Southampton sets new BENCHmark for art to boost city centre

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16 December 2020

Sixteen benches in Southampton city centre have been transformed into works of art. The benches, which have been installed along Above Bar Street, were revitalised by local artists who painted them as part of an initiative to re-think how people can access public art.

The aptly named BENCH project is a partnership between the city’s Business Improvement District (BID), GO! Southampton, and Solent University’s Showcase Gallery. A component of the BID’s Winter COVID-19 Plan, BENCH also forms part of Solent Showcase Gallery’s What is Our Place? Campaign; a response to continued restrictions in the city that prevent access to arts and performance spaces. The project is supported by Southampton City Council, Balfour Beatty and Solent University’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

A range of local artists were commissioned to produce the work, which saw old benches being given a new lease of life through varied styles and themes to impressive effect.

BENCH Project

One of the benches is a work by Don John, a film maker, music producer and broadcaster, in collaboration with Professor Peter Lloyd ARE, Dean of the Faculty of Creative Industries, Architecture and Engineering at Solent University. The bench artwork, I Am Somebody, is a tribute to the late civil rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, reflecting Don’s background in race relations where he was key in developing diversity policies at Southampton City Council.

I am Somebody features a number of faces to reflect each individual’s presence within society and the power of those individuals when they come together. The artwork includes a nod to Southampton’s UK City of Culture 2025 bid, with some of the individuals featured in the bid’s launch film depicted on the bench. The connection between I Am Somebody and the Southampton 2025 film is extremely apt, with the film having been commissioned and produced by Solent University through the eyes of a local artist, Asten Holmes-Elliott.

City collaborations such as this are pivotal as the city moves through the bidding process to become UK City of Culture 2025. The BENCH project is part of a series of public art initiatives led, commissioned or supported by GO! Southampton as part of its ongoing city centre recovery plan, aligning perfectly with the UK City of Culture 2025 bid’s vision to make art and culture more accessible in the community through partnership working such as this.

Giles Semper, Executive Director at GO! Southampton said: “Arts and culture are extremely important to the city of Southampton so it is vital that we re-engage the public, as well as re-think how we can bring art projects to them, particularly given the restrictions we’ve seen on access to traditional art spaces as a result of the pandemic. This project also provided much-needed work to local artists and we are delighted to have partnered with Solent Showcase Gallery to deliver this vibrant and eclectic collection of art right in the heart of the city centre.”

Kate Maple, Solent Showcase Gallery Curator, said: “The benches create a colourful celebration of resilience in hard times, as well as a reminder to rest and enjoy the present moment. At a time when situations are challenging and difficult, artists can help us visualise complex emotions and also envisage the future. At its best public art can stimulate debate, encourage understanding, transform place, and inspire.”

Don John said: “Artists can help us make more sense of our material and emotional world, help us document moments in our shared social and cultural history. Our collaboration took inspiration from a poem about inclusion which has been transcribed many times across the arts – but this poem focused on bolstering people’s self-worth, which at this current time during a pandemic, seems all the more important.

“We believe in an inclusive Southampton where everybody is somebody and all are welcome.”

Professor Peter Lloyd ARE added: “My collaboration with Don John aimed to reflect the ways in which a society can thrive when it values each individual to allow freedom of expression. I want anyone to sit on that bench and think “I am somebody”, and reflect on the fact that they matter, no matter what anyone else says.”

Councillor Satvir Kaur, Cabinet Member for Culture & Homes at Southampton City Council said: “We are pleased to be supporting such a great initiative. This creative, new approach to art in the city will no doubt add some much-needed colour on the dull winter days as well as provide some support to the arts sector at this difficult time. I hope local residents and visitors alike take the time to sit down, relax and enjoy them.”

You can find out more about BENCH here.

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