Strategic approaches – Reading

Theme: using planning gain

Dwelling,, David Ward, inaugurated 2005. Photo: courtesy Artists in the City Reading and the artis

Dwelling, David Ward, inaugurated 2005. Commissioned by Artists in the City, Reading. Photo: courtesy Artists in the City Reading and the artist

Best practice in: exemplary commissioning with an open-minded approach to engaging with artists and places and a practical framework and strategy.

Reading Borough Council has a long history of engagement in commissioning art in the public realm and was one of the first UK local authorities to bring in a Percent for Art Policy in 1991.  Between 2001-05 it participated in an Arts Council England South East pilot scheme, Art at the Centre, where money was awarded to three local authorities to help “embed creativity across regeneration practice in the region” and the success of this scheme led to a re-launch of the Council’s Public Art Strategy in 2006 and a public art programme for Reading: Artists in the City.

The Strategy provides guidance to prospective commissioners whilst the new programme offers them an opportunity to work in partnership with the Council.  Commissioning is also fully supported through the planning system: the Council still has a Percent for Art Policy, planning briefs refer to the Public Art Strategy, public art is included in the Local Plan (and subsequently the new Local Development Framework), and Supplementary Planning Guidance allows the Council to seek section 106 contributions.

Reading Council proactively engages with artists in order to achieve the following aims (as outlined in its Public Art Strategy) to:

  • Help create a unique identity through work that is original and site specific.
  • Enhance the quality of an environment and the experience of those using it.
  • Help create a sense of place.
  • Help engage with communities and stakeholders during the development process.
  • Raise the profile of development schemes locally, nationally and internationally.

Reading Council’s approach to commissioning is flexible and ambitious, but also practical.  It sees public art “not as a list of possible outcomes – however wide and varied –­ but as a process which involves artists in the conception, development and transformation of the public realm”.  It aims to work with a high calibre of artists and keeps briefs very open with generous R&D time in order to maximise creative opportunity. Practical support is then offered via the planning framework (which helps ensure funding and set standards of excellence) and the Council’s own commissioning programme (which offers expertise via partnerships with commissioners).

Programme Development:
Permanent commissions include Dwelling (launched in 2005) by artist David Ward in collaboration with the Council’s Landscape Architect, David Moore.  Part of a transport strategy plan, the work draws people’s attention away from the busy traffic of Friar Street, and onto the street’s varied architecture.  Drawing inspiration from Reading-born John Soane’s use of stained glass, the scheme illuminated existing stained glass windows in buildings at either end of the street as well as specially made panes in other key buildings. LEDs on a solar clock with a lifespan of seven years keep energy costs low.

Temporary projects include Ambulatiuncula, a series of soundworks commissioned for Forbury Gardens, a newly restored Victorian Gardens in Reading’s town centre. Ambulatiuncula included And So Each Year Begins With A New Day, Year After Year, Day After Day; And Each Day Is Like A Year, A Year Whose Days Are Long (A short Story From Forbury Hill), 2006, by The Miller and McAfee Press visual artists collaboration.    The piece included characters from the city’s past and present in a fictitious narrative read by different local people – from Cllr Riaz Chaudri, The Right Worshipful Mayor of Reading to John Madejski, Chairman of Reading FC.

Fact and figures:
Key factors for success:

  • Politically, Reading has been stable and culture is encouraged. 
  • The city has seen major physical change and inward investment over the past 20 years, giving opportunities for commissioning, and the Council has high aspirations for making the most of this growth.
  • The successful pilot scheme, which helped convince the Council that it could lever in sufficient funds (it attracted £20 for every £1 of Arts Council funding in the region) and built confidence and ambition.  It directly lead to a new Strategy and comprehensive planning policy to help achieve future funding.
  • An open approach to commissioning, which helps maximise opportunities.
  • Engaging a freelance curator to oversee the pilot scheme, who now acts as Project Director for Artists in the City, supporting internal expertise at the Council.

Funding streams:

  • Percent for Art is encouraged for major schemes and contributions are also sought via section 106 agreements.  The new Community Infrastructure Levy will provide an opportunity to update this.
  • The precedent set by the success of previous commissions continues to help lever in further funds from developers.

Tammy Bedford, Arts Manager, Reading Borough Council, South Street Arts Centre, 21 South Street, Reading RG1 4QU

Artists in the City website includes A Public Art Strategy for Reading.
Art at the Centre website
Reading’s Local Development Framework
Reading’s Supplementary Planning Guidance
Public Art Online Art at the Centre case study