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The Great Promenade Show

Location: Blackpool, UK

Artists: Liam Curtin, Wendy Jones, and Michael Trainor of The Art Department (lead artists), Sir Peter Blake, Peter Freeman, John Gooding, Stephen Hurrel, Chris Knight, Ian McChesney (architect), Bruce McLean, William McLean (architect) Tony Stallard, Bruce Williams.


The Great Promenade Show originated from the major redevelopment undertaken by the then Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to replace and strengthen the 2km long South Promenade's seawall flood defences. This £20 million project entailed removing the existing Victorian promenade and replacing it with a new well-designed concrete promenade on two levels. The upper level was to incorporate 'roundels' every hundred metres, on which it was intended to site specially designed features, including wind shelters and visual displays possibly representative of the history of Blackpool. A Millennium Lottery bid was made by the Council to this end, though a commitment to start building had to be made before the outcome of the bid was known. The bid was unsuccessful, but the sites for visual features along the new promenade remained, as did the Council's commitment to occupying them. At this point, responsibility for managing the project shifted from the Council's Technical Services Department to its Education, Leisure and Cultural Services Division.

Commissioning Process

The resultant public art project has been managed by the Arts Development Service of Blackpool Borough Council (BBC), who in 1999 appointed as 'lead artists' for the project the Manchester-based consultancy The Art Department. The three members of The Art Department are themselves practising artists (sculptor Liam Curtin, ceramic artist Wendy Jones, and artist/curator Michael Trainor), with experience of commissioning and managing public art projects in the North West region. Curtin was public art consultant for Manchester 's Northern Quarter regeneration project in 1994.

The Art Department drew up a list of about seventy artists drawn from database research and their own ideas. They also wrote a document setting the tone for the project, and mailed it to the artists inviting them to tender proposals. The document is written in an engaging and inspiring manner, quite unlike that of more orthodox briefs, which The Art Department consider to be 'quite cold' in nature. In it they identify a quality they call "Blackpoolness", referring to "the visual overload of linear miles of frenetic lighting, high fat foods, automated exhilaration, theatrical architecture and commercial outlets so intensely stocked that they look like deliberate art installations". Nine individual briefs (some written with specific artists in mind), without being too prescriptive, outlined themes related to Blackpool, including light based work (Blackpool was the first place in Europe to have electric street lighting), meteorology, magicians and other popular entertainers, grand gestures and superlatives, water, and sex ("Blackpool is Britain's sexiest town").

They "tried to commission artists who would respond to the characteristics of Blackpool," and certainly the briefing document raised a bigger and livelier response than a more orthodox brief might have done. The Art Department engaged well with the commissioned artists, who seem to have enjoyed working with other artists. The project has achieved The Art Department's initial aim of commissioning work from both 'internationally acclaimed' established artists and 'newly emerging talents', linked by 'a joie-de-vivre, a larger than life energy.' Moreover, according to The Art Department, Blackpool's attitude throughout has been much more adventurous and positive than that of many larger metropolitan authorities.

The idea of designing swivelling wind shelters for the promenade originated from The Art Department. After preliminary trials to test the principle of such a concept, they decided to use the RIBA Competitions Office in Leeds to organise, advertise and administer an architectural competition to select an innovative design. This was the only commission to have been selected via an open competition. The cost of this £16,500 which included all administration costs, RIBA Architectural Adviser fee and prize money (taken from the overall budget of £185,000 for new shelters). From over eighty international juried submissions, that of Ian McChesney was selected.


The original budget for the Great Promenade Show was estimated at £392,500. Blackpool Challenge Partnership (a public/private sector partnership established to bid for and deliver schemes under the Government's Single Regeneration Budget) provided £228,500 as part of the original funding package in conjunction with Blackpool Borough Council's own input of £160,000. The New South Promenade Hospitality Group, an association of hoteliers and other businesses in the immediate area, contributed £4,000 over a 4-year period. Fundraising continued throughout the project, and raised a further £364,250. The Northwest Development Agency, for example, as part of its strategic funding programme in support of 'the growth of public art in the region' have entirely funded the Mirror Ball, and Peter Blake's sculpture (£180,000 for both). Lancashire Tourism Partnership funded the print/website interpretation and on-site signage for the environmentally related commissions by Liam Curtin, Stephen Hurrel, and Bruce McClean, as well as a public exhibition of designs and maquettes in the restored Solarium building opposite the Great Promenade Show site. Education Business Link has funded an education pack for primary and secondary schools. An Invention and Innovation award from NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) in 2002 enabled development of the High Tide Organ, while Birse Construction Ltd, the contractor for the coastal protection reconstruction, supported the organ's installation.

The Commissions

The following commissions have been installed since 2001 (in order of completion):

Desire by Chris Knight

An abstract sculpture 8m high, contrasting rusty corten steel with shiny stainless steel spikes, inspired by the town's reputation as a destination for 'dirty weekends', and its hidden 'fetish scene'. It casts the shadow of a spiky heart on the promenade.

