Big Things on the Beach

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2007/8 Public Art Course: A Participants Experience

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Wonder, by Hill Jephson RobbFirstly, a bit of background about me. I have lived in Portobello for almost nine years and work as a Human Resources Administrator. My interests are music, theatre, old movies, travel, walking in our amazing countryside and although not being a creative person, I appreciate art in its many different forms.

My husband is the creative half of our partnership and is a keen photographer. We both went to see the launch of "WONDER" in midsummer, the temporary artwork by Hill Jephson Robb, which was commissioned by the Big Things on the Beach (BTOTB) Public Art Course participants of 2006/07. We both loved it.

Click below to read on for more of Irene Morrice's course report. This report is part of the 2007-08 Public Art commissioning course.

As the nights started to draw in, I began to consider taking up an evening class. I considered the usual things: learning a new language, badminton, pottery etc. It was my husband who suggested enrolling on the BTOTB Public Art Course in Portobello. I thought it was a brilliant idea, the idea of helping to commission a cutting edge piece of public art for Portobello, while at the same time getting to know other Portobello residents.

On Wednesday 5 September, I attended the Open Evening, where I met Damien Killen, the Chairperson of BTOTB and Caroline Muirhead. BTOTB is a community led public arts trust composed of local residents in Portobello. Founded in 2004, Big Things on the Beach has commissioned three substantial, temporary public artworks and as part of their two year Arts Council funding programme they developed and implemented two Public Art Commissioning Courses for local people. I also met, Caroline Muirhead, our course tutor and the Public Art Development Worker for the Trust and my fellow course participants (14 in total).

From September 2007 until May 2008 we met as a group almost every Wednesday evening for two hours. We developed our knowledge of public art in its various forms, learned about the commissioning process for Public Art and were involved in the selection of a temporary artwork for Portobello Beach which was due to be launched in Summer 2008.

The course was an inspiration and a substantial commitment. In one of the early sessions, the participants were asked to bring in examples of their favourite temporary and permanent public artworks. It was great to see everyone's ideas and it promoted a lively discussion. My favourite piece of permanent public art at that time was "The Angel of the North" but I knew nothing about the artist who created it. I now know his name is Anthony Gormley and the course has inspired me to go and seek out some of his other pieces, particularly "Another Place" on Crosby beach, Liverpool.

I learned that public art should be site specific, so a group visit to Portobello's beachfront with Margaret Munro, who is both a local resident and the Secretary of the Portobello History Society, helped us learn more about the history of Portobello and started us thinking about the different issues which could affect a public artwork on the beach. In retrospect, we should have given more thought to these issues when commissioning our temporary artwork, as the tides would prove to be a vital factor affecting our final choice.

Meeting Ettie Spencer, a local artist and finding out about her own personal experience of planning and installing various public artworks was inspiring. Ettie has recently been exploring issues related to displacement and migration, which has led her to use tents and the house in her work as universally recognised symbols of shelter. Ettie's artwork provoked a strong reaction within the group – there were pieces people loved, such as "Changing Places", "Shadow Land" and "METAL HOUSE" (a roofless house in North Uist, clad in aluminium) and those that provoked mixed reaction, such as "Crossing the Line" (ten upright vacuum cleaners cast in builders foam launched on the high seas). Many were concerned about the environmental implications of this piece. I admired Ettie's work – art should never be boring!


As well as meeting local artists and discussing public art, we were given the tremendous opportunity to see Public Art in situ. Within Edinburgh and the surrounding area, there were trips to "Little Sparta", a garden set within the Pentland Hills created by the artist Ian Hamilton Finlay incorporating his own works; and a trip to "Powderhall Bronze" where we learnt about the "lost wax" bronze casting process. I missed this particular trip but others have commented that they consider it to be one of the course highlights.

We were also given the opportunity to go on an all expenses paid Public Art Study Trip to either Liverpool, Berlin or Barcelona. Some members of the group went on all three trips! I opted to go to Berlin – I knew little about Berlin except being aware of a real buzz about the city. During our trip, we met local artists Susa Pop and Ela Kegal from "Public Art Lab" and local artist Thorsten Goldberg. We also saw various nationally significant public artworks. There were those reminding us of the horrors of war, such as the "Reichstag Memorial" and the "Holocaust Memorial". However, there were also some very positive site specific works. Jurgen Goertz’ "Rolling Horse", located outside Berlin's main railway station symbolises the freedom of travel while "Balloon Flower" by Jeff Koons situated in Berlin's trendy Potsdamer Platz was, for me, a symbol of hope for the future.

In addition to being exposed to new artworks and putting them into their national context, the trip was a fantastic way to get to know other members of the group. This trip was definitely the highlight of the course for me!

In order to select our temporary artwork for Portobello beach, we had to create a brief, which we did with the assistance of Kate Gray, a local artist and Arts Commissioner. The brief called for artists to create a new temporary artwork which would;

"engage the local community and which would be a meaningful and fun temporary addition to Portobello’s cultural landscape"

Marion Smith, a Scottish artist who has successfully realised a number of permanent public commissions from Brittany to Shetland, helped us prepare for the shortlisting process. She showed us examples of past proposals and explained the importance of developing initial ideas with maquettes, models and photographs. She also explained how important it was to be able to realise an idea to completion.

A total of twenty four artists applied for the commission this year. The group spent a very lively evening looking at all the proposals. The following week, we applied all we had learned over the preceding weeks to shortlist the twenty four artists down to an initial group of ten. It was important to ensure that applicants understood what was meant by the term "public art" and that they adhered to our creative brief. We turned down artworks which were not considered fun or "cutting edge" and also those that were thought to be community art rather public art. Although I was unable to attend the meeting to create the final shortlist of three artists, I was pleased to see that two of my top three were included in the final shortlist.


We selected an interview panel made up of four members of our group, chaired by a trustee of BTOTB. We also created interview questions. On the 9th April, the group met early to interview the three shortlisted artists. Each artist did a ten minute presentation to the whole group before going to interview. While the interview was being conducted, the remaining group members devised an additional two questions based on the presentations, which were passed to the interview panel to ask as supplementary questions. This was considered to be a way of making those members of the group that were not on the interview panel feel involved in the final selection process, although I think it remains a weakness that the whole group were unable to participate more fully at this stage.

Immediately after the interviews, the interview panel was tied between two artists, and it was up to the remaining group members to make the final selection. We felt that one of the final two had presented a more fully realised presentation and an artist was selected for the commission on this basis.

The group was excited about the forthcoming launch of the forthcoming artwork and in the following week the group discussed how we would publicise the artwork. However, when we met on 30th April to evaluate the course, we were given some very disappointing news – the artist had regrettably decided to withdraw from the commission. This difficult decision came following several failed structural tests and based on the often low swell of the tides at Portobello, the artist decided that the particular sound effects needed for this piece could not be achieved. As a group, this is probably something which we should have considered before selecting this particular artwork.


Although it was a hard decision, we decided not to commission any of the other short listed artists but instead a sub-group will be formed to commission smaller scale temporary artworks in conjunction with the BTOTB Portobello Garden Gallery project taking place in August 2008. This new project aims to create a month long exhibition of contemporary art, in front gardens located in Portobello, in the area between the High Street/Joppa Road, Kings Road and Portobello Promenade. The exhibition will be presented as part of the annual Edinburgh Art Festival and will be concurrent with the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and other cultural events which attract substantial numbers of tourists to the City. This is the stage we have reached at the point of writing this piece. The group will meet shortly to decide how to take this project forward.

At the end of the course the group had the opportunity to evaluate the whole course both individually and as a group. I feel Caroline Muirhead delivered an exciting, diverse course full of fun and lively discussion and I feel I have made new friends along the way.


One of my personal aims at the beginning of this course was to help commission an exciting public artwork for Portobello beach. It is a shame that I feel that this now won’t be achieved on the scale that we had first imagined. However, I had also wanted to learn about the commissioning process and to be more involved with the community. This, I have achieved.

Thank you Big Things on the Beach and a big thank you to Caroline Muirhead. This was a unique opportunity and one which I hope will be repeated in other communities throughout Britain.

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 March 2010 23:23  

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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.

Our current project - The Big Welcome - is supported by Creative Scotland, Portobello & Craigmillar Neighbourhood Partnership and Edinburgh City Libraries