Feature

Next Stop, Plymouth: Contemporary Art & Iconic Public Sculpture in Britain’s Ocean City

22 May 2024

by Suzie Jones

In partnership with GWR. Your art adventure starts here.

With contemporary art rubbing up against the historic buildings of this seaport city, and picturesque walk and cycle routes to help you explore, we encourage you to make a journey to Plymouth in Devon this summer.

Dubbed "Britain's Ocean City", Plymouth is rich in maritime history and has the architecture and industrial relics to prove it. You may not consider it the obvious art hotspot, but take a GWR train directly from London Paddington, through the lush greenery of the south westerly counties, and you'll find yourself somewhere with exciting contemporary art and public sculpture aplenty.

Visit Experimental and Artist-led Spaces

As a major commercial shipping centre, Plymouth’s industrial units and cavernous Regency buildings have been ripe for use as artists' studios, galleries, and associated amenities. With a number of art colleges across the South West, it's no wonder that graduates have stayed local, founding venues, curating, and producing work.

Launched just three years ago, MIRROR is a public gallery and events space based at the Arts University Plymouth Campus, right in the middle of the city. Since 2006 the space has acted as Arts University Plymouth's public gallery, and this bold new vision for the space continues the legacy. With a curatorial team hailing from the South West, MIRROR has a broad remit—it produces exhibitions and commissions new work, and is dedicated to supporting not only artists, but the region's wider arts ecology. It's a brilliant first stop-off, with a high-quality programme and a beautiful space to rival any larger city venue. Currently, Harriet Bowman's solo show 'Taking Care of the Yolk' is an impressive exhibition of sound and sculptural works that evoke slippery narratives of the everyday.

Round the corner, Grow Plymouth describes itself as “an independent ecosystem of studios and event space, based in the cultural quarter of Plymouth”. Though not open to the public daily, its ground floor space hosts a programme of alternative events, including talks, exhibitions and workshops, which reflect the venue’s community-led ethos.

A half-hour walk or a ten-minute cycle away, KARST is another ambitious contemporary art space. Situated in a tidy, industrial unit in the docks area, behind the black, minimal exterior is a huge gallery space, flooded with natural light. Housing the gallery and a number of visual artists, KARST places experimentation and ambition at the heart of its programme. The current show “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” has an international outlook, featuring painters from the UK and US.

Explore Exceptional Arts Institutions

Opened just four years ago, The Box is the city’s largest visual arts venue and has made its mark with an impressive programme of exhibitions, events, and public outreach projects. The building itself is incredible - a huge, glistening cuboid which sutures together the old baroque museum and art gallery, and mid-century extension.

Also part of the venue is St Luke’s Church - redeveloped as an additional exhibition space, which brings the total number of galleries at The Box to six. Perfectly encapsulating the palimpsestic nature of a port city, no trip to Plymouth would be complete without a visit. Current shows include “Beyond the Page: South Asian Miniature Painting and Britain, 1600 to Now” and “John Akomfrah: Arcadia”, a major new multi-screen film commission, exploring the transfer of plants, animals, people, commodities, diseases, and ideas between the ‘New World’ and the ‘Old World’ from the 1400s onwards.

Located at Plymouth University, The Arts Institute plays a pivotal role in presenting arts and culture to the public. Housed in another architecturally impressive building, the Institute is currently hosting the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. Handy, if you missed it the first time around, but also a good reference point for the high quality of work delivered by the institute. The programme intersects with the university’s various research departments, and alongside its films and live performances, hosts talks and workshops by artists, scientists, historians and poets.

Trail around Iconic Public Artworks on Foot or by Bike

Port towns and cities seem to inspire public art commissions. Whether inspired by their patchworked history, ongoing cultural complexity or as a way to punctuate the grey dockland architecture, these works offer ways into a place's history and character. Plymouth has an incredible number of public artworks, commissioned by the city council and other bodies over the decades. Helpfully, our friends at The Box picked out a few that are must-sees.

Arriving by train, head west from Plymouth Station to Victoria Park, and you'll find Richard Deacon's gargantuan “Moor”, an 80 ft long, painted, mild steel loop sculpture. Sitting atop a set of brick railway pillars, the form resembles an old bicycle inner tube. Take it in from the bowling green and its juxtaposition with the diminutive club buildings might make you of the opinion that it's Deacon's finest public sculpture.

On the other side of town down by the docks, take in The Leviathan (affectionately known as the Barbican Prawn), Stella Maris (described delightfully as the sea-worn Madonna) and the iconic St James’s Scallop, which marks Plymouth's status as one of only two ports licensed by the Crown as a set-off point for pilgrims making their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

If you have time, head to the city suburb of Efford to see the Efford Heritage Sign. Designed by artist Thomas Goddard in collaboration with local residents and school pupils, this re-imagined pub signpost rotates a series of signboards throughout the year, in memory of the area's well-loved characters and traditions.

Get Hands-on at Creative Hubs and Maker Spaces

Alongside Plymouth’s rich assortment of public arts venues, an equally abundant number of artist and maker spaces host one-off workshops and courses. A long weekend in the city could include a poster printing session at Real Art Make Print, an eco-dyeing workshop at Union Corner or a pickling workshop at The Plot.

For something even more involved, The Crafts Workshop offers one-off blacksmithing lessons, and Flameworks runs a range of hands-on workshops from ceramics, to jewellery making, spoon-carving, and our favourite… “intuitive sculpting”.

Throughout Plymouth’s visual arts spaces, you get the sense that this is a community of creatives willing to share vital skills, ideas, and resources needed to enable the local arts ecology to thrive. The result is a city that feels dynamic, open and full of opportunity for anyone who invests their time here. And with the upcoming bank holiday and summer lying ahead, we say book your travel now, and make your next stop Plymouth.

→ The South West Art Travel Companion: A GWR-Partnered Guide to Exploring the South West, West, and South Wales

Thanks to our partnership with GWR, this guide brings the art-filled landscapes of the South West, West, and South Wales to your doorstep. Travel from one art exhibition to another, discovering how art transforms within the context of its environment. Embrace the convenience of booking ahead and travelling during quieter times with GWR Railcards, tailored for explorers young and seasoned. Plan your journey here.

Great Western Railway and ArtRabbit South West Art Companion

→ More exhibitions and events in Bristol, Exeter, Falmouth, Swansea, Plymouth and more

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