press on Elmer, or the folk at Peanuts – because we’ve got Snoopy coming up… What’s important is – whatever we do – it still has to work as a public art trail.
So you turn it down if it doesn’t stand alone?
We do! We’ve been approached by a number of big brands going, “We’ve seen what the trails can do, Charlie; million people following it, break the awareness, blah, blah, blah… We want to do it!” But no; if it doesn’t work as a canvas, it’s not going to work at all. Also, when people approach us about new projects, I say – very early on – “Don’t worry about the sculpture for now…”
No? That’s not the starting place?
No. It’s what everyone thinks about – but it shouldn’t be. It’s the business case you’ve got to get right to start with. We’ve got to make sure it’s going to work for them because – if they’re big projects for charities, say, and they take them on… Well, they need to understand the scale of it. Because pretty much every event, when we get to the end of it, we get comments going, “Oh, my God, I’m so proud to have done this; professionally it’s the most exciting thing I’ve done…”
“I always warn people: this will be bigger than you think!”
But then they say, “I’m absolutely knackered! I had no idea how big it was going to be.” So I always warn people, “This will be bigger than you think!” Also, I think it’s worth mentioning the health and well-being aspects of these trails… When we did our project in Birmingham, the director of public health said it was the single largest health benefit in the city. So yes, it was a load of fibreglass owls, but the number of people out there walking was huge. The research showed 48% of people said it encouraged them to walk more. And when you’ve got a million people doing a trail, that’s a lot of people.
Right! Because you’ve seen this one, and you think, “The next one’s not that far…”
Absolutely. And within the app, we now have a pedometer! So we know – with the Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail project in Scotland – the average distance walked was 11 miles, which is an extraordinary distance. What we’re looking at doing now is incentivising that with milestone rewards. So when you walked three miles, it might pop up, and say, “Congratulations, you’ve walked three miles, here’s a voucher for this, that, or the other.”
But what I’m really keen to avoid is preaching to people. People are going out and they’re enjoying the trail for that really simple pleasure, walk around the corner, bump into a pink elephant… If we can nudge people to think about their health and well-being while they’re doing it, so much the better… But it’s not, “Right: go for a walk now!”
You mentioned earlier that the sculpture itself isn’t the first thing you should think of. Let’s say I’m hemming and hawing, though, and I’m thinking to myself, “Well, maybe our brand would benefit from one of these” how do I sense check myself?
You don’t! You phone me up and ask me!
Ha! Great answer! Listen, I’ll line them up, you knock them down!
I say that only because the number of people who want to do meerkats is crazy… To me, meerkats are just too long and thin. I mean… We have a lot of debates internally, because a meerkat would be really cute. But it’s not that great as a canvas. Inevitably, we’re going to end up doing a meerkat ’cos I’ll get beaten down, I’m sure. But it should be about the surfaces; and to some extent about that ‘hug factor’ and what people will want to buy at auction, particularly for our charities.
The Hug Factor? Can we infer, then, that kids want to throw their arms around some designs more than others?
Exactly. They get hugged a lot, and we have people getting married by them, all this stuff. And while we’ve done, I don’t know, ten, twenty thousand sculptures, we know that when people buy them at auction, they want a pretty one. If they’re buying an enormous rhino, they’re going to open their curtains in the morning, look up the garden… They don’t want to see a rhino with its horn chopped off making a big political statement.
So, it’s that balance. To a certain degree, it’s about touching hearts. It’s a feeling inside, and you go, “That kind of works.” I mean – the book benches weren’t huggable, but the book benches have got people sitting on them, then they have their photos taken. You could sit on them, lounge on them, do a selfie, pose with friends… And you can have so much fun with some of them, like the one that had a picture of Mr. Darcy painted on it, for example.
