The story of Contains Art and how community is building our future

I was recently asked to speak at CIAM6 Cities Re-imagined; which was a conference on 22nd September 2017 exploring urban futures and design heritage, celebrating 70 years since Bridgwater hosted CIAM6 attracting influential delegates such as Le Corbusier, Walter Gropius (founder of the Bauhaus) Erno Goldfinger and more.

I was asked to speak about the creation of artist studios and a gallery on the harbour side in Watchet, Somerset and how it has been the transformational seed that is now leading to much much more. The project is called Contains Art and you can find out more about it here:

This is my talk:

Contains Art really came from the community – it obviously takes annoying, organizing people like me to get involved, but the idea and need genuinely came from our creative community. They told us they needed it, and as you will see it was they who built it.

Following a piece of work in 2012 investigating how to make our creative industry in West Somerset more resilient, there emerged a strong request from artists and makers in the area for studios and a gallery space. A chance conversation in the pub, about needing a temporary location for a performance piece led us in a moment of inspiration to the concept of ‘Contains Art’. Three shipping containers converted into a gallery and four studios.

I would like to say, three months later we were beginning the build but of course these things take much longer and so it was over 18 months until we were moving the containers into place. That process was nerve-wracking to say the least. It turns out moving containers on a windy harbor side is pretty tricky. We abandoned on the first attempt and round two wasn’t much better. I was definitely glad when the containers finally found their resting spots. (Although we have since realized that they are rather wonky!)

We worked with local architects to figure out how to convert the containers into studios and a gallery, they provided a series of drawings for us to convert, making these translate for a group of volunteers (let alone myself) was challenging to say the least!

Nonetheless after pouring over them at length and getting lots of advice from builders etc we began. We completed the conversion in just over a month in June 2013. We had over 50 volunteers and it took over 1200 man hours. Although in fact the volunteers were nearly all women, mainly artists and in the main unskilled - we learnt very fast!!

We built a wooden framework in each container, constructed floors, installed waterproof membrane, then insulation and finally cladding or plasterboard, then painted and finished. There was lots of expanding foam used in the making of Contains Art. Of course we used some professionals, but mainly mates who got roped in to cutting the holes for the windows, or doing the electrics.

I have to say, that although the rationale for converting the containers ourselves was about money, it was unexpectedly the most empowering and wonderful experience. We were lucky that the sun shone nearly every day during June 2013 but we also learnt something new everyday, laughed a huge amount, and created a community of dedicated and engaged supporters who had ‘given birth’ to Contains Art. In great part it is this ‘birthing’ which has made it such a success today.

So on 6th July, about 6 weeks after the delivery of the containers we opened the gallery and studios. The location in the boatyard, looking out over the marina makes them pretty special, and gives great views to the studio holders.

The gallery has been a resounding success. It is certainly not a traditional shape or size. And we had great debates about the wooden walls – I have to say I assumed that we would paint them white within a few months but they remain wood today and are a great part of the charm and uniqueness of the gallery.

We have hosted an incredibly wide range of exhibitions from thousands of postcards, to installations, art shops, group shows, first exhibitions, created new books with associated works and recently a Matisse paper cuts exhibition. From an empty site we have created a creative space and home to many artists over the past 4 years.

The courtyard configuration is a vital part of the success (we played with many different options before finally deciding on this although I’m sure I always advocated it!). It provides a safe and sheltered space for first-time visitors to explore Contains Art initially, before they venture into the gallery. It also is the part of the space that really meets my expectations. You know when you imagine what something is going to look and feel like and then in reality its completely different, well the courtyard space at Contains Art really does live up to my expectations, its exactly what I pictured when we conceived the project.

It is a vibrant and important part of the community with schools visits and all sorts of events during the day and evening. It is often buzzing with activity and creativity.

Through the Arts Council and as part of our digital strategy we have been able to commission the making of films that document the creative process and complement all the exhibitions.

This was the first film, featuring Lucy Large, who created an installation piece last year and which explains Contains’ Arts and shows you what it is like much better than I can.

Contains Art has become a real hub for the community, a place to meet people, be creative, explore, discover and learn. I particularly love it at night at an event when the courtyard is lit up and full with people.

So what’s next? Well we have great things planned for Contains Art and the site at East Quay in Watchet. We are building a new creative cultural centre, which has been designed by architects Invisible Studio; a large double storey art gallery with lots more studios and workshops. The containers will still be there but surrounded by a whole new development that will also include a hand-made papermill, print studio and geology lab as well as restaurant and self-catering accommodation.

It is an ambitious and exciting plan and we are at the beginning of the journey but having created a space and community from a piece of waste ground and three shipping containers we are pretty confident our community can help us build something extraordinary. What we need to make sure we keep is the sense of ownership and belonging, the sense that this belongs to the creative community of West Somerset and is just the next stage on our journey.

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