Plymouth: The South West’s New Art Capital?

Plymouth is a city on a mission, but its race to success is not without competition.

Rewind to June 2013, and Plymouth had just failed in its attempt to be shortlisted for the 2017 UK City of Culture award. Had money-spinning been the sole aim of this endeavour, anything artistic would surely have been rubbed from the drawing board. But this was about creating something valuable, not something expensive – and the city’s cultural board were not going to sit back and accept their ship had sailed. Knowing they had all the foundations for a flourishing arts scene, and a growing roster of creative talent, they simply straightened their rudder, and stiffened their resolve. Today – with May having seen the inauguration of the Plymouth Fringe Festival, and this month bringing the opening of a multi-million pound artists’ residence in Ocean Studios – it’s clear the battle lost inspired an even greater will to succeed. After all, although the famous port may not be used to winning art competitions, it is used to winning wars.

Golden Hindsight

Plymouth has, and will always have, a rich maritime history. As the British Empire grew, so did the importance of Plymouth as a hub for trade and a jump-off point for Britannia’s relentless colonial ambition. The spoils were enough to furnish the city’s own golden era, the wealth eventually transforming Devonport into the largest naval port in Western Europe. But by 1941, centuries of living by the sword wreaked their inevitable consequences, courtesy of Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Plymouth lost well over a thousand of its sons and daughters in the raids, a grim truth commemorated by what remains one of city’s most well-known monuments: the stark and incongruous remains of Charles Church.

Though the blackened, decapitated church may be a scar, it’s a poignant one proclaiming sacrifice and bravery. And as far as scars go, they’re the ones you’re quite happy to show off. What doesn’t sit so comfortably is the other legacy of the ‘40s – the economic downturn of a post-war, post-empire, post-industrial port, struggling to establish its place in the modern world. Those parts of Plymouth that were forged in its heyday are undeniably beautiful, but the more you concentrate on the past, the less relevant you are to the present – and the further from reality you become in the future. So, if your reputation is all at sea, where do you go for a fresh identity? Well, it’s a far cry from naval prowess, but if you’re out for a vibrant new look, the arts are always a sensible place to start.

Meet the new Plymouth

If you’re going to become a hub for the arts, you need a hub for the artists. From the start, that’s been the mantra of Ocean Studios – Plymouth’s new major arts project, funded by the EU, the UK Arts Council, Plymouth City Council and English Heritage. The city have quite literally put their money where their mouth is, with this £4.2million development within the Royal William Yard – the former naval victualling depot, constructed nearly 200 years ago, where the Tamar meets the Channel. The idea is to build up a concentrated community of artists by providing stunning but ultra-affordable studios, creating an enclave of cross-pollination. The first 31 of these studios have already been designated to their new residents, and the move-in date is currently set for late July. The Royal William Yard itself, meanwhile, is really the flagship for Plymouth’s ongoing gentrification, and its newfound allure of trendiness has been seeping into a surrounding naval quarter that has so long been starved of affluence. Devonport, Stonehouse, even Union street are now blossoming as areas of investment, with projects like Genesis increasingly taking root.

With a bait like Ocean Studios though, Plymouth will surely find it far easier to reel in talent. In fact, it already has done, with artists coming from as far afield as Switzerland. That’s not to say the city has to attract established artists from elsewhere in order to gain a name for itself. Plymouth College of Art is one of the UK’s few remaining dedicated art colleges outside the capital. Plymouth University, too, offers a huge array of courses within the arts spectrum, from Dance Theatre to Interior Design. Art being something that relies on the novelty and freshness of its offering, it’s vital that Plymouth fosters a healthy environment for the development of young, emerging talent – something it already has in droves. And given the investors, this is a clear move not just by the city, but by national and even international arts patrons, to try to keep the next generation from washing up on the shores of the Thames.


Plymouth's Royal William Yard
Plymouth’s Royal William Yard


Creaming-off city crops

With rental costs at Ocean Studios set at an absolute minimum, the idea is not just to encourage the working-together of a resident, visible artistic community, but also to encourage young artists to stick around. “About 600 artists graduate from the art college and the university every year”, according to project co-founder, Jen Jayarajah. “But they don’t stay here due to the lack of facilities. So we knew there would be a high demand”. Of course, facilities are one thing, but cost of living is another. Life in the capital can tend to inspire four letter reviews, as you start to discover the price you’re paying for the privilege – often at the expense of pretty much any recreational space at all. Not ideal if you ply your trade on a five-by-eight-foot canvas.