Similarly, we’re doing lighthouses up in Aberdeen. Now, a lighthouse is not a huggable sculpture. But people LOVE lighthouses! There’s just something about them, and the artwork is beautiful; just stunning. Again, things like our rockets are amazing. Let me show you a couple of pictures of the rockets… How amazing is this one? The artist chopped the top off the rocket and made it a cat in a fish tank!
That’s absolutely brilliant! I love it! People have so see that; I’ll put a link to the event at the end of the interview. And – so wait; that’s made of fibreglass, right? But how are they made? They’re not made by hand?
So what we’ll do is start by making our prototype out of polystyrene… Then, once we’ve got the full-size version, we cover it in fibreglass, take a mould, and then, yes – they’re all laid out by hand.
You’ve mentioned several ongoing trails, but what’s next for you?
Later this year we’re doing a project of which I’m immensely proud, called This is Gratitude, or Gratitude. We’ve got 49 human form sculptures. As always, each one is painted by different artists… And each one reflects stories of lockdown, key workers, NHS and so on. But it’s a bit of a departure for us because instead of trails, we’re actually bringing all the sculptures together in a seven-by-seven square. Then they’re reflected along two sides by two huge mirrors. The effect is the sculptures reflected endlessly to reflect the endless care we’ve received.
So it’s 49 of those people reflected in an infinity mirror?
Yes. And as a member of the public walking around it, you’re also endlessly reflected to say thank you for staying in; for doing the right thing. At the end of it, we then auction off the sculptures for NHS Charities Together.
We’ve had to raise probably half a million pounds from sponsorships to put this on… Not easy in the middle of a global pandemic and worldwide recession. But people have been great and we’re launching that on the 20th of August. It’s in Birmingham for two weeks, then Manchester, then Edinburgh, then London for two weeks.
Well look, Charlie; this has been terrific but I realise I’ve taken up acres of your time! Something I did want to check, though: I understand you make models but when the artists work on them, are they hand-painted?
Yes. What happens is this… All the events are underwritten by sponsorship, so each sculpture is sponsored by different companies. They underwrite the cost of the project, and then we put out a call to artists. We’ve got a pretty significant database, which is always growing, and we say, “Look, we’re doing a rocket project in Leicester” or, “We’ve got Elmer going into Newcastle!” or whatever. The artists then submit designs on a piece of A4 paper… Then the sponsors choose the designs.
And how many submissions do you get to choose from, roughly?
We regularly get 350-450 designs submitted for 50 sculptures. The only rules we have are that designs can’t be overtly commercial, sexual, political or religious. It’s a family show! But it’s very seldom that something comes in that makes us say, “No, that’s not happening.”
Are there any licenses where you’re looking around, thinking, “We’d love to work on that. That would be terrific…”
Crikey! Yes. Well… There are a couple that we’re going to talk to soon, so I’m not going to say too much. But in terms of licensing, we’ve done Gromit from Wallace and Gromit, and Shaun the Sheep, you know… And we love IP like that. I personally think The Gruffalo would be quite exciting. We’ve also had conversations about further developing trails so that they’re more interactive. We have some ideas there that would fit well with licensing.
Final question for you then… What’s the one question I should’ve asked you that I haven’t yet?
“Do you love it?” And the answer is “Absolutely!” If you look at what our events do, there’s nothing not to love… There’s money for charity, they contribute to the economic wellbeing and recovery. They get people out and about, taking exercise, improving health and wellbeing. Our trails seem to appeal to people right the way across society; rich and poor, every gender, every race… Everyone can enjoy the trails.
And why is that, do you think?
Actually, if you strip it right back, what it is – and this sounds really cheesy – is it makes you smile. And the back of that smile is what makes great things happen. Ultimately, we’re in the smile business. We’re about making people smile. So what’s not to love about that? We’re very, very lucky.
Fantastic! Charlie, thanks so much for making time to chat. I love what I’ve seen of your work and I’ll be sure to see more of it this year. Thank you for giving up so much for your time. Oh! I’ll put the link in here to the rockets! https://rocketroundleicester.co.uk/
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