espite many art exhibitions and festivals being postponed this year, visitors flocked to museums and galleries during the days between lockdowns – evidence of our thirst for culture even in the midst of a pandemic.
But with spaces swiftly shutting their doors due to ever-shifting government guidelines, art seekers must now look beyond the confines of white gallery walls to get their fill.
Those pursuing a culture fix can combine it with some mindful exercise and fresh air thanks to public art, which can be found populating public spaces around the UK, in cities, towns and beyond, with no ticket or timed entry slot required.
Many commissioning bodies around the country have taken it upon themselves to produce public art for a number of decades, ensuring that art can be seen outside of museums. It's almost as if they were preparing for exactly such a circumstance as pandemic-induced lockdowns.
So get out there and explore: here are some of the best places to discover outdoor art, where the landscape itself acts as a museum packed with cultural beauty.
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Throughout the city, you’ll find sculptures commemorating historical figures or offering a unique interpretation of their surroundings (and not all of them incite controversy). Head to Millennium Square for several sculptures made around the turn of the millennium, including a number of small painted bronze dogs by Cathie Pilkington RA, submerged into the paved surface as if swimming. You’ll also find sculptures both old and contemporary in Castle Park.
Not all art found outdoors occupies the sculptural realm, either. Bristol is home to world famous street artist Banksy, and buildings across the city proudly display clever arrangements of graffiti.
Continuing with the street art theme, the port city of Aberdeen has become a place to discover colourful graffiti by international artists. Affectionately nicknamed the Granite City, this northern Scottish municipality has had a makeover in recent years in a bid to move away from its oil industry roots towards more cultural pursuits.
Thanks to Norwegian street art organisation Nuart, every year (except 2020, with its many pandemic-induced restrictions) finds the city covering more of its grey walls with aesthetically astounding images that transforms it into a whimsical outdoor gallery.
On the opposite side of the UK, Brighton has been commissioning public art to populate its shared spaces for decades. Walk through the city centre and towards the seaside for artworks that celebrate diversity and its history of championing LGBTQ+ movements. Journey out along Hove to see landscape art and sculptures, then return to wander around the city after dark and soak in its dazzling displays of light art.
Expand the amount of art you soak up by staying at Artist Residence Brighton (£85), where each room has a unique artistic touch added by local artists, or stay at No. 27 Brighton (£100) for a picturesque walk towards the centre.
There must be something about the sea air that evokes creativity. Often compared to Margate in its quick transition to a cultural hotspot, and sometimes considered to be even better, the seaside town of Folkestone is home to a thriving art scene thanks to Creative Folkestone, an arts charity that has been transforming the town since 2002.
One of its initiatives is Folkestone Artworks, the largest outdoor public art exhibition in the UK featuring work by world-renowned artists including Tracey Emin, Yoko Ono and Sir Antony Gormley. This outdoor display grows every few years with the Folkestone Triennial, which commissions permanent artworks along with its time-limited productions.
Newcastle and Gateshead
A favourite for public art, Sir Antony Gormley also graces Gateshead with his Angel of the North. Twenty metres high and situated on a hilltop by the A1, the impressive structure is worth visiting in and of itself. Making your way into Newcastle, the city centre boasts a number of sculptures from previous centuries as well as the current one, commemorating historical events or adding visual intrigue to their surroundings.
Over in Wales, Swansea is home to LOCWS International, an artist-led charity with the mission of making art more accessible to the public. One initiative to achieve this is the Art Across the City programme, which sees more than 100 public artworks commissioned for all corners of Swansea, bringing in big names – including Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller (whose work has now been dismantled) and Welsh artist Bedwyr Williams – to populate public spaces and civic buildings with art. In addition to these often time-limited artworks, throughout the coastal city are statues, reliefs and 2D artworks whose dates of origin span centuries past.
This Scottish city is a hotbed of culture, adopting an openness to new artforms in its journey towards regeneration. Walk along the City Centre Contemporary Art Trail to see a mosaic by Niki de Saint Phalle at the front of the Gallery of Modern Art, a sculpture by the late George Wyllie at Rottenrow Gardens, politically charged road signs by Jeremy Deller and more.
Large sculptures from both domestic and international talent can be seen throughout the city, tying together its rich and difficult history with the promise of a hopeful future. One must-see example is the Salmon of Knowledge, sometimes known as the Big Fish, by Belfast-born artist John Kindness; as well as Rise, the largest public art sculpture in Belfast, featuring two monolithic geodesic spheres, one suspended within the other.
Forest of Dean, Gloucester
For sculptures in a less urban setting, the Forest of Dean Forest Trail has been around since 1986, with its many artworks unassumingly living among the surrounding greenery. Currently, there are 17 sculptures on the trail without labels, which quietly embed themselves into the landscape.
Grizdale Forest, the Lake District
Another natural setting for outdoor art, this time in the Lake District, Grizdale Forest has been home to sculptures by international artists since 1977. With an ongoing programme of outdoor displays and exhibitions, the woodland surroundings peppered with contemporary art offer a mindful oasis of calm and culture.
While public art can be found in most corners of the capital, some areas are more densely occupied than others. Notably, Waltham Forest in the north sees newer art commissions completed within the past few years, coinciding with its appointment as the inaugural London Borough of Culture 2019. This year’s London Borough of Culture 2020 is Brent, also north, where art can be found in various public spaces.
Elsewhere, you’ll find street art aplenty to feast your eyes on in Croydon, after the South London borough adopted a Public Art Strategy in 2005. In the East End between Stratford and North Greenwich are artworks produced by The Line, a commissioning body that has seen the permanent display of art by some of the biggest names in the business, including Anish Kapoor and Carsten Höller. Throughout London you’ll also find temporary artworks, a list of which is consistently updated on contemporary art platform ArtRabbit.
Stay in the Hide (from £80) for North London public art, Stratford Hotel (from £118) for East End sights or Croham Park Bed & Breakfast (from £100) if you’re looking for a quaint stay in South London.
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