And it’s not just a question of whether you can afford to stay in London – there’s also the matter of whether the studios can. Organisations like ACAVA, who provide studios through privately rented space, are struggling to stay afloat, as the tidal wave of property prices surges outward from the city’s commercial epicentre. Privately rented studio space is being lost to development, for sale at a premium. As Duncan Smith, artistic director of Acava, warns, “the situation is becoming critical. In the 12 months starting from six months ago we will have lost 200 studios. Traditionally, we rented premises for five, 10 or 15 year terms, but suddenly they are all disappearing at once.”

However cut-throat it is, though, London does offer the type of networking opportunities that almost anywhere else in the world must bow down to. Even so, a relatively small, close-knit community, like Ocean Studios aims to be, can at least provide a viable alternative for studio space. If Plymouth can cultivate the right atmosphere, there’s no doubt investors will follow – and the hype phase has begun in earnest.

What else is new?

For starters, there’s the Art Weekender in September. It’s set to feature international, national and local artists showing work in established galleries, as well as ‘pop-up’ spaces in empty shops. Organised by Visual Arts Plymouth (VAP), it’ll showcase the work of fourteen local arts bodies, including Plymouth University, Plymouth College of Art (formerly PCAD), the City Museum and Art Gallery, Plymouth Arts Centre, Ocean Studios, and galleries Radiant and KARST. Information at the moment is fairly sparse, but there’s little doubt it will offer a variety and concentration of art exhibition not seen in the city before.

Meanwhile, for those whose design talent lies in the digital arts, there’s the opening of the re-imagined Devonport Market Hall to look forward to, scheduled for the end of 2016. The former MOD property has been given back to the city, and is being redesigned as a real-life forum for young gaming and technology talent to mix with start-ups. All of which will occur under the nurturing influence of social enterprise, with a host of big names from technology and education within the region putting in to the project. It’s set to become “a fantastic, unique, world-class digital arts, enterprise and technology facility”, says Lindsey Hall, CEO of social enterprise and project leaders RIO (the Real Ideas Organisation). “A 21st century type of market that is all about communication, exchanging ideas and a focal point for the community in Devonport.”

Ex competitors

Of course, if Plymouth is to be the art capital of the South West, it has some pretty stiff competition. Bristol has a firmly established image as a creative hub; indeed, with the contributions from the likes of Banksy and Aardman animations, artistry in some form is commonly considered its main draw. But with the sheer number of creative agencies that have set up in the city, it’s becoming slightly more mainstream than perhaps is healthy, for a destination that thrives on the alternative. All great art, after all, relies on authenticity – and financial agendas are generally quite corrosive to that. As Dom Jinks – Executive Director of the Plymouth Culture Board puts it, “Bristol has reached saturation point. Plymouth is becoming the alternative centre in the whole South West.” Perhaps already, it’s is becoming to Bristol what Bristol is to London.

Plymouth is also looking in rather better shape than Exeter, artistically speaking, partly thanks to an acquisition it made back in 2008: Exeter College of Art and Design; now relocated to Plymouth University. And to add salt to the wound, Exeter’s leading contemporary art gallery, SpaceX, has recently had its funding withdrawn from the Arts Council. But even without Exeter as the arts hub it once was, Plymouth still has to compete with the likes of Falmouth and St Ives – smaller towns that already have nationwide kudos as arts havens.

But the peninsula is a big place, is Ben Borthwick, Plymouth Arts Centre’s new Artistic Director, was keen to point out on his arrival last year. “With the pressure on Exeter, that really makes Plymouth the hub. There are big gaps in the visual arts between St Ives and Bristol, and Plymouth has a vital place as a stepping stone between those”. With inspiration flowing from its natural beauty, and the bountiful space on offer, the South West has the capacity to give London food for thought. For those artists who prefer the great outdoors, a regular trail along the region’s famously scenic railway could prove a rather more tempting commute than a subterranean traipse across the capital. And as a natural stopping point on that journey, Plymouth has chance to charm them into staying a while longer.

Art hanging in the balance

If you’re still feeling doubtful about Plymouth’s credentials as a boiling pot for the arts’ next big thing, it’s important to recognise that this is far more than just a flash in the pan for the city’s ambitions. Plymouth nailed its colours to the mast this February, with the opening of Plymouth School of Creative Arts – Plymouth College of Art’s affiliate school, for children aged 4-16 – yet another bold statement from the city, and this time showing its commitment to the arts over an even longer term. Indeed, in opening the school – one of only a handful in the country – it’s setting a precedent that goes very much against the status quo.

It’s fair to say Plymouth has gone all-in on this one, perhaps hoping to scare away some of the smaller fish with the sight of its impressive pile of chips. It’s a gamble, but if it pays off, it’s one that could change the face of the city for decades to come – especially if economic policy continues to knock the arts ever further down the national agenda. In twenty years’ time Plymouth could find itself less of a competitor in the battle for creative cutting edge, and more an oasis in the battle for creative survival.


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