The Frankenstein Project by Tony Stallard

Like a sinister exhibit in one of Blackpool 's Victorian freak shows, the skeleton of a killer whale made from pulsating dark blue neon can be viewed through portholes within a metal tank like a decompression chamber.

Water Wings by Bruce Williams

Designed to be viewed in motion from the adjacent tram track and road, the photographic image of a swimming child laser cut into an 8m long curved stainless steel screen gradually resolves and disappears again as the viewer moves past.

Glam Rocks by Peter Freeman

Inspired by Las Vegas and the Blackpool Illuminations, three large pebble-like modelled shapes glitter after dark, as hundreds of fibre optic light points on their surface slowly change colour and sparkle.

High Tide Organ by Liam Curtin, John Gooding, and The Art Department

Eight large pipes connect from a 60m stretch of the sea wall to a tall curved fin-like form on the promenade housing eighteen organ pipes. Air pressure created by incoming seawater produces a series of musical chords, varying in complexity and volume according to weather conditions. (An illustrated brochure about the High Tide Organ is available from Blackpool Borough Council.)

They Shoot Horses, Don't They? by Michael Trainor and The Art Department

Blackpool is known as the "ballroom capital of Britain". This rotating ball 6m in diameter, covered in almost 47,000 mirrors, has been claimed as the world's largest mirror ball, and is named after the 1969 film about a ballroom marathon.

The Sound of the Wind Looks Like This by Stephen Hurrel

A circle of nine columns, three of which incorporate wind turbines and anemometers, and control six light columns that change colour as the direction and velocity of the wind changes.

Life is a Circus by Sir Peter Blake

Figures of circus entertainers cast in bronze reflect the artist's predilection for imagery from the world of fairground and circus entertainers, as well as the fact that Blackpool has the only permanent indoor circus in the UK.

Blackpool Rocks by Bruce McLean and William McLean

In sunlight, 10 m tall reflector tower captures the sun rays and directs them through a 5m high prism casting a refracted rainbow of coloured light across seven stands or vilions on which boulders of varying sizes sit. The work is also designed to have a nocturnal presence, utilising artificial light.

Swivelling Wind Shelters by Ian McChesney with Atelier One

Three 8m high, stainless steel shelters turn like weather vanes, keeping their occupants away from the prevailing wind. Designed by architect Ian McChesney, in collaboration with engineers Atelier One, the graceful sculptural form of the shelters, shaped like whales' flukes, is structured like an aircraft wing, vibrating in strong gusts of wind.

Key Issues

  • Artist-run consultancy

    The commissioning of works for the Great Promenade Show was undertaken by a group of practising artists with a track record as public art consultants, variously referred to during the project as 'lead artists', 'curators', or 'project managers'. The Art Department considered its role to be that of providing a 'curatorial overview', and as 'lead artists' their role always encompassed the possibility of incorporating their own work within the project. According to Michael Trainor, "We were always open about the possibility of proposing works ourselves, and we submitted our own proposals to the same public scrutiny and steering group as all other proposals. Therefore no difficult situations arose."

  • Special nature of site

    Blackpool presents a distinctive profile as a site for new public sculptures. The town has no legacy of public sculpture (lacking even 19th century memorials to its worthies), and until this point had no contemporary public art. And yet, as a long-standing resort for holidaymakers and pleasure seekers, it manifests a busy, diverse and occasionally outrageous commercial visual environment, described by The Art Department as "the most enduring and popular permanent festival of light, animation, theatre and frantic commercial activity in Britain." The New South Promenade is not adjacent to this visually busy commercial area, but leads directly on from it. The commissioned works by fine artists do not seek to compete or contrast with this image of Blackpool, but to reflect it.

  • Maintenance

    The nature of the site requires the use of materials that are resistant to year-round coastal weather conditions, including a substantial wind factor - something that is exploited creatively by a number of the commissions.

    The installed commissions have not been vandalised to any serious extent, with the exception of Tony Stallard's Frankenstein, which had all of its portholes smashed and was subsequently daubed with the word 'Eyesore'. Stallard's sculpture is the only really unpopular commission, apparently not because of its sinister content but because its metal exterior is deemed by many members of the public to be too cheerless and 'industrial' for its context. The sculpture had to be removed for renovation in 2003, but it has now been repaired and returned.

  • Length of commissioning process

    The project was originally scheduled for completion over a three-year period. The first four commissions were installed during 2001, but several of the remainder took longer than expected to bring to completion. Several of the commissions involved lengthy processes of development, testing and engineering which moved them outside the time frame originally set by the curators. At the beginning of the project, The Art Department requested that payment of their fees should be weighted towards the first year of the project, gradually diminishing in successive years. They later regretted having elected this method of payment, as their workload actually increased year by year.


The Great Promenade Show website is at

For more information contact:

Lynn Fade, Principal Arts Officer, Blackpool Borough Council

Tel: 01253 478104

E-mail: [email protected]

For information about the Art Department :

Michael Trainor

Tel/Fax: 0161 835 9245

E-mail: [email protected]

© Copyright David Briers 2004.