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Art at the Centre, Reading

Location: Reading, UK

Artists: Bobby Baker, Marc Camille Chaimowicz, Cornford & Cross, Adam Dant, Max Eastley, Iris Garrelfs, Conor Kelly, Kaffe Matthews, Luke McKeown, Melanie Pappenheim, Simon Rackham, Readipop, Scanner, David Ward.


Art at the Centre, Reading aims to involve artists in the regeneration of Reading's city centre, enabling them to be actively involved throughout the process, rather than just "contributing an art work at the end of it". The scheme is managed by Reading Arts and Venues (part of Reading Borough Council's Arts & Leisure Directorate), and operated collaboratively with other RBC departments and with local organisations "to create appropriate contexts for commissioning work". The Arts Council has committed £50,000 per year for four years, a sum matched by RBC with additional funding from other RBC departments, as well as smaller external grants.

The independent visual arts programmer and researcher Jeni Walwin is dedicated director for the project, which is overseen by a steering group including representatives from the fields of urban design, education, art and commerce. At the beginning of the project Walwin wrote an artistic policy identifying the town's established role as a venue for major live music festivals, and as a regional 'skills base' for high-tech industries. Walwin concluded that Reading was thus an appropriate site for commissions incorporating live performance, sound and digital technology. Artists with international reputations and artists based in Reading were short listed and selected by the steering group from a longer preliminary list researched by Walwin. Councillors have been involved in the selection process, and have attended artists' presentations, benefiting from the opportunity to meet the artists face to face.

The Art at the Centre, Reading project has entailed the Arts & Venues section of RBC working very closely with other council departments. Some of the commissions have long term implications which reflect the Art at the Centre scheme's original aim of generating a way of working which becomes embedded and sustainable.


Art at the Centre, Reading is one of the outcomes of a regional Arts Council initiative launched in 2000 by the then Southern Arts, specifically targeted at city and town centres within their geographical remit of South East England. As a result of competitive bidding at that time, the Arts Council entered into three pilot partnerships with local authorities at Bicester, Reading and Slough. Art at the Centre is envisaged as a groundbreaking scheme that sets out to transform the role for artists as animators of a "sense of place" within the process of the regeneration of urban centres. This is to be achieved by introducing the artist's input into planning briefs from the outset, placing artists as equal members of planning teams, and by working within the context of a "new, collaborative practice" bringing together the usually disconnected strategies of local authority planning departments, arts development departments, and private developers. The scheme encourages practical experiments in working "outside normal boundaries" in a way that is "visionary and exploratory".

Reading's commercial growth in recent decades has been achieved at the cost of a diminution of social cohesion, and has done little to rebut the town's abiding poor visitor image. RBC operates a formal Public Art Strategy and has managed its own public art commissions since 1989. In 1998 RBC published a plan for improving and coordinating almost all aspects of the centre of Reading, and has subsequently made great efforts to re-brand the town. The Oracle, a major shopping centre and integrated public space opened in 1999, incorporating a significant amount of Lottery funded public art. The Art at the Centre, Reading initiatives have built upon this track record.

The Commissions

The Art at the Centre, Reading programme divides into two strands, Artists in Context and Art Links. The Artists in Context commissions are long term, high profile collaborations. The Art Links commissions are short-term projects.

Completed Artists in Context project:

  • Ten Banners by Marc Camille Chaimowicz, installed at the newly pedestrianised entrance area to the Oracle Shopping Centre.
  • Operation Owl Club: by Adam Dant - part of RBC's strategy for new signing in Reading centre. Working closely with RBC's transport planning team, Dant has conceived a notional "children's police force", replacing surveillance cameras with a "network of little watchers". During the research and development phase Dant designed and published a workbook for children.
  • Dwelling: a project by David Ward (working with David Moore, RBC's Landscape Architect) as part of the environmental improvements to Friar Street, involving the addition of illuminated stained glass panels to the frontages of 16 buildings above eye level.

