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At Bristol

Location: Bristol, UK

Artists: Tessa Elliot, Nicola Hicks, Lawrence Holofcener, Cathie Pilkington, William Pye, Simon Thomas, David Ward, Sue Webster/Tim Noble


At-Bristol is a new educational visitor attraction which is at the core of a £450 million urban rejuvenation scheme covering 11 acres in Bristol’s Harbourside area, in the city centre. The Harbourside regeneration project was assistedby a substantial grant from the National Lottery via the Millennium Commission. It includes the one of the largest public art commissions programmes in the South West region with works by eight artists integrated into the buildings and the public spaces surrounding them. The commissioned artists include: Tessa Elliot, Nicola Hicks, Lawrence Holofcener, Cathie Pilkington, William Pye,Simon Thomas, David Ward, and Sue Webster and Tim Noble. At-Bristol was fully opened to the public in July 2000.

The main business of At-Bristol is to engage all sections of the community with science and natural history by operating a world-class visitor attraction. Within this mission, the arts are seen as a powerful and effective means of illuminating conceptsand bringing topics to life. The At-Bristol site comprises Wildwalk, Explore and the IMAX® Theatre, a series of public squares and open spaces including the 6500 square metre Millennium Square,shops, cafés and restaurants, and a 500-bay underground car park. Together with the Arnolfini Gallery and Watershed Media Centre, to which it is linked by Pero’s Bridge, designed by Irish artist, Eilis O’Connell, At-Bristol forms part of Bristol’s cultural quarter.

The Commissions

The commissioning programme started in 1998/99, at the same time as the designs for the site were being developed. The commissions are all themed around the concepts of reflection and exploration. They include small-scale painted bronze sculptures Jasmine ,and Bill and Bob by Cathie Pilkington, a large-scale bronze sculpture, Beetle by Nicola Hicks, and figurative bronzes of William Penn,William Tyndale and Thomas Chatterton by Lawrence Holofcener. Works using light include Zenith by David Ward which covers Millennium Square, and a text based work using neon light by Tim Noble and Sue Websterin the underground car park. William Pye’s large landscape piece using water, Aquarena, animates Millennium Square, while Simon Thomas’ sculpture Small Worlds, celebrating prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac, is in Anchor Place. An interactive digital work, Elematrix, by Tessa Eliot is inside the At-Bristol complex. With the exception of the two large works which are integral to Millennium Square, most of the works were made off-site and installed from 1999 and throughout 2000.

Three architects were involved in transformingthe At-Bristol site with new buildings and landscaped open spaces which would complement the existing architectural heritage. Wildwalk and the Imax cinema were designed by Michael Hopkins and Partners, and Chris Wilkinson Architects designed the building for Explore. The open spaces and squares were carefully planned by The Concept Planning Group (CPG) to accommodate the artists’ commissions and to provide areas suitable for live entertainment, such as street performers. CPG was also responsible for overseeing the installation of the commissioned artworks and the subsequent period of snagging and problem resolution.

The works have evoked a strong sense of ownership from local people and an emphatically positive reaction from visiting children and adults.

Key Issues

  • Public art commissioning by a non-artorganisation

    As an organisation which uses the arts as one of the key means of communicating its educational message, but which is not itself an arts organisation, At-Bristol has been involved in a learning curve throughout the commissioning process. The At-Bristol arts manager was responsible for managing the commissioning process, including liaison with the artists and architects over designs, fabrication and installation. Now that the workis installed, responsibility for day-to-day maintenance has passed to the Senior Manager responsible for technology and facilities throughout the organisation. A major lesson for At-Bristol has been that the technical team should have been involved in these technically complex commissions right from their inception.

  • Damage and Repair

    The open spaces around At-Bristol are open to the public day and night and are extremely well used. Regular security checks are an effective deterrent to malicious damage, and there has been surprisingly little vandalism in such a publiclocation. Nonetheless there has been damage to some works.

    • Jasmine, the bronze Jack Russell terrier by Cathie Pilkington, was removed from its fixings and stolen (subsequently found and returned). A second version of the sculpture was reinstalled, but was soon worked loose by vandals, and was removed by At-Bristol for the safety of the public. There are plans now to reinstall the sculpture inside the entrance of Wildwalk, where it can be more closely monitored.
    • The life-sized bronze standing figure of William Penn by Lawrence Holofcener, is in a relatively remote location. Energetic interaction by the public, and perhaps more purposeful activity, has made the work insecure. It has therefore been removed and is to be reinstalled using a much more robust method of fixing.
    • The long thin antennae of Beetle, by Nicola Hicks, were vulnerable in an open air situation. When they were snapped off, new antennae were made and installed, but again were broken. As this would clearly be an ongoing problem, a compromise was agreed with the artist. Screw-in antennae have been cast, which are installed for photographs and special occasions only.
  • Maintenance

    All artworks in public situations will require some kind of maintenance work over the course of time, such as refinishing, repainting and cleaning. At-Bristol, in common with many other owners of public art, including local authorities, did not make specific budgetary provision for this regular upkeep work. The exception to this is the Small Worlds sculpture by SimonThomas which is supported by an annual maintenance grant from theInstitute of Physics for the next ten years.

    Some of the works are already showing signs of normal wear, such as shiny bronze showing through the painted finish of Cathie Pilkington’s bronze sculptures and the black finish of Nicola Hicks’ cast bronze Beetle. The business of At-Bristol is to run a range of exhibits requiring in-house technical expertise, so it is better equipped than most organisations to ensure the security and good condition of its artworks, thus keeping costs down. The team of cleaners and security staff who visit every part of the site daily are a usefu lfrontline resource in ensuring regular checks for wear or damage to the artworks. The workshop team which is responsible for keeping the At-Bristol displays and technology in peak condition can also undertake some physical repairs and re-installation work to the public artworks where needed.

    On a more specialist level, David Ward’s Zenith has a sophisticated computer programme to run the lighting sequences, and William Pye’s Aquarena has both a computer programme anda complex hydraulic system to run the waterjets. Maintenance contracts with specialist suppliers are required for these two works, but as much in-house maintenance is undertaken as possible to minimisethe running costs.

    The artists are consulted when repairs and maintenance are required and, budgets permitting, are paid to carry out such work if they wish to. Alternatively they are asked to advise on the specialist attention required. As part of their contracts, the artists were asked to provide written details of cleaning and maintenance requirements, although this information has not been collected in all cases.


Details of the commissioned works and At-Bristol are available at

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2001.