Pitched as the next Margate or Hastings, Bournemouth is set to become a hub of art and culture over the next few years. The biggest clue yet of its resurgence is the opening of a huge new gallery by local born and bred artist, Stuart Semple – catapulting the seaside resort onto the international art scene with an impressive opening show.
Set inside a historic building that used to be the town centre's Debenhams for nearly 50 years before it closed in May, Giant has become the largest artist-led space in the UK, covering roughly 15,000 square feet.
It has kicked off this week with Big Medicine, a bold exhibition spread across three spaces, featuring the works of leading names such as Jake and Dinos Chapman, Jim Lambie and Gavin Turk, as well as emerging artists like Gray Card, Nicky Carvell, Paolo Ciarska and Eva Cremers. From giant inflatables and immersive rooms to miniature paintings and sculptures, the show is full of humour and optimism, perhaps reminding us of the "importance of the arts to heal cultural wounds through shared experience," as Semple puts it.
His latest venture joins a growing list of new attractions and restoration projects to appear in England's "fading" seaside towns over the last decade, as investment rolls in to everywhere from Whitley Bay to Blackpool. Margate, too, has seen phenomenal improvement – mostly from Londoners relocating there to find affordable properties, but also because of the reopening of Dreamland, Britain's oldest seaside pleasure park, alongside the launch of the seafront Turner Contemporary a few years earlier in 2011.
Despite this encouraging revival, the pandemic has proved incredibly damaging up and down the country, even in the more affluent resorts. But rather than being spurred by a national effort to "save Bournemouth", something Semple believes wasn't, in fact, needed – he merely hopes to bring more art to the Dorset town.
"Bournemouth has always had plenty going on and has proved more resilient than other seaside places," Semple tells Creative Boom. "But it's not like Margate or Hastings, which have always enjoyed a thriving art scene. I just hope Giant boosts the town further and inspires others to start their own thing. Perhaps students at the local university will want to stay, once they realise there's a cool art scene. We've certainly proved there's an appetite for it in Bournemouth. It'll be interesting to see what happens next."
Aside from making Bournemouth more of a creative hub, could Giant also offer a solution to its dying high street? We all remember the headlines during the pandemic last summer when half a million people showed up to enjoy its famous beach. But apparently, that same hoard completely side-stepped the town centre, leaving local shops and businesses struggling to survive. Perhaps a landmark new gallery in a former retailer's flagship store might mark the sign of a rebirth after years spent competing with online shopping and out-of-town retail parks?
Of course, where low rents exist, artists follow. It's rumoured Semple secured the space in the much-loved Bobby's Building in The Square at no cost. It's not surprising, as wise landlords will know only too well that an occupied building is better than an empty one during harder times. And with art injecting life into a dying high street, surely the crowds will return, ensuring more profitable days are just around the corner. "As artists, it's not our responsibility to save the high street," says Semple. "But we're already seeing a positive impact. The queue on opening night was huge and the locals are so incredibly proud of our new gallery. They're never given enough credit for their knowledge of art. They understand what they're looking at. It's wonderful to see Bournemouth's potential."
Like with anything, things can go the other way. "On Shoreditch's gentrification, I saw it going wrong there," explains Semple. "But Bournemouth isn't like that; it's more honest. There's a genuine desire here for art and culture. People love it. Usually, we'd have to go to London to enjoy art. Now that we've brought it to the town, there's a real buzz and community spirit."
Although Semple insists Bournemouth didn't need "saving", he admits the pandemic hasn't gone unnoticed. Much like other coastal towns, there are efforts across the UK to save those in decline – and art seems to be a recurring theme. Take Back & Fill, a new initiative that is hosting a series of mini-festivals up and down the country as a "coastal call to arms". Organised by writer and artist Dan Thompson and designer Kate Kneale of Margate studio HKD, the pair are helping seaside towns to put on their own festivals to attract people back to the coast. So far, 13 resorts have signed up, including Bridport, Cleethorpes, Hastings, Newhaven, Portsmouth, Ramsgate and Weymouth – even Margate.
It's encouraging but there's certainly a long way to go. A recent devastating report on the health and wellbeing of coastal communities made depressing reading and shows why art alone won’t save the UK's struggling seaside towns. It might not even help the most deprived areas.
"Perhaps it's a start," says Semple. "Art definitely has the power to change things. It's potent and powerful. It's seen us through wars. Perhaps it can see us through this."
Big Medicine at Giant runs until 31 October 2021 and admission is free. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday between 11am and 6pm and on Sundays from 11am until 4pm. Find out more: giant.space.