Artists in Context projects in progress:

  • The Abolition of Work: working title for project by Cornford & Cross to create a work or series of works reflecting the orientation ofpedestrians moving through the town centre. The project is currently at the consultation and feasibility stage.

The Art Links commissions comprise "unusual and less predictable ways of working with artists". These have included Silence Please!, a site-specific work using digital images and sounds, produced during a school residency by Readipop (a Reading based arts organisation specialising in working with young people); a temporary "kinetic sound drawing" installation by sculptor and musician Max Eastley for Reading Hindu Temple; a new work for the 'sonic armchair' created by composer Kaffe Matthews, sited inside Reading railway station; a site specific installation by sound artist and musician Iris Garrelfs at the Berkshire Record Office; a sampled sound work by scanner, played between screenings at cinemas in Reading; a series of sixteen collectable art works by Reading based Luke McKeown for the backs of tickets on new night bus services; a vocal and instrumental composition by Melanie Pappenheim and Simon Rackham, performed live at the opening of a public pathway marking the course of a hidden waterway; and a performance by live artist Bobby Baker, in collaboration with composer Jocelyn Pook. (The live performances form part of RBC's City Stages programme.) Forthcoming Art Links projects include Reading Holiday, a casting call for a movie of the same name, devised by Adam Dant, and Plainsong, a sound/video work by Conor Kelly for the refurbished church of St. Laurence.

Discussions are also now at an advanced stage between Art at the Centre, Reading and funding partners including the developers AMEC and the Film and Video Umbrella, to commission a major artist's film using as a starting point the changing face of Britain's towns and cities.

Key Issues

  • Separate Project Budget: The project's dedicated budget can be 'brought to the table' by arts officers as a credible, high status vehicle with which to engineer equal collaboration with other departments in regeneration projects, and even to set the agenda for such projects.
  • Freelance Project Director: RBC intended initially to create an internal post for a Project Manager, but subsequently opted instead for employing a freelance professional. They feel that the project has benefited from having a director, supported by Kerry Duggan, Project Co-ordinator, both unconfined by the day-to-day concerns of working within a local authority context. Jeni Walwin has also brought to the project her special interest and authoritative knowledge of live art and other hybrid practices, together with considerable experience in managing the risks attached to presenting time-based art projects.
  • Support Programme: Part of the original Arts Council strategy for Art at the Centre identified the programming of related seminars and study visits for councillors and team members as "learning events". Some of these events are organised regionally by the Arts Council, and others locally by the pilot authorities. A Creative Spaces seminar was organised by the Arts Council for local authorities across the region, and a study visit to the Phoenix Project in Coventry. Art at the Centre, Reading organised a further visit to Coventry for the project's steering group, together with team members from Art at the Centre, Slough. This was found to be beneficial not only for enabling the participants to see how another city was engaging with artists' input into a regeneration project, but equally valuable as an opportunity to spend time with the team from Slough.
  • Crossing Art Form Boundaries: The works of most of the artists taking part in this scheme are difficult to categorise, crossing boundaries between installation art, live art, sound art, visual theatre, and other non-gallery visual art practices. This is the most distinctive aspect of the Reading pilot scheme, as such hybrid art works do not usually find a place within the context of public art. This might have proved problematic had the project been based within a different funding context dedicated to the support of particular art mediums. However, set within the exploratory framework of the Art at the Centre scheme, and within the context of urban design rather than public art, the central factor was the quality and appropriateness of each project, rather than its taxonomy.


For full details of the Art at the Centre, Reading commissions:

For further enquiries about Art at the Centre, Reading:

Tammy Bedford, Arts Manager, Reading Borough Council:

Tel: 0118 939 0394

Email: [email protected]

For enquiries about the Art at the Centre project as a whole:

Annie Atkins, Arts & Regeneration Officer, Arts Council England, South East

Tel: 01273 76 3035

Email: [email protected]

© Copyright David Briers 2004