Warwickshire is a county that has always placed great emphasis on public artwork and appreciation of the arts, with many different projects and institutions championing it.
Whether it’s permanent venues such as the RSC and Compton Verney attracting visitors from miles around, or public art projects including Culture Fest in Warwick District and Polesworth Poets Trail in North Warwickshire – art is everywhere in the county.
Our Spaces is yet another example, with installations in seven towns across the length and breadth of Warwickshire.
Each piece is reflective of the town and the space it is in. Some are in urban settings, and others are in green spaces.
But each has its own connection to its location after residents were asked to provide the artists with notes and feelings around what their towns meant to them.
So, while Our Spaces is a Warwickshire-wide project, each piece is still very much tailored to its location.
Emma Andrews, Delivery Lead for Heritage & Culture at Warwickshire County Council, felt a balance needed to be struck when delivering a public art project for the whole of the county.
She said: “Warwickshire is a diverse county with a range of landscapes, towns and communities – all of whom have their own unique cultural identity. Because of this, the project needed to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach.
“Art in any format is going to prompt differing responses, and we have to accept that some of the pieces within Our Spaces are more liked than others. As the commissioner, we needed to focus on the level of engagement and quality of the outcome.
“What I think Our Spaces did so well was give early career artists a chance to make their mark on our towns in Warwickshire.
“Many of the artists were local to Warwickshire, so the project is not only a way to enhance our public spaces, but to provide an opportunity for artists who are either in the early stages of their career or who have never worked in the public realm before the chance to make work that is relevant to their local community.
“Each piece is so different to the other, and it has been fantastic to see the wide variety of styles this project has produced.”
Our Spaces is the latest in a long list of public art projects and festivals within the county.
One recent project was Culture Fest in Warwick District, which was held earlier this year to coincide with Leamington Spa hosting the Lawn Bowls in the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games.
Part of the project audited the various pieces of public art within the district – whether they be sculptures, paintings, or street art – in an interactive map and trail that people could follow.
Johnathan Branson, Projects and Development Manager (Arts) at Warwick District Council, led on the project.
He said: “The audit of public art we undertook within the district made us realise just how much variety we had in a relatively small geographical area.
“From the Millennium Globe sculpture in Kenilworth to the ‘Queen of the Canal’ mural in Leamington, there is a rich mix of styles and artforms dotted around our four towns.
“Delving into old press articles, the audit also reminded us that not every artwork in our district was universally liked at the time it was unveiled.
“But that is not to say the district is not appreciative of the artwork it has. Public art should challenge people’s perceptions of the spaces and places they are installed by encouraging the viewer to see the world through different lenses.
“They are also brilliant at bringing new energy and focus to an area, positively contributing to its identity. Not only that, public artwork should impress visitors too.
“It was especially wonderful to see visitors’ reactions to some of the public artwork when they visited for the Commonwealth Games.
“Many people would have seen Stacey Barnfield’s ‘The Royal Leamington Spa Colour Palette’ as they left the railway station to see the lawn bowls and para bowls, and plenty were very impressed.
“The county council’s Our Spaces project is achieving similar things for Warwickshire. Each piece is mindful of the space it’s in, and definitely challenges perceptions. I doubt each piece is universally liked too, but I’m confident residents and visitors alike will embrace the individual works.”
Indeed, Warwickshire’s reaction to events such as the Commonwealth Games and Coventry City of Culture is part of a general shift in attitudes towards cultural projects across the country.
This is the view of Professor Jonothan Neelands PhD, Professor of Creative Education at the Warwick Business School (WBS) and Academic Lead for Research and Evaluation Coventry UK City of Culture 2021.
He led the Warwick City of Cultures project which is concerned with how culture leads to impacts that address the specific needs of a place and its diverse communities. It received 71 expressions of interest, 44 submitted bids and 17 shortlisted cities and towns.
Jonothan said: “People assume it is only large cities or towns that can develop and invest in public art – but it is not necessarily more difficult to for small towns. And Warwickshire’s towns proved that with recent events.
“Just look at how the county grasped the initiative in that way with so many different projects during City of Culture, the Commonwealth Games, and the late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.
“If you then look further afield to Bradford City of Culture 2025, and Wakefield’s revised plans for 2024 after it missed out, there is huge belief in art and culture driving regeneration. That is a massive shift in attitude.
“And in our Warwick City of Cultures project, our respondents ranged in size and profile but what they have in common is that they believe in culture-led regeneration to help achieve their ambitions.
“Our Spaces is just another way the county is using an artistic project to drive civic pride and create a buzz about its towns.”