11 of the best UK destinations for public art

While museums and galleries are closed you can still get an outdoor culture fix, says Sandy Di Yu

Thursday 17 December 2020 13:54
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Public art on the Greenwich Peninsula
Public art on the Greenwich Peninsula
D

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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Bristol

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. 

‘Swimming’ dogs in Bristol

Stay in the Bristol Hotel (from £77) and be central enough to see both sculptures and street art, or head to Number Thirty Eight (£115) and absorb the culture of centuries past.

Aberdeen

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. 

Street art turns Aberdeen into a living gallery

Stay in the city centre to easily wander through the granite blocks on foot at either Lochnagar Guest House (from £50) or Arkaig Guest House (from £52).

Brighton

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.

Coloured cones brighten up the street in Brighton

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.  

Folkestone

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.  

Folkestone Triennial introduces new artwork every three years

Opt to stay close to the town centre to be equidistant from the perimeters of where you’ll find art, such as 10to12 Folkestone (from £100) or the Wycliffe Guest House (from £55).

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.

The iconic Angel of the North

Make a day of viewing the Angel of the North and stay at the nearby Angel View Inn (from £50), or head to the city and stay at Maldron Hotel (from £51).

Swansea

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.

Acoustic Sculpture in Swansea

In keeping with a cultural journey in Swansea, stay at Dylan Thomas House (from £100), the birthplace of the celebrated Welsh poet, or try the riverside Ice House Apartments (from £85).

Glasgow

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.  

Conversation-starting art in Glasgow

Give your visit a musical twist with a stay at Pipers Tryst Hotel of the National Piping Centre (from £65) or opt for luxury at the Kimpton Blythswood Square Hotel (from £179).

Belfast

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.  

The Big Fish has become a beloved Belfast landmark 

Stay somewhere central to soak up the city’s unique history, such as Ten Square Hotel (from £80) or the Flint (from £71).

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.

Discover art on a trail through the Forest of Dean

Stay within walking distance to the Trail at The Speech House (from £67), or a few minutes' drive away at Edale House Bed and Breakfast (from £85).

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.

Grizedale Forest’s natural charms are elevated with sculptures

Both Pepper House (from £40) and Grizedale Campsite (from £7) offer a tranquil location, while the latter provides unique camping accommodation.

London

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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