Big Things on the Beach is a public art trust in Portobello, a seaside suburb close to the city centre of Edinburgh, Scotland. It was formed by a group of residents in 2003 to explore the potential of the seafront as a site for engagement with public artworks by both emerging and established artists.
Since 2004 we have commissioned artists to create substantial temporary artworks, trained ourselves and others in the process of commissioning public artworks through international site visits and guest lectures and successfully raised funding to these ends.
When we initially got together to talk about what we could do to make Portobello an even more lively and interesting place to live, we looked at what Barcelona, Sydney and other cities have done to make their waterfronts a major attraction for visitors. We wondered why Portobello doesn’t have the same level of recognition as Edinburgh’s City Beach. We noticed that the most exciting waterfront developments around the world have involved artists in imagining how places can express their distinctiveness and lift the human spirit, so we decided to organise ourselves so that we would be able to involve artists in re-imagining Portobello Promenade. In 2004 we registered Big Things on the Beach as a charitable trust with the purpose of promoting Portobello Beach as a site for the creation and presentation of cutting edge, contemporary public art.
When we began to tell people what we were planning to do the first question we were commonly asked was, ‘Will the art be permanent?’ We knew that we wanted to make a long lasting difference to Portobello but we decided to invite artists to create a number of temporary works. This would give us an opportunity to assess peoples’ reactions to different kinds of artwork. We would also avoid the problems of having a growing collection of artworks to maintain. Whatever happens, we think there will always be a place for temporary work which allows us and artists to experiment and take risks.
Funding sources have changed over the last couple of years and we are hosting Imagine Portobello 3 to explore the future development of arts and culture in Portobello
In 2004 we approached the Scottish Arts Council and the local Neighbourhood Partnership for funding to enable us to commission an artist to create an artwork on the beach. With support from the Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop we set up an open recruitment process which invited artists working in any format to present us with proposals. Since then, the selection of artists to create new work has been done by local people who are active in Big Things on the Beach. Our first selection was Rennie Nisbett who created ‘Blue Moon’, a tidally driven lunar clock designed to reflect the phases of the moon. This ambitious project was not fully realised but the array of ‘pink dots’ on the water, rising and falling with the tide, attracted lots of debate. One highlight of the work was a picnic to witness the ‘Blue Moon’, the second full moon of the calendar month.
In 2005, we commissioned Harvie and Hosie to make ‘Progression’, a series of windsocks at the ends of five groins along the length of Portobello Beach. The designs reflected some of the manufacturing history of Portobello. References to the materials commonly used in the area were placed at the Promenade end of the groins. This was a ‘quieter’ artwork, which we thought might have been unnoticed by many people on the Promenade. However, when the time came for it to be removed, we were petitioned to retain it.
In 2006 and, again, in 2007 we delivered a course in commissioning public art to a total of 30 participants, some of whom were already involved in Big Things on the Beach and others who were intrigued by what we were doing but not already involved. With funding from the Scottish Arts Council Lottery Fund, we were able to employ a part-time development worker, Caroline Muirhead, to organise and deliver the course and to establish a temporary base for Big Things on the Beach in the Portobello Community Centre. A number of graduates from the course have become Trustees of Big Things on the Beach and others have formed the core of the Public Art Commissioning Group which now leads on our artist selection process.
Trustees selected the first two commissions but, with the inception of the Public Art Commissioning Course, we delegated the decision making to course participants. In 2007 this group selected the artist Hill Jephson Robb to create ‘Wonder’ - three substantial pyramids on Portobello Beach. Jephson designed this work as a major community involvement initiative, sending postcard invitations out to 15,000 local households to participate in filling the sandbags of which the pyramids were constructed. This artwork was a centre of activity for hundreds of children after school and for many youths and adults in the evening and at weekends. The work raised numerous questions about the use of space, who the work was for and the relationship between vandalism and play. Although the work – which was intended to be temporary – remained intact for only a short while after its completion, the site of the artwork was inhabited by children and others making their own sand sculptures for many weeks. The following year, the City Council’s beach maintenance team spontaneously began to build mounds of sand for the children to play on.
As a community commissioning artists our prime interest is not in creating new artspaces or galleries or in exhibiting artists’ work. We are more interested in building creative relationships with artists which will reveal unusual aspects of our community and environment and generate new possibilities for the future. In order to achieve this we want as many people as possible in the community to become familiar with collaborating with artists in different ways. One response to this was the creation of the Garden Gallery in 2008. This project set out to involve local households and artists in the presentation of artworks in local front gardens. Because of the complexity of the project we selected Amber Roome Contemporary Arts, composed of Amber Roome and Duncan Bremner, as curators to organise and deliver the project on our behalf. With funding from the Gulbenkian Foundation and others we were able to present the work of thirty artists and to create a popular event which was featured in the programme of the Edinburgh Art Festival.
In 2009, we decided to focus on the collaborative aspect of the Garden Gallery and selected three artists to work with groups of households to create works which transcend individual gardens and which engage the wider community.
Six years on from our first meetings we hope that we have established the idea of Big Things on the Beach as a regular fixture in the life of the Portobello Community. With this current Imagine Porty Prom project, we’re continuing to engage that community as well as other users of the prom, in our vision of Portobello Promenade as an exciting and innovative site for the creation and presentation of public art.
Big Things on the Beach is a Charity Registered in Scotland (Scottish Charity Number: SC 